When Evaluating a School, Try to Identify Its Core Values


Photo: KIPP SHINE Prep
Optimism at KIPP SHINE Prep in Houston

A few years ago, when I served as CEO of GreatSchools, we hired a consultant to help us think through our core values. Step one, the consultant informed me, was to identify our current values.

“Sounds great. Let’s meet and I’ll tell you about them,” I said.

“No,” he replied, “that’s not how we do things. I’ll wander around the office for awhile and watch people work. Then I’ll meet with a dozen or so of your employees and ask them what GreatSchools’ core values are.”

Oh, I thought to myself. I wonder what the consultant will see and what my employees will say. Will the consultant discover the core values that I aspire to for our organization?

Saying and doing are two different things

This consultant taught me a powerful lesson: An organization’s core values are not necessarily what its top leaders say they are. Rather, they are the values that the organization actually lives by. Only the employees can tell you that, based on their everyday experiences.

The same goes for schools. If you’ve researched schools online, you’ve seen plenty of general aspirational statements that sound something like this:

“Lincoln Elementary School seeks to create a challenging learning environment that encourages high expectations for success through developmentally appropriate instruction that allows for individual differences and learning styles. Our school promotes a safe, orderly, caring, and supportive environment.”

Reading this, one might say that the school’s core values would include high expectations, safety, and caring.

But saying and doing are two different things. When you want to learn about a school, take a page out of the consultant’s playbook and see if you can observe core values manifesting themselves in a school community. Here are some of the core values I’ve discovered by observing what happens in schools and by talking to teachers and parents:

  • Creating. I recently visited Alta Vista School, a private school in San Francisco. I saw student projects everywhere. Students and teachers are constantly building things and creating art. This school clearly values the act of creation.
  • Inclusiveness. I’ve visited several public schools that are beacons of inclusiveness. Rich and poor parents were working side by side to support their children and the school. Students with severe disabilities were in class with the rest of the kids, and the connection and caring was palpable.
  • Humor and fun. Years ago, my daughter attended Miraloma Elementary School in San Francisco. The then-principal encouraged humor and fun every day, starting with the daily morning assembly, held in the school courtyard. The parents had tons of fun together, too, so much so that the parents liked to say, “Miraloma: It’s for kids, too!”
  • Optimism. Years ago, I visited KIPP Shine Prep in Houston. KIPP schools are sometimes described as “no excuses” schools where teachers and students do whatever it takes to succeed. But I observed something different at this particular KIPP school: a pervasive and exhilarating optimism about children and their future

Can you observe your school’s core values in action?

Give it a try at schools you’re visiting or at your own child’s school: See if you can observe the school’s core values in action and try to describe them using everyday language. Look on the playground and in the hallway. How are students spending time? How are parents and visitors treated?

Are the values you’re seeing in action consistent with the values the school writes and talks about? Are they aligned with your aspirations for your child’s growth and development?

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When Evaluating a School, Try to Identify Its Core Values