Guest column from Robert Barkley, Jr.

Good schools look different from one community to another. What all good schools do have in common is a series of conditions and processes which enable them to explore, grow, adapt, and learn. Just as we need to develop the capacity of students to think critically, become problem-solvers, and work collaboratively, so too do we need to develop the capacity of schools to do the same in a way that results in continuos school improvement

After years of new programs being developed to "fix" schools, we are slowly coming to understand that schools must learn to fix themselves. What they require are the tools to do so. There are many good examples of creativity, imagination, and excellence in today's public schools. The central problem is that school systems don't know how to fully support, integrate, and expand on these examples. A school is inextricably imbedded in the larger system within which it operates. The ability of that system to adapt and support improvements in individual schools can make or break positive school change.

The systemic nature of school improvement requires that anyone creating a list of the components of a good school add a strong cautionary note. We can try to create excellent schools one school at a time. By doing so we will be able to create a few additional good schools. But for the investment in these improvements to have the widest possible impact, reach the greatest number of children and be sustainable over time, we need to develop in school systems and their communities, the capacity to meet whatever challenges may arise.

The system can learn. In fact, the system must learn new roles and processes to substitute for the old traditions in school operations. The concepts listed below are achievable now in public schools without any outside formulas for miraculous change -- charters, private management, etc. However, they do require sustained support and the informed view that they require many years to build and perfect.

Robert Barkley, Jr., is a counselor in Systemic Education Reform, retired Executive Director of the Ohio Education Association, served as Interim Executive Director of the Maine Education Association, is a thirty-five year veteran of NEA and NEA affiliate staff work, long-term consultant to the KnowledgeWorks Foundation of Cincinnati, Ohio, one time teacher, coach, and local union president. He is the author of Quality in Education: A Primer for Collaborative Visionary Educational Leaders and Leadership In Education: A Handbook for School Superintendents and Teacher Union Presidents. The following components characterize good schools:

Good schools evolve by challenging outmoded traditions and engaging in systemic change. By adopting a mode of questioning old practices and developing new skills in how to plan and think strategically, these schools are concerned with continuous improvement

Good schools are characterized by shared vision and clarity and constancy of purpose. At the heart of good schools are a vision and purpose based on engaging and exciting the intellects and hearts of children.

Teachers and other school staff are viewed as the agents of constructive student-centered change. Decisions made closest to the learner stand a better chance of being educationally appropriate for the student than do those made far away from the classroom or school.

Good schools evolve through professional inquiry. In such schools many opportunities exist for regular collaboration, reflection, and planning.

Good schools empower students. Teachers serve as facilitators of learning not dispensers of knowledge, giving students substantial responsibility for their own learning.. Parents are made partners in the process of supporting student learning.

Good schools reflect respect for diversity and democracy, including diverse opinions and ideas as well as people from diverse ethnic, racial, national, and religious backgrounds.

Good schools engage in continuous data-gathering to inform and refine their goals and strategies. Staff have access to the latest educational research to inform decision making. They are skilled in doing school-based action research.

Good schools use the latest knowledge about learning, teaching, and curriculum to improve their practices. More is now known than ever before about the qualities of superior teaching, how people learn, the nature of the curriculum that will best serve youngsters in the future, and the best environments for learning. Access to and involvement in the creation of such knowledge is critical to a school's effort to renew itself continually.

Good schools have agreed upon indicators of progress and how these will be measured. These indicators are clearly communicated to non-educators such as parents and other members of the community so that they can understand student and school progress.

In good schools, school employee organizations are considered partners in change. An atmosphere of stability and greater trust is anchored in a well-balanced collective bargaining agreement.

Good schools are characterized internally by a sense of community which extends outward and involves parents and the community at large as partners in the school change effort.

Good schools are places where children are physically safe and free from fear. Adequate space and equipment and bright, clean, well-maintained facilities send a welcoming message to both students and staff and indicate that what is done there is important and valued.

In good schools, all members of the school community are viewed as learners -- from students to teachers, administrators, support personnel, parents and to other stakeholders. Further, these schools understand that professional growth is at the heart of school transformation. Learning is viewed as a continuous process and investment is made in continually expanding the capacity of staff.