Five Values That Distinguish Great Schools

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Make no mistake: money can buy the things that contribute to student achievement. It may be called the root of all evil, but schools need cold, hard cash. Funding teacher salaries, technology and facilities are  absolute necessities when creating a good school.

But what truly sets the great schools apart are the  human values that define them. 

1. Integrity.

Any organization functions best when all participants are held to high standards of personal honesty.  In great schools, integrity is woven into the fabric of every day interactions from the top down.  Reliable administrative transparency creates a climate for staff and students to do the right thing even when the right thing might be hard to do. Teachers model integrity with one another and with their classes.  Growing integrity–an abstract and often elusive value– is a respected process in every great school.

2. Safety

Physical safety is a given in all schools. Parents trust schools to care for their children and there can be no negotiating that responsibility. But great schools are places where students and staff feel safe to stretch their intellectual muscles, where all feel secure enough to take on challenges without a guarantee of success. Great schools daily demonstrate that success is defined by what is learned not by numerical assessment, and provide all participants with the requisite safety to take intellectual and instructional risks.

3. Personal Accountability

Reasonable school rules are necessary for both safety and for effective instruction.  Great schools create communities where individuals understand their roles as members of the whole and see beyond a list of “what not to do.” Great schools guide staff, families and students to be accountable to one another and to value behavioral expectations as part of that shared responsibility.  Students learn that to err is human, but they must accept responsibility when missteps inevitably happen. Content area aside, this might be the most practical lesson students learn in great schools.

4. Respect

Many of these values overlap and respect walks alongside integrity, safety and personal accountability. However, respect is a value earned and nurtured among the participants in great schools. Respect boils down to mutual admiration. In great schools, success is shared. There is no need for self-promotion because students, staff and families have pride in their collective accomplishments and in one another’s contributions to the whole. The idealism of the novice and the experience of the veteran aren’t competing for attention but rather equally lauded for the parts each will play in the effective, efficient outcome.

5. Compassion and Empathy

Finally, even with all of the above values in place, a school cannot be great without compassion and empathy. In every school, there are sad kids, hungry kids, sick kids, kids who, for whatever reason. exist on the periphery of the social constructs. Great school build cultures that support every member of the learning community.  Great schools inspire students to care about people, to walk in someone else’s shoes for a time, to use their talents and skills and interests in ways that will benefit the world at large.


Good schools can get kids to produce strong test scores and good schools can prepare students to apply to respected colleges and universities. Building a great school isn’t easy and the work never ends.  Great schools, however, make kids into life long learners who care about the people and the world around them.


2 thoughts on “Five Values That Distinguish Great Schools

  1. I agree.These five “human values” are absolutely the determinant between a good school and a great school. Your words, “But great schools are places where students and staff feel safe to stretch their intellectual muscles, where all feel secure enough to take on challenges without a guarantee of success.” resonated with me the most. As I reflect on my own life and career in teaching, I realize how important curiosity is to learning and finding joy. Curiosity cannot take place within the confines of test grades and guaranteed success. Thanks for a wonderful post!

    • Thanks, Rose. I value your opinion. It is equally important for the staff to feel that safety as well. When teachers are allowed to step out of their comfort zones, to take a stab at something entirely different from what they are used to doing, they can create that buzz among their students. The current evaluation system in New York State, however, stifles that approach and forces teachers to take the safe route. I hope that pendulum swings away from this model…soon. Thanks again!

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