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News & Views - Oct, 1994 Issue #30 

The Three Requirements for Good Schools
by: Dr. George J. Posner
Professor of Education, Cornell University
Director, Educational Consulting Services
Ithaca, New York
E-Mail Address: gjp3@cornell.edu

What basic qualities should we look for in a school for a particular young person? How should schools change to accommodate particular needs? Why do some schools succeed and others fail with certain students? These questions suggest a consideration of the requirements that schools must satisfy, if they are to serve the needs of young people. Although this is an age-old question, recent research on youth at risk and the recent development of special? purpose schools open new lines of thought. By attempting to reconcile studies of youth at risk (see especially Wehlage et al 1989) with professional experiences of management consultants (see, especially Covey, 1990), psychotherapists (see especially Glasser, 1965; Glasser and Powers, 1981; Peck, 1978, 1993), family therapists (for example, John Bradshaw), emotional growth schools (e.g. Rocky Mountain Academy), rehabilitation centers, outdoor educators (e.g. Outward Bound), and character based boarding schools (see especially Gauld, 1993), three requirements for good schools emerge. The extent to which a school does not address one or more of these requirements, it will be less effective with all students. To the extent that the students it serves are at risk in some specific sense, the school will fail to provide an environment in which these students can function at even a minimal level. In these cases, the school will find itself eventually asking the student to leave, unless the student preempts the school in this decision by dropping out. Alternatively, the student might stay at the school (if there are no other options), but might drop out in spirit (e.g. by not participating in school functions), might exercise passive resistance to the school (e.g. invoking the "code of silence" for anyone witnessing a violation of school rules), and might go underground in order to meet his or her needs (e.g. by abusing substances). 

In order to meet the needs of young people, schools must satisfy the following three requirements: 

1. A Constructive Community. Ideally a community provides a sense of belonging and connection, support during difficult times, something beyond oneself to which one is responsible, and a collective set of values to which one can commit oneself. Most public schools and many independent schools do not provide one or more of these elements. Without a sense of belonging and connection students may feel alienated. Without support students may experience loneliness and despair. Without responsibility to something beyond themselves students may become narcissistic. Without commitment to a set of values students may never develop integrity. Schools that are too large for all students to know each other, too competitive and obsessed with performance, too preoccupied with political correctness and ethical relativism, or staffed by adults who can't or won't develop close, caring relationships with young people are unlikely to provide the kinds of cohesive and principle based communities that students need. The community should be guided by a clear sense of mission or purpose, since the commitment of all members of the school community to this purpose is what holds the community together. Most public and independent schools operate on the basis of at least two communities, the students and the school staff, typically working at cross purposes to each other. 

2. Educational Engagement. Unless the student is engaged educationally, programs and schools run the risk of serving primarily a custodial function at best. There are two aspects of educational engagement, cognitive and motivational. In terms of the cognitive, instruction should employ methods that accommodate individual differences in abilities and backgrounds of the students and thereby facilitate the student's learning. Many students can learn regardless of the methods used. Learning disabled students typically cannot. The narrower the spectrum of students for whom the instruction is effective, the narrower is the effective scope of the school. Teaching students with special cognitive needs how to compensate for their special conditions, as well as remediating weaknesses that have accrued from past experiences are two accommodations that schools need to make. In terms of the motivational aspect, getting students to see the reason for learning school subject matter and to take ownership of their education is difficult with traditional teaching methods for most students, especially for those students who have not bought into college admission as a top priority goal. Experiential approaches appear to be more successful with a broad spectrum of students. Wilderness programs, sports, community service, clubs, vocational education and the arts all seem to have the power to engage otherwise academically unmotivated students. Whether this engagement is turned toward educational purposes depends upon how these programs are conceptualized and implemented. If they become preoccupied with a tangible product (e.g. a yearbook), a public performance (e.g. a play), or winning a contest (e.g. an athletic team), rather than on student growth, they run the risk of undermining their educational benefits for those students who need those benefits the most. 

3. Character/Emotional Development. Schools are places where children need to grow up, that is, to develop emotionally, to learn to make constructive choices, and to develop the attitudes and habits necessary for ethical and productive living. This is especially true for young people whose families, for one reason or another, have not sufficiently promoted this development. Character/emotional development requires students to experience the consequences of their decisions, to learn to express themselves, and to reexamine their attitudes, responsibilities, behaviors and goals. Some schools use a highly structured program with clear rewards and punishments, while others use consequences of the natural environment (e.g. wilderness experiences) to teach students to make good decisions. Many schools use athletics to teach leadership, cooperation and courage, or the arts to help young people express themselves. Some special purpose schools use ranch work, farm work, or school maintenance to teach a work ethic and cooperation. Schools emphasizing therapy use counseling groups and quasi-family units to develop trust, self  examination, risk taking, and concern for others. Many schools use school governance and community service to help students learn to take responsibility for others. Most special purpose schools use a combination of these approaches to teach character development. When students admitted to the school have a serious lack of character and emotional development, these two goals must take precedence over everything else. Schools differ on their attention to each of these components and with regard to the intensity that they address each of them. At one extreme is the high intensity (or jolt) approach. A less intense approach uses the component as the fabric on which the school's program is woven (e.g. Hyde's counseling groups). At the other extreme is the marginalized use of the component (e.g. weekends only or special events). Many schools use a combination of intensity levels, depending on the needs of the student or the stage of the program. Schools also differ with regard to the extent to which they integrate or meld these components into a program, rather than keeping them as discrete program features. If one of these components dominates the school, the school takes on a special form. If the cognitive aspect of educational engagement dominates, special education results. If emotional development dominates, an emotional growth school results. If a narrow view of community dominates, a cult can result. If the motivational aspect of educational engagement dominates, the school might be providing recreation rather than education. A sense of balance is necessary in schooling, as in most other enterprises. 


Covey, W. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. 

Gauld, J.W. Character First: The Hyde School Difference. San Francisco, CA: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1993. 

Glasser, W. Reality Therapy. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. 

Glasser , W. and Powers, W.T. Stations of the Mind: New Directions for Reality Therapy. New York: Harper & Row, 1981. 

Peck, M.S. The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978. 

Peck, M.S. Further Along the Road Less Traveled: The Unending Journey Toward Spiritual Growth. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993. 

Wehlage, G.G., Rutter, R.A., Smith, G.A., Lesko, N., and Fernandez, R.R. Reducing the Risk: Schools as Communities of Support. New York; Falmer Press, 1989. ! 

Copyright 1994, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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