What are the essential elements of successful schools? It seems like a relatively simple question, but we know that K-12 education is a complex endeavor. And too often the dialogue about public education is being controlled by people who aren’t necessarily education experts or even part of the education community.

With that in mind, the Learning First Alliance (LFA), a coalition of 12 major education organizations including NSBA, spent more than a year compiling research and best practices. The result is a compendium, “The Elements of Success: 10 Million Speak on Schools That Work.”

The ongoing project is designed to help policymakers, school leaders, and the public understand why and how some schools succeed. This is the first time these organizations — representing parents, educators, and school board members — came together and found consensus on the topic.

The compendium identifies six critical elements that impact several important aspects of schooling. Most importantly, it determines that where schools are working, it is because educators, parents, and local communities have developed programs specific to meet their goals and challenges, rather than relying on a prescriptive state and federal role.

“We know what works; we know what makes effective schools,” said NSBA Executive Director and CEO Thomas J. Gentzel at a panel discussion in January to release the compendium. “What’s important about this compendium is that it is a way forward, and it includes best practices that can be applied to any school.” According to the compendium, the six elements of success are:

Focus on the Total Child

Successful schools support all students’ needs, inside and outside the classroom, to help them become effective, empowered learners. They design and carry out programs that offer all students a rich educational experience, supporting their academic and social/emotional learning so they develop the skills needed to succeed in an ever-changing environment. These schools customize learning to individual students, taking advantage of advances in technology as they do so. They also provide opportunities for students to explore careers and nurture their talents and interests, including through partnerships with their communities.

Commitment to Equity and Access

Successful schools ensure all students have access to high-quality services and supports enabling them to set and reach high goals for learning. In these schools, equity does not mean equality; they recognize some students need additional resources to have the same opportunity for success as others. They ensure the needs of all student populations are met, including English language learners, students with disabilities, children of color, religious minorities, LGBTQ students, and others. Successful schools recognize such students are assets and diversity is a strength.

Family and Community Engagement

Successful schools effectively engage families and communities in support of students. In doing so, they identify barriers to such engagement and work to overcome them. Their efforts to build authentic connections to families are focused on a belief that every parent wants the best for their child and, when provided the right invitations and opportunities, they can help their child, and all children, be successful.

Distributed Leadership

Successful schools define leadership broadly. Leadership is distributed — to principals, teachers, school counselors, community members, and others in the building — and decision-making is a shared endeavor. In these schools, leaders (regardless of job title) meet high standards of practice and are supported in their development. They understand that effective communication is a critical component of school success, and they build solid, trusting relationships with both school and community stakeholders.

Strong, Supported Teaching Force and Staff

Successful schools are staffed with educators — including teachers, principals, school counselors, technology specialists and others — who are well-educated, well-prepared and well-supported. These educators meet high standards of practice. They benefit from continuous learning and support along the professional continuum, including through high-quality preservice education, ongoing high-quality professional learning, meaningful evaluation tied to professional growth, and opportunities to take on leadership roles regardless of official title.

Relationship-Oriented School Climate

Successful schools create a culture of collaboration and shared responsibility among staff and students and with families and communities. These schools are safe, welcoming, and respectful to all. They establish teaching and learning as core values. They support positive behavior and build healthy, supportive relationships and a sense of community both between and among students and staff. In them, students have frequent opportunities for participation, collaboration, service, and self-direction, all strengthening their connection to the school.

Atoms of a Molecule

The most critical factor is the interaction between the elements — they are not interchangeable.

“These elements are like the atoms that make up a molecule — it is the bonds between these elements that allow the successful school to form,” LFA Executive Director Richard M. Long says. A school cannot be successful if it has strong teachers and leadership but lacks family and community involvement or commitment to ensuring the needs of all students are met, for instance.

The compendium emphasizes that the solution for improvement isn’t the same for every school, because each school has a wide range of existing strengths and a unique set of needs. And each child in each school is different. Therefore, schools combine the elements necessary for success in very different ways.

“What’s contributed to the success of public education in America today is local leadership — leadership by teachers, administrators, school boards, and everyone who has an interest in the system,” Gentzel says, adding that the top-down, one-size-fits-all mandates from the state and federal governments have not worked.

NSBA’s Key Works of School Boards, which was featured in the compendium, outlines a framework for effective governance based on five key areas of best practice: vision, accountability, policy, community leadership, and board/superintendent relationships. The more effective the board, the better students perform.

Leadership evolves, Gentzel says. School boards, for one, had typically managed the four Bs: buildings, buses, budgets, and ballgames. “Over time, what we came to realize was that school boards must own responsibility for student achievement,” he says. And other groups that contributed to the compendium also have discussed ways to be effective and support one another in leadership roles, he adds.

Marla Ucelli-Kashyap, assistant to the president for educational issues at the American Federation of Teachers, notes the need for more venues and opportunities to nurture distributed leadership.

“Sometimes people see leadership as a zero-sum game,” she says. “The point is obviously not to take leadership away from the principal or the school board, but it is to have a collaborative culture that allows us to make a complex enterprise doable.”

Take Back the Conversation

The compendium emphasizes that school improvement is a collaborative effort, and it advises those who are reading the document with intent to improve a local school to consider their circumstances. Rather than looking for specific programs to implement, school boards and school leaders can use the standards and indicators included to help gauge where a school is in relation to the elements, as well as find ideas that can strengthen a board’s work in each arena. It also discusses the importance of engagement and cooperation among school boards, administrators, teachers, specialists, parents, and other community members.

Some say the document will be useful in helping parents and others find entry points to getting involved and helping improve their local schools, with each interaction spurring new conversations about other elements. Gentzel suggests it be a topic of community conversations, but also a pathway to strengthen the LFA member associations and public education overall.

Further, the compendium shows a clear effort by the education community to share successes and knowledge to help improve public schools, and ultimately, student learning.

In looking to the future, Gentzel also calls on school boards and educators to note the successes that have been realized in public schools.

“Public education in America is doing a better job than ever before,” Gentzel says. “When you consider the changing face of America and all the challenges we have, poverty and other issues, yet we are educating more students to a higher level than ever. We have a lot to celebrate.”

Joetta Sack-Min (sackminj@learningfirst.org), communications consultant of the Learning First Alliance in Alexandria, Virginia, is a former associate editor of American School Board Journal.

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