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Secrets to Success

What top-performing schools have in common

There is never one single factor that is at the core of a successful school: no one structure, or one curriculum, or one set of policies and procedures that, if every school in the country were to adopt it, would transform them into high-achieving schools. Schools are complex organisms that can’t be changed that easily.

But there are some characteristics that they all share. I call them, for want of a better term, “it’s being done” schools to distinguish them from the “run-of-the- mill schools” and the all-too-common “crummy poor-kid schools” that I describe in the book. Here are a few.

1) They teach their students. This seems like a flip thing to say, but it is at the heart of high performance and improvement. In “it’s being done” schools, educators think deeply about what their students need to learn and how to make sure they learn it. They begin with their state’s standards, but in most cases they are not limited by them. Teachers in these schools teach increasingly complex and sophisticated material, aiming for their students to exceed standards—which helps ensure that they meet them.

They use the verb “to teach” properly. That is, they do not say what many teachers around the country say: “I taught it, but the kids didn’t get it.” Although common, this formulation actually makes no sense.

2) They don’t teach to the state tests. All these schools make sure their students know what their state’s tests look like in terms of the format, and they try to ensure that their students aren’t surprised by the material or the kinds of questions asked. Some of them make a big deal of state testing day with pep rallies, and some do a bit of test prep in the form of giving practice tests. But none of them spends a huge amount of time teaching their students what will be on the state tests or teaching them how to “bubble in” a scoring sheet. They teach a rich, coherent curriculum tied to state standards. For the state tests that are a bit more sophisticated and high-level, such as the Massachusetts MCAS and the New York Regents, the schools might spend more time teaching directly to what will be tested, but that is because those tests are more closely tied to a set of high standards.

3) They have high expectations for their students. They assume that their students are able to meet high standards, and believe their job is to help their students get there. They do not assume that their students are so crippled by poverty and discrimination that they will never be able to meet high standards. They talk with their students about going to college or into high-level technical training.

4) They embrace and use all the data they can get their hands on. They want to know how their students are doing, and they know that classroom observation by teachers, though important, is fragmentary and doesn’t allow overall patterns to be observed. State test data, district data, classroom test data, and any formative-assessment data they can find are all eagerly studied.

When they are lucky, they are able to use their district’s or state’s data systems to give them the tools they need to analyze the data. But if the district doesn’t provide the data in the form they need, they come up with their own ways of charting and displaying data, because they consider it so important.

5) They constantly reexamine what they do. Tradition is never invoked as the only reason something is done, the way it is in crummy schools. If the data show that the way they teach reading isn’t getting all kids learning to read, teachers research and incorporate new methods of reading instruction. And that same willingness to examine what’s not working and make changes extends to every area of school life. The discomfort this causes teachers cannot be underestimated. It can be very difficult for teachers to change long-established patterns or to diverge from what they learned in their university teaching programs, but these are the logical consequences of putting student achievement ahead of everything else.

6) They are accountable. They know they have an obligation not only to their students but to their communities to demonstrate that they are doing the job that has been entrusted to them—to educate future citizens. And, in a kind of extension of that obligation, they are competitive in a way that many educators have traditionally not been, at least outside of sports. If another school nearby outperforms them, they are the first ones to try to figure out what that school did and try to incorporate that new information into their own practice, so they can beat that school the next year. And most are quite open about sharing the data with the students themselves, explicitly teaching students that poor performance on an assessment simply means that the students and teachers need to work harder and more effectively, not that the students are in some way deficient.

7) They use school time wisely. They establish classroom and school routines to ensure that endless amounts of time are not spent going to the bathroom, getting out and putting away books and materials, and going from one activity or class to another. School time is time for instruction, and instruction is treated as something almost sacred.

Most of the schools establish uninterrupted blocks of time for instruction so that classes aren’t disrupted by bus announcements or by students being pulled out for speech therapy or counseling. Using time wisely doesn’t mean, by the way, that the kids don’t ever have fun or move around or have recess. But it does mean that students are engaged in productive activities just about all the time.

8) They use the community.
They organize outside mentors and volunteers, ask local organizations and companies for specific help, link with outside social-service agencies, and welcome outside scrutiny as a way of helping them see themselves more clearly. This is in direct contrast to many crummy schools, where outsiders are viewed with suspicion and are often explicitly kept out on the assumption that they would be disruptive. Schools work with local colleges that help train teachers and direct research projects, retired neighbors who read to children, and service organizations like the American Legion and the Kiwanis Club that donate money for school clothing.

9) They expand the time that students—particularly struggling students—have in school. Different schools do this in different ways. Some have before- and after-school classes during the school year, as well as summer school. Some have year-round calendars with intensive tutoring done during the intersessions for children who haven’t yet learned what they need to learn. Some use their federal Title I funds to pay for the extra time; some get grants from other sources, such as the federal 21st Century Community Learning Center program or local foundations or organizations. But they all figure out ways to get their children more time for instruction, and they do so with the same kinds of resources (often involving federal funds) that are available to most schools in poverty and within the parameters of teachers’ union contracts. Many also see that extra time as an opportunity for enrichment for students, and they offer all kinds of interesting classes, such as music, drama, and sign language.

10) They like kids. This characteristic seems almost too simple to include in a list, but the fact is that in too many schools, and not just crummy poor-kid schools, the dominant emotion among teachers and administrators seems to be a kind of contempt for students—and their parents—that can only grow out of dislike. At “it’s being done” schools, students are brought into conversations, student work is highlighted and proudly displayed, and older students are explicitly taught to be the role models for younger students. Teachers tell affectionate stories about their students and boast about the work their students have done. Principals know many of the students by name, and often something about them. The struggles that students have outside school only increase the regard teachers and principals have for what they are able to achieve in school. Such respect never translates into expecting less from students, but into appreciating the effort.

11) Principals are a constant presence. Although all principals are called out for meetings to the central office or other places, the expectation in “it’s being done” schools is that, for the most part, principals are in the building and walking the halls, conferring with teachers, looking at student work, and interacting with students and parents. They do not hide in their offices. Many of them
say that they do their paperwork when children are not in the building. Depending on how big the school is, some principals even stop in on every class at the beginning of the day. It is the principals’ version of the medical practice of “doing rounds.” They are gauging the pulse of their buildings. And when they quietly slip in to observe instruction, teachers and students hardly even notice, because the principals are not hostile intruders but nearly constant presences.

Although the principals are important leaders, they are not the only leaders. Other administrators and teachers, and sometimes parents and community members as well, sit on committees that make important decisions for the school, decisions such as hiring, curriculum, school policies and procedures, Title I spending, and much more. The academic term for this is distributed leadership. In most cases, this is part of an explicit practice to institutionalize improvement so that it is not reliant on a single individual. The principals in “it’s being done” schools are well aware that many schools have improved only to fall back again when their principals left. These principals are consciously trying to build the kinds of enduring structures that will outlast them.

12) They pay careful attention to the quality of the teaching staff. In many of the schools, teachers and sometimes parents sit in with administrators on interviews with potential new teachers. Sometimes the interview panel asks potential teachers to teach a lesson so it can gauge the quality of instruction the teacher offers. Often the schools will test out teachers before hiring them by allowing them to student teach, substitute teach, or teach summer school. Principals and other administrators regularly sit in on classes to evaluate and recommend improvements. “I taught . . . for four years and thought I was a pretty good teacher, but until I came here I felt I had never taught a lesson,” says teacher Wendy Tague, of Elmont High School, in Elmont, New York, about the help she received from administrators and fellow teachers. And teachers do not just drift into having tenure protections—they must demonstrate their knowledge and skill and take recommended steps to improve before they get that third- or fourth-year contract that guarantees them tenure protections under most union contracts.

13) They provide teachers with the time to plan and work collaboratively. The principal or an assistant principal spends a great deal of time building a schedule so that teachers have time to work together. The most common strategy in elementary and middle school is to schedule an entire grade to have “specials” (usually art, music, or physical education) at the same time so the teachers can meet. And those meetings are carefully structured, often by the principal in early days, but later by the teachers themselves. Teachers review data, go over student work, develop lesson plans, and map curricula. These are working meetings, not gripe sessions, and even though initially they require a great deal of effort, eventually they lighten the workload of teachers by allowing them to share responsibility for instruction.

14) They provide teachers time to observe each other. In crummy schools, teachers will hardly know what another teacher across the hall is doing, much less a teacher on the other side of the building. Good teachers learn to close their doors and keep their heads down so they won’t be noticed and interfered with. But in “it’s being done” schools, teachers are encouraged to seek out and observe colleagues who have perfected a particular lesson or are trying something new and want feedback about whether it is clear and coherent. This helps all teachers become better teachers. Gary Brittingham, principal of East Millsboro Elementary School, in Delaware, says that he “rarely walk[s] into a classroom without seeing a model lesson” anymore. At the elementary level, providing such time takes careful planning and sometimes requires principals and assistant principals to take over teaching responsibilities. At the secondary level, it often involves teachers using their planning time to observe their colleagues.

15) They think seriously about professional development. The general theory among these schools is that if students are weak in a particular area, the teachers need to learn more about it. Teachers and administrators seek out the best sources of information and training they can find, so that the teachers become better teachers. “I was not as good a teacher with four other principals” is what 75-year-old fourth-grade teacher Mary Anderson says at Lincoln Elementary School in New York. It should be noted that the emphasis on the quality of professional development is what distinguishes the “it’s being done” schools, because just about all teachers have been subjected to professional development in some form or another. Nearly all veteran teachers in the country have a professional-development horror story about sessions that wasted time and money and did nothing to deepen their content knowledge, understanding, or pedagogical skill. The professional-development session that stands out in my mind as emblematic of all waste-of-time sessions is the one in which I saw a big ball of yarn tossed from teacher to teacher, with about half an hour taken up to demonstrate that people and topics are woven together in an elaborate web. That kind of professional development isn’t typical in “it’s being done” schools.

They assume that they will have to train new teachers more or less from scratch and carefully acculturate all newly hired teachers. They’re aware that new teachers often don’t know the first thing about classroom management, standards, curriculum, assessment, reading instruction, or even how to physically set up a classroom. To noneducators, this might seem remarkable, because most teachers enter the profession with degrees in education. But teachers and principals in the “it’s being done” schools widely agree that, for the most part, university education programs do not even begin to prepare teachers for teaching.

In many cases, schools assign consulting teachers or new-teacher mentors to help induct new teachers into the profession. But they also must carefully retrain experienced teachers who have come from other schools, where they may not have been exposed to effective instruction. Principals in “it’s being done” schools talk about liking to have a mixture of veteran experience and new enthusiasm, but they know that they have to work hard to make sure enthusiastic newcomers are channeled into being productive professionals.

16) They have high-quality, dedicated, and competent office and building staff who feel themselves part of the educational mission of the school. This isn’t something that is highlighted in any of the previous chapters of my book, but in my thinking about all the schools I visited, it stands out as a feature they share. The reason this is important is that it means the principals and assistant principals are able to focus on the core of their job—academics—and don’t have to spend huge amounts of time on the logistics of running a building. In crummy schools, visitors’ first impressions often consist of buildings that are dirty and offices that are dominated by barely civil school secretaries who seem to spend a lot of time on personal phone calls. This phenomenon stems, at least in part, from the fact that, in too many places, schools are seen as jobs programs, not as places where important work demands competence from everyone in the building. A new superintendent of my acquaintance found that when he arrived in his poor rural district, seven of his eight principals were first cousins, and many of the teachers, teacher aides, building service workers, and secretaries were related to each other. He says his district is on the “friends and family plan.” Being related doesn’t mean that none of them were competent—in fact, the superintendent said he was surprised how many of them were—but it does mean that competence might not always be the deciding factor in who gets hired.

17) They are nice places to work. This was the biggest surprise. After all, these schools are achieving at higher levels and improving at faster rates than many people in the education world think is possible. It would be reasonable to wonder if the teachers and principals are nearing nervous-breakdown level. But, overwhelmingly, that’s not what I found. Mind you, the schools are not easy places to work. “We work really hard” is the most common thing teachers in these schools say. “It’s being done” schools have high and constantly rising expectations for teachers, who are expected to learn more every year to improve their skills and knowledge, and to work collaboratively with their fellow teachers. They also have students whose lives outside of school sometimes break teachers’ hearts. But because teachers’ work is organized in a way that allows them to be successful and take leadership roles, and because the atmosphere in these schools is one of respect, they are nice places to work.

Another quality comes through as well. These schools have the kind of camaraderie that comes from teams of people facing difficult challenges together, not unlike the camaraderie that is built in military units, sports teams, theatrical groups, and any other group that goes through an arduous process to achieve a common goal. As a result, they do not have the kind of turnover that many schools with similar demographics have.

When people leave, for the most part it is because they retire, or their spouses are transferred, or they are promoted to new positions of leadership, not because they are fleeing to teach in easier schools. Those schools with the longest and best track records have built a reputation of being good places to work, and have little trouble filling vacancies.

This fact points out that many teachers want to work with children of poverty and children of color if they can work in an environment where they will be helped to be better teachers. In other words, the huge attrition rates of new teachers in crummy poor-kid schools don’t mean that teachers do not want to work in schools with large populations of poor children and children of color, but that they do not want to work where they have to succeed or fail totally on their own.

Adapted from:



by Karin Chenoweth




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