How good are our schools? One way to answer this question appears in this month’s cover story. The method that we use, which was developed by a nonprofit organization known as Just for the Kids, is to gather data, analyze it, and establish a basis for an objective comparison. These rankings provide more information about the performance of individual schools than has ever been available before.

But there is another way to look at schools: not objectively but subjectively. This is the way most parents look at them. Do you have the feeling that your school is a place where your children can get what they need, whatever that might be? Does it care about their success? Are they learning what they need to know? Or are they falling through the cracks? If the answers to these questions are unacceptable, then it doesn’t matter to you where your school shows up in the rankings. Far too many families have been getting the wrong answers, not just in Texas but all across America.

The idea that schools fail us is not a new one. Plato lamented it. So did Leo Tolstoy: “The need of education lies in every man,” the novelist wrote in the 1860’s about his experiences as a teacher. “The people love and seek education, as they love and seek the air for breathing; the government and society burn with the desire to educate the masses, and yet, notwithstanding all the force of cunning and the persistency of governments and societies, the masses constantly manifest their dissatisfaction with the education which is offered to them. . . .”

I have spent enough time around public schools for the past thirteen years to know that what Tolstoy says is still true. The eldest of my three children graduated from high school earlier this year; a senior and a sophomore remain. I have been a PTA co-president with my wife and have served on the campus advisory council (CAC) at two schools. As my kids were getting an education, so was I, of a different sort. I was learning about how schools really work.

It will take both the objective, data-based approach and the subjective approach to fix what is wrong with our schools. The objective way is critical because it provides a benchmark that indicates how much students at a particular school are learning—and because it points the way to improvement. Any principal whose school doesn’t measure up knows where to look for guidance. Somewhere in Texas there is a school with similar student demographics that is achieving a higher level of performance.

But what if the principal is part of the problem? I saw my daughter’s magnet high school go through so many principals, permanent and interim, in four years that I lost track of the number (and I was on the CAC for a year and a half). I think it was six. My daughter thinks it was eight.

Fortunately, I have also seen, from the vantage of a PTA co-president, the difference that a great principal can make. Her name is Patti Lyle, and she heads Lamar Middle School in north central Austin. I can cite how TAAS scores have improved: from 44 percent passing for all students in 1995, her first year, to 80 percent in 2001 (the improvement does not carry over to TAAS proficiency, which is why Lamar gets only one star in our rankings). But that doesn’t begin to explain the impact she has had on the school. Safety, discipline, the cleanliness and appearance of the hallways and grounds, curriculum, teacher morale, student morale—all of these were hopeless when the first of my children arrived at the school, and all were completely turned around by the time the last of my children moved on to high school.

How did she do it? First she restored safety and discipline. Then she acceded to parents’ requests to upgrade the academic offerings. Lamar began to teach seventh-grade algebra and eighth-grade geometry and added academic-oriented electives. These improvements kept some of the top students from defecting to magnet programs or private schools. But her biggest contribution was to change the atmosphere. Lamar had its share of skilled but burned-out teachers when she arrived, and within a couple of years I noticed that most of them had realized that they didn’t fit in anymore and had moved on. The teachers who remained and the new recruits were comfortable with enthusiasm. “We don’t handle negativism,” Lyle told me when I went back to visit Lamar this fall.

Lyle does not present an imposing picture. She is short and slender, wears her brown hair in enormous bangs, and has a countenance that is professional rather than stern. As we took a tour of new physical additions to the fifties-vintage school—classrooms, courtyards, lighting, a lot of fresh paint—I noticed that she knew the name of every student we encountered. Whenever she saw a stray piece of paper in the hall or on the grounds, she bent over to pick it up. “I never ask a teacher to do something I can’t do,” she said. “If I want them to monitor the hallways, then I’m going to be out monitoring the hallways.” Indeed, she was, and is, always visible—outside before and after school, in the cafeteria during lunch, in classes or hallways the rest of the day. When we sat down to talk in her office, she said, “I think that’s the first time I’ve had my door closed since school started.”

Last year Lyle was named the Texas middle school principal of the year. (The local newspaper did not find that worthy of a news story. If she had hugged the wrong kid, it would have been front-page news.) In October Lamar became one of 37 Texas middle schools nominated to be a federal Blue Ribbon School.

The story of Patti Lyle shows the importance of subjective determinations in improving our schools. Good principals are as important as good test scores—probably more so. Scores tell you a lot, but they also conceal a lot about what takes place in public school. The biggest problem is that so many kids still fall through the cracks. Students who are smart, aggressive (self-motivating), and obey the rules thrive in public school. But how many kids fit that mold? (None of mine.) A student falling short in any one of these areas can get by. But if you are missing two, public school can chew you up and spit you out. Here are some of the problems:

Incomplete curriculum. Instruction used to be designed for the average student; today it is designed for the top and the bottom. Because so much is riding on TAAS test scores, a lot of resources go into helping low-performing students: smaller classes and sometimes one-on-one instruction for the TAAS. This is as it should be. The public schools have no more important mission than to help students overcome the disadvantages of poverty and language. A lot of resources go to the top group too, such as magnet programs, honors courses, and rigorous advanced-placement courses for college credit. But the middle is left to fend for itself. In high school the average student has a choice between struggling through courses designed to prepare kids for the best colleges in the country or taking nonchallenging, almost remedial courses. “I advised my son to take regular English instead of honors English,” a father told me when our boys were ninth graders. “I thought it would be school as I used to know it.” What he found was that “regular” English was aimed at the bottom.

Too many rules. Tolstoy again: “School is established, not in order that it should be convenient for the children to study, but that the teachers should be able to teach in comfort.” Bull’s eye! “The children’s conversation, motion, and merriment, which are their necessary conditions of study, are not convenient for the teacher, and so in the schools, which are built on the plan of prisons, question, conversation, and motion are prohibited.” Don’t get me wrong: Violence and class disruption cannot be tolerated, but occasional chattiness and tardiness between classes is inevitable. The punishment for relatively minor infractions can be to take violators out of the classroom for an entire day, a remedy that invariably extracts an academic penalty. The idea should be to get kids into the classroom, not take them out. Everyone knows that schools can’t educate kids if they have too few rules, but it is equally true that they can’t educate kids if they have too many rules.

Failure to impart values. Schools are so desperate not to offend anyone that about the only value they teach is not to offend anyone. Basic moral and civic principles don’t get much attention. Students do read the Bible as literature, but only to learn what happened, not what the moral lesson is. Several years ago one of my children was supposed to make an oral presentation about the Tower of Babel, and I asked him to tell it to me. When he finished relating the story, I asked him why God had punished the builders. “Oh, we don’t have to know that” was the answer. The same shortcoming appears in the teaching of civic issues. Students learn how our government works but not the difference between a society that is free and one that is not.

Now that testing and accountability have proved their value, we need to extend the national debate on public schools to include these and other issues that can’t be measured. And once we remake our schools, we need to find a lot more people like Patti Lyle to make them work.