The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Difference Between a “Good School” and an “Effective School”

on August 26, 2017

Today, in honor of the beginning of a new school year, I am posting a section of an article I wrote thirty one years ago as a review of the book “McDonogh 15; Becoming a School.” I have changed only a few words to bring them up to date.  I am posting such an old piece because I still believe that what I wrote back then is true.


Some schools are effective in raising student test scores; others help students develop good lives for themselves. What is the difference between them?

A good school mirrors the realities of life in an ordered, adult society.  It is rational and safe, a practice ground for the things people do in the outside world.  It focuses on learning that grows through use, such as communication, decision making, craftsmanship, and group interaction—-with or without more schooling.  It makes children think of themselves as mature people who find strength, nourishment, and joy in learning.

In contrast,  a school labeled as effective looks at learning in terms of test scores in a limited number of academic areas.  It does not take into consideration students’ ability to solve real problems, develop social skills, or master complex academic skills.  It does not differentiate between dynamic and inert knowledge, and it ignores student motivation.

When we hear of school where test scores are in the eighty-fifth-percentile, shouldn’t we ask what that school also does to prepare students to live the next 60 years of their lives?

A good school has a broad-based and realistic curriculum with subject matter chosen for its relevance to further education and jobs; but also family and community membership, and personal enrichment.  It uses teaching practices that simulate the ways adults operate in the outside world. Students are actively involved in productive tasks that combine and extend their skills. They initiate projects, make their own decisions, enjoy using their skills, show off their accomplishments, and look for harder, more exciting work to do.

An effective school asks for much less. Students who cover a traditional curriculum in order to “master” as much of it as possible are  not initiators, builders, or seekers.  They are at best reactors.  The knowledge they dutifully acquire is not necessarily broad based or realistic.  It is taught because it is likely to appear on a test.

A school becomes a good school  because its teachers have made significant connections to the outside world. It creates a sense of community that permits personal expression within a framework of  social  responsibility. It operates as an organic entity–not as a machine–moving always to expand its basic nature rather than to tack on artificial appendages.

A good school is like a healthy tree.  As it grows, it sinks its roots deep into its native soil; it adapts to the surrounding climate and vegetation; its branches thicken for support and spread for maximum exposure to the sun.  It makes  its own food; it heals its own wounds; and in its season, it puts forth fresh leaves, blossoms, and fruit.

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