First, what doesn’t count:
Class Size: Despite what everyone believes, class size doesn’t matter (once you get out of pre-school). Japanese math teachers have 50 students in a class with one teacher, and Japan’s math scores are among the best in the world. We can find no difference is any of the outcomes in schools by class size as the driver for quality: there are schools with large class sizes and great student results and schools with small class sizes with poor student results, and vice versa. Not to mention class sizes of 500 or more in the lecture halls of all those highly selective colleges and the great public universities many parents want their children to attend.
School size: There are great schools with great results with 60 students in them, and great schools with great results with thousands of students in them. The former benefit from intimacy but suffer from lack of resources and a bare minimum menu of courses and activities, while the latter benefit from resources and a full menu of offerings but suffer from the anonymity of large scale.
Resources: Lots of books in the library, hockey rinks, swimming pools, a Broadway-quality theater, plentiful playing fields, state of the art technology in instruction – these are all nice to have, but are not the driver of student success. The student group in America with the highest average SAT scores is home-schoolers, who have none of the physical resources like those one would find in the typical school.
High Standardized Test Scores: While America obsesses over them, high standardized test scores only correlate to future high test scores, not success in college or success in life. In fact, the one best predictor of success in college and success in life is participation in extracurricular activities, which might explain why a disproportionate number of Fortune 500 CEOs are dyslexic.
OK, I’ll concede that all of the above have a “golden mean’ that is “nice to have" and draw good students to a school accordingly, but they are not the defining factors for great outcomes.
The only things that do count are…
1.) The students: Because kids quickly adapt to the environment they find themselves in, and because the peer culture dominates the environment from middle school on, the quality of the student body is one of the only two factors that really matters. If the student body is serious about high achievement in academics, athletics, and the arts (the “three As"), then achievement-orientation in all undertakings becomes the norm for the school. Kids, especially from middle school on, but even in pre-school, take their cues on what’s expected of them from their peers. Take kids from low performing schools and put them in high performing schools, and after a period of adjustment, many often become high achieving students. Take kids from a high performing school and place them in a low performing school and many become at-risk for becoming low achieving students.
2.) The teachers: Teachers and coaches (in athletics and in the arts) are the main drivers of student success. I’ve spoken at schools and to school constituents in 36 US states and in 35 countries abroad, and I have yet to find anyone who couldn’t name to me at least one teacher or professor “who changed the course of my life." For me it was Ed Warren in public high school in West Irondequoit (Rochester, NY) in 1966, and Bob Logan at Williams College (Williamstown, MA) in 1970. Teachers are the force that creates the intentional culture that produces students who are “smart and good," students with the academic and character outcomes great schools aspire to produce: kids who are inventive, creative, and analytical problem-solvers; kids with character (integrity, empathy, resilience); kids who are “team players."
Here’s the better news: The larger the proportion of great teachers in a school, the better the school and the more likely one’s child will be well-educated.
Here’s the best news: Despite popular assumptions, great teaching is not transactional. It’s mainly relational and transformational, more about skills and values than about academic content. (Other than labor lawyers, no one remembers or cares what the Taft-Hartley Act was about.) Students learn from adults they love and who they know care about them: It starts with their parents, and then that bond transfers to their teachers and professors, the ones who actually care about them and not just care about themselves and the subjects they teach.
Any student you run across when visiting any prospective school or college can tell you who the great teachers are. When in the market for a school or college, you should ask “Who are the great teachers, and why are they so good?" Best news of all: if you attend that school or college, you can seek them out.