Nine Characteristics Of High-Performing Schools

October 7, 2007

Conducted by G. Sue Shannon and Pete Bylsma.

Purpose of study

To synthesize research findings and feedback from expert reviewers on the characteristics of high-performing schools.

Research questions

  • What characteristics do high-performing schools have in common?

Population/ sample

The authors analyzed 20 recent studies of schools in which students performed better than would be predicted based on their demographic characteristics to determine which characteristics were found most often. High performance was usually defined by high or dramatically improving standardized test scores. For the second edition, expert reviewers provided feedback on the original report and approximately 120 new references were incorporated.

Major results

  • The original nine characteristics associated with high-performing schools included 1) a clear and shared focus, 2) high standards and expectations for all students, 3) effective school leadership, 4) high levels of collaboration and communication, 5) curriculum, instruction and assessments aligned with state standards, 6) frequent monitoring of learning and teaching, 7) focused professional development, 8) a supportive learning environment, and 9) high levels of family and community involvement.
  • Additional concepts discussed in the updated and expanded second edition include effective processes for improving schools; expanded perspectives on effective leadership; relational trust (i.e., trusting relationships among persons in an organization); quality instruction, grading practices, and monitoring; professional learning communities; cultural competence and culturally responsive teaching; family and community engagement in schools; high school improvement; district improvement; and need-based allocation of resources (funding, staffing, and support).
  • The characteristics of high-performing schools are complex and interrelated. School improvement teams should start with focusing on all students and learning in a cyclical process of consideration, action, and reflection. Those working to improve schools decide what is important to increase student learning, establish processes for implementing these important reforms, monitor the effectiveness of implementation, and reflect and adjust practices as the cycle continues. The original nine characteristics of high-performing schools are embedded in the elements of these steps.
  • Making all schools high-performing also requires closing the gap between what is known about school improvement and what educators are doing. The authors list ten barriers culled from the work of Pfeffer and Sutton (2000): “substituting a decision for action, substituting mission for action, planning as a substitute for action, complexity as a barrier to action, mindless precedent as a barrier to action, internal competition as a barrier to action, badly designed measurement systems as a barrier to action, an external focus as a barrier to action, a focus on attitudes as a barrier to action, and training as a substitute for action” (p. 227-248).


The authors encourage educators to use the information and resources in the study to guide their school improvement efforts. They caution that effective change requires fundamentally changing philosophy, values, attitudes, beliefs, and instructional practices and that the resource is not a checklist or manual for school improvement, but a source of ideas for further exploration and implementation. They recommend use of School Improvement Perception Surveys to analyze the status of their efforts and benchmark progress.

FfT focus

The characteristics of high-performing schools discussed in this review reflect the elements of planning, classroom management, instruction, and professional culture included in the Framework for Teaching.