Blog: Hannah Diaz |What makes a successful school?

Smiling student

What do you remember most about school? Do you remember which teachers were kind to you and which weren’t? Do you remember getting in trouble or getting praised? Do you remember a fun project that you got to do? Do you remember the lessons the teachers taught? Do you remember the formulas, test scores, or vocabulary lessons?

Personally, I remember the teacher who gave us jolly ranchers, dance parties, and taught us fractions through music. I remember the teachers who showed an interest in me and my life. I remember the teachers who taught me study skills, different learning strategies, and to do my best. I don’t remember the scores on my tests that I studied so hard for. I don’t remember the standards that were taught. I don’t remember specific lessons and whether or not I met the benchmarks.

In a time when COVID has caused us to question the norms of life, education has been no exception. What do we value in schools? What should we value in schools? How do we define success?

A study of schools (and what makes us happy)

When I was in college, I did a study on countries with the highest scores in reading, math, and science based on PISA’s 15 year olds’ test scores from 2018. China and Singapore had the highest mean scores in all three subjects. Canada, Estonia, Finland, and Korea came in next. The US is above average in reading and science, but below average in math.

In contrast, in a study by Gallup for the World Happiness Report, the world’s happiest countries are in Scandinavia. China is number 84 and Singapore is number 32.

The United States is 19. Finland is above average in PISA scores as well as the No. 1 happiest country in the world.

What is Finland doing differently and what can we learn from them? First, Finland does not use any standardized tests in their public schools. The curriculum was created by teachers to be “guidelines, not prescriptions”. A Finnish teacher explained, “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test.”

Furthermore, teachers are all required to earn a master’s degree at a state university, at the state’s expense. In Finland, teachers are treated with the same respect as doctors and lawyers. The inspectorate was eliminated, as teachers and administrators are trusted to create their own accountability. A principal in Finland said, “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect”.

This brings us back to the beginning. How do we define success? Is it high test scores, high paying jobs, money? Or are we defining success by passion, happiness, creativity, and critical thinking? Countries that prioritized statistics and test scores were not necessarily high scoring in the happiness report. However, countries that scored high on the happiness report happened to do well on the PISA scores.

So, how do schools define success?

At New Morning School, we make an effort to focus on the individual student, to prepare them for the real world. We focus on critical thinking, self-advocating, metacognition, goal-setting, and other skills that go beyond the classroom. When we make the whole child a priority, they naturally grow in other areas, including academic skills. 20 years from now, our students will remember the deeper lessons they learned and the life skills they acquired. Our hope is that they know that they are more than a number or a statistic. We want them to know that their test scores do not define them. With this focus, not only will they be successful, but they will also be happy!

Hannah Diaz is an elementary teacher with New Morning School in Plymouth, MI. She can be reached at