Sustainable Schooling in a Rapidly Changing World

Timothy WiensMeasures of a Healthy School, The CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

Part 2: Pillars of Excellence

Three students pointing at a computer.

A great deal of research has been conducted on what makes great schools great, or at least effective schools effective. Through my own research, I have identified seven primary factors that enable schools to see improvement over time. Likewise, an eighth “pillar of excellence” has risen to prominence over the past decade and will be addressed below.

None of these foundational elements of school quality will come as a surprise to you. However, your focusing on them as you grow and strengthen your institution will enable you to track improvement over time. This data has helped me personally as a school leader, both in establishing a start-up urban school in Boston, Massachusetts, and serving as a head of several established schools in the northeast and southern U.S. The underpinnings of the Council on Educational Standards and Accountability (CESA) were also built upon these fundamental ideas when it was founded in 2009.

The Seven Primary Pillars

As we examine what ensures our schools are headed in the right direction, the first and probably most obvious starting place is mission. A strong sense of purpose is the key element to any school’s (or organization’s) success. Goodlad (1984) stated that a school’s mission is essential and must drive the organization and its entire program. I often tell my graduate students that no decision can ever be made without the mission in mind. Simply stated, if it is not missional, you should not do it.

Beck, Elfers, Plecki, and Portin (2002) found in their Gates Foundation research on school improvement that a school’s leadership was of utmost consequence in the success and quality of a school. While one may think this point refers to those at the top of the organizational chart, the reality is that this impact applies to all leaders responsible for the quality of an institution: the administration, the faculty, and the parents are all responsible. Improvement and success do not simply rest on top administrators such as heads of school, principals, or deans. A quality school must both understand this finding and implement structures and programming to promote leadership development across the institution.

As leaders develop the culture of the institution across all domains, a high calling to excellence must be established and maintained over time. High expectations are therefore the third pillar in creating quality throughout the school. In a thriving school, the faculty and staff are held accountable, students are held accountable, and coaches and directors are held accountable to the high standards the school has established.

“Organizational health is THE essential ingredient to creating an organizational advantage.”

Patrick Lencioni

We have all heard the infamous Peter Drucker quote about culture eating strategy for breakfast. This could not be truer when it comes to creating excellence across the entirety of an institution. Patrick Lencioni agrees. In his fantastic book The Advantage (2012), he suggests that organizational health is THE essential ingredient to creating an organizational advantage. 

As leaders, how we then consider and implement a plan to create a strong sense of community is imperative. Remembering that every school and every geographical location has its very own culture, we must consider what it means to build a community centered around the mores of that culture and build upon it.

Such community and culture must then exist in harmony with academic coherence and a rigorous academic program. This quality begins with a clear philosophy of what we teach and why we teach it. Are you a classical school? A traditional school? Progressive in nature? Whatever the starting point, the philosophy should establish the baseline for coherence across all disciplines and divisions of the school.

Too many schools have no philosophy to guide the academic and programmatic decisions they make. We often add academic programs and build buildings because that is what we see happening at schools around us, but do not have a sense of why and what the outcomes will be, and how we will achieve said outcomes. However, without a sense of purpose and philosophy behind every decision, our schools will never get better at creating a strong culture of teaching and learning.  

Likewise, we often think that rigor and the amount of homework given are synonymous. They are not. Developing quality academic programs that push our students beyond what they ever imagined they could achieve (and sometimes what we imagined they could achieve) does not equate with giving four hours of homework each night. We must then consider what rigor means within the construct and culture of our institution (and even region of the country).

“Remembering that every school and every geographical location has its very own culture, we must consider what it means to build a community centered around the mores of that culture and build upon it.”

To that end, the quality of our teachers is of utmost importance. My former boss, Dr. Also Sicoli, used to have a 3 x 5 card pinned to the wall above his desk that stated, “The quality of a school is dependent upon the quality of its faculty.” Hear, hear!

As teachers and academic leaders of excellence are put into place, so must curriculum and assessment programs be established and maintained over time. A clear curricular review process with student outcomes and how they will be measured over time are essential in every discipline and across each department of a school. Such assessment practices will enable us to better understand not only student growth, but also the quality of the curriculum, the pedagogy used, and the quality of the faculty.

As we assess the students, so must we assess the faculty. I am a big Charlotte Danielson fan. Her framework for teaching and learning seems to have stood the test of time (at least in my mind). Whatever the method used to assess the quality of the faculty, it is so important to have this process in place to ensure growth and excellence in the instruction of our students. Never forget the wisdom of Aldo Sicoli!

Research also suggests that adequate resources are all that are necessary for quality within our institutions. We don’t need the best facilities or best campus. While they certainly help with the recruitment of parents and students, they are not necessary to be a great institution. When our schools lack adequate tools to do the work, however, we will certainly struggle.

An Eighth Pillar of Excellence

Finally, the emerging “pillar of excellence” that has arisen in the 21st century is that of innovation and a willingness to innovate across the curriculum and classrooms. You can still be classical and innovate. You can be traditional and innovate. Innovation means we are willing to think outside of the proverbial box we have created for ourselves. Innovation is a mindset that will allow our students to think in new ways and make decisions that impact what is done for generations to come.

I am a dinosaur. I love the classics, the liberal arts, and reading a physical book. But I have learned that traditional education and innovation do not need to be at odds with one another. They can and should make one another better and provide students with opportunities not available in generations past. As we consider excellence in our schools, I believe that considering these eight “pillars of excellence” will allow us to build the schools we envision for the betterment not only of our students, but for the world around us.


  • Timothy Wiens

    Timothy Wiens has spent the entirety of his 31-year career in education. He has spent time in both public and independent schools, serving as the head of three Christian schools and as a professor at Wheaton College. He has also served as the Co-chair of the Peabody Professional Institute for Independent School Leadership at Vanderbilt University and as the Co-founder and Co-director of the ADVIS-Penn Independent School Leadership Institute in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Tim holds a bachelor's degree in psychology and education and a master's degree in educational leadership from Bethel University, a MBA from the University of Oxford's Said Business School (UK), and a doctorate in organizational leadership from St. Mary's University (MN).

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