“Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don't have great schools, principally because we have good schools.” —James C. Collins, author of Good to Great
A comfortable autopilot mentality is fueling much of the pushback around the Colorado Academic Standards and harder tests for our students. There is no consensus on the need for more rigorous college and career readiness expectations.
Much of that pushback is coming from the suburban communities that have “top-performing” schools. I hear them saying, with their insistence on local control, “Keep out. Our schools are fine and don’t need higher standards or tighter accountability.”
These are good schools. But what’s wrong with pushing them to be great?
The Difference Between Good and Great
I have taught in rural, inner-city and suburban schools. Each had its own set of challenges.
When I worked in an urban setting, my students faced incredible barriers. They often had very little security or stability in their lives and had to worry about basic necessities. These are kids who had many factors holding them back inside the classroom and grew up fast outside it.
But teachers worked tirelessly to find new and better ways to support them whether it be as a confidante, social worker or teacher to help them achieve.
I then moved to a rural school and although my students still faced challenges, their path wasn’t quite as steep. I was still a counselor and social worker when I needed to be, but most of the time I was able to focus on teaching. I didn’t have to be on the top of my game for my students to learn, and even my worst lessons were absorbed like water on a sponge.
My students’ test scores were solid, and my students achieved with reasonable effort. I gave out a lot of good grades. I loved teaching at my new school and labored to give the kids seated in my desks the absolute best instruction that I could.
I just couldn’t help but notice one lingering, yet major, difference in my experience between schools. Because my students met expectations for growth and achievement, I was considered a more effective teacher in this school than I was in my previous school. This concerned me because, frankly, it was easier to teach and feel successful because the students in my class were better equipped to succeed. I didn’t have to work as hard to achieve the same or better results. I could settle for good lessons without having to aim for excellent lessons.
Good schools prepare kids to perform on assessments. Great schools share an unyielding commitment to developing knowledge, skills and a passion for learning among all members of its community, including its teachers.
There are opportunities to improve and refine instruction in every single school, regardless of zip code. To say that only the lowest-performing, most broken schools need higher standards just contributes to the increasing opportunity and achievement gaps in this country.
Let me be clear: I am not making excuses for poor test scores or other measures in our lowest-performing schools or suggesting that schools that are on the cutting edge somehow are implicated in a larger crisis.
Instead, I would argue that even the best schools have a chance to re-envision their work through higher standards and smart, rigorous assessments, while the lowest-performing schools have a chance to focus on the classroom practices needed to increase the quality of instruction and move all students toward the top tier of academic achievement.
I’m not saying teachers in “high-performing” schools don’t work hard—we do. The real question is: Are we always looking to get better?
As an experienced educator, if I had a single hope for the future of public education and the teaching profession, it would be that educators of all backgrounds could unite in agreement that our country will be better and our children better served if teachers everywhere commit to improving the quality of education in every single school and take ownership of what is a national issue of low, uneven standards and ill-prepared high school graduates.
Why settle for good, when we can join forces, articulate a common vision and work together to achieve greatness for our kids?