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  • Writer's pictureAMISA

What Characterizes a Good School?

by Isabel C F Auler, PhD., Middle School Principal at the American School Our Lady of Mercy in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The false incompatibility between academic excellence and equity.

One of the parent’s most difficult decisions lies in choosing the school where their child will study. Many wonder what they should prioritize when deciding which institution they will choose since it will contribute to their child’s character, and to assist in the professional future of the most important person in their lives. In fact, the responsibility is immense, and the answer to that question is not as easy as you might think.

Depending on the particular vision of each family, the school will represent something different. For some, it will represent the maintenance of conservative values; for others, it is the depth of academic education. And there are still those who value a more alternative vision, which favours the diversity of ideas and the development of artistic expressiveness of students.

Despite the multiplicity of perspectives and desires, the concern with students’ professional future still remains central to the choice of the educational institution. This ends up in feeding a fierce competition between schools aiming to prepare students to pass to renowned universities and, therefore, to put their names in advertisements to attract new parents.

This marketing logic helped in the stagnation of educational institutions since the concern with results relegated the educational process to the background. It is even funny to think that the desire of parents in search of quality education ended up becoming one of the main impediments to the methodological renewal of schools. No institution dares to innovate, as it is well aware that for the maintenance of its clientele, the premise remains, primarily, the same: that your child passes into a good university.

Therefore, under the banner of academic excellence, schools fill classrooms with 30 to 40 students and hire teachers to regurgitate content. At the same time, rows and rows of attentive eyes and ears try to copy everything they hear onto paper. In an attempt to promote some kind of deeper connection, at most, the teacher will be able to establish a debate during his class. And that goes beyond the usual stimulus of basic memory and applicability.

At this point, you must be questioning my argument, since you studied at an institution similar to the one described and, you are currently well employed. It is clear that knowledge acquisition will occur in a traditional educational institution. We cannot deny that the competitiveness inherent in this educational environment will also promote external stimuli, which will make the student develop responsibility and autonomy. After all, the premise is simple: if you don’t study, you will fail. However, we must look more closely at the reality of these institutions and ask ourselves if this is what we expect from an excellent school.

To discuss in detail, I will list three important points to analyze the qualities of an educational institution in the middle of the 21st century: socio-emotional education, equity and academic excellence.

  1. Socio-emotional education:

After two years of intense research in the educational field, The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development published a document revealing the intrinsic relationship between the dimensions of cognitive and socio-emotional learning. In an increasingly competitive and collaborative labor market, cognitive flexibility, the ability to negotiate and solve problems are integral parts of all of our lives. The traditional school environment, being more concerned with quantitative results instead of building a qualitative educational process, does not intentionally promote such skills. Students with natural skills end up surpassing others, who are pressured to develop those qualities quickly, without the help of an educator. Many fail and end up discarded by the system for not fitting.

In addition, even naturally disciplined and internally motivated students can leave a traditional educational institution without learning to collaborate and negotiate during conflict situations. Many institutions dismiss academically excellent professionals for the lack of these skills, seen as central to progress in the corporate world.

Evidence confirms that supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development benefits all children and relates positively to the traditional measures we care about: attendance, grades, test scores, graduation rates, college and career success, engaged citizenship, and overall well-being.

The traditional school is essentially content-based. However, the current world requires the development of skills and competences that will make young people deal with a new and unexpected reality. More than pure scholastic content, we need to focus on developing these capabilities.

  1. Equity:

Many schools advertise as supporters and promoters of socioemotional skills. Nevertheless, parents must understand that the development of a pedagogical plan, capable of developing students’ cognitive and socioemotional potential, necessarily involves promoting equity.

Although these skills are important for all students, equity means acknowledging that not all students are the same. Providing equitable opportunities for developing young people’s social, emotional, and academic growth requires calibrating to each student’s and school’s individual strengths and needs — ensuring that those with greater needs have access to greater resources.

Each student will have their own time to develop their skills. Therefore, big schools with more than 25 students in a classroom, run by teachers in need of continuous professional development, will not be able to put this into practice.

Recognizing the individuality of each student and family means creating different expectations and methodologies to meet different needs. This attentive look at each student is essential if we really want to develop the potential of each one. Academically excellent students may need more help in their collaborative skills. In comparison, other groups may need more help in developing their interpretive skills, for example. Seeing this difference and adapting to them requires a change of paradigms in the elaboration of teaching materials, as well as in the classroom methodology itself.

  1. Academic Excellence:

The biggest challenge today is to deconstruct a false paradigm that permeates the discourse of educators and parents. When we refer to equity and inclusion, we are automatically led to think about reducing academic expectations.

In fact, many institutions that are new to the inclusive process may run the risk of adapting to the inclusion discourse simplistically, by only reducing expectations regarding their students’ success criteria. However, this should in no way characterize the 21st century school.

Adapting to the needs of students must mean the full development of everyone’s abilities, including those with high skills. The process is complex and must be carried out with the help of the entire community, through research, constant data analysis and continued staff development. However, we cannot think about the school of the future without having academic excellence as one of the main pillars of a good school.

In a traditional institution, this often boils down to the exclusion of 15 to 20% of students annually, in order to reach a select group that fits the traditional style of content based teaching. However, if we create multiple criteria and expectations, which encompass students with diverse cognitive and socio-emotional abilities, the number of repetition and exclusion will gradually decrease.

It is difficult for some to understand the difference between equality and equity. If we expected the same from all students, we would apparently be promoting equal conditions. However, if we look carefully at the development process of each individual, we soon realize that it is fairer to evaluate students multiply and diversely, as they have numerous and diverse characteristics and abilities. We know that developing specialized work for each individual every day is a chimera. Notwithstanding, the attempt to reach this aim will help in the constant improvement of educational institutions, and we must value this permanent journey.

We thus return to the question that guided this article: what characterizes a good school? I know that each family, with its diverse values ​​and expectations, will present varied answers. However, even though I respect the right of opinion of each one, I reiterate the importance of these three pillars in an educational institution. Moreover, I restate that the development of socio-emotional values, ​​together with the promotion of equity, end up stimulating academic excellence instead of annihilating it.



Isabel Cristina Fernandes Auler was born in Rio de Janeiro on December 15, 1984. She holds a BA and Teaching Degree in History (2008). She received a scholarship for Scientific Initiation Pibic throughout her under-graduation course and was awarded by CNPq and PUC-Rio for this same research in 2007. She became a Master in Social History of Culture in 2010 and a PhD in Theory of History at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio) in 2015. She published the book Memórias de Carlos Lacerda. Evocations of a present past, by Multifoco in 2011. She also published the book Our Lady of Mercy School. 100 years, by OLM Publishing House in 2019. She currently works as the Middle School Principal at the American School Our Lady of Mercy in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.


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