THE WORLD OF EDUCATION IS A WORLD filled with arguments. Even such basic questions as, What are schools for? and What should students learn? produce fierce and frequently nasty debates. Local school board members are often at each other’s throats. Not long ago a school board meeting in Dallas required armed guards. Meanwhile, academicians, the Legislature, the Texas Education Agency, teachers, religious groups, administrators, and even, bless them, students battle over everything from textbooks and grading methods to standardized tests and phonics, and even what language should be used in class. Our ratings of schools in this issue are sure to become still another subject of debate [see “Our Best Schools,” page 112]. In particular, there will be critiques of the methodology because of its heavy dependence on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test.

Yet, in the midst of all this contention, there is one point of agreement: The success of a school depends upon the principal. A school where the students learn has a good principal; a school where the students don’t learn has a poor one. It’s that simple. Yet how can parents tell if the principal at their child’s school is good or not? There are ways to know, small details that, like clues at a crime scene, reveal a picture of the truth. The clues below are the result of talks with principals and administrators and of my own experience and observation. They apply specifically to principals of elementary schools, but in general, they apply to principals of middle and secondary schools as well.

Every person I spoke with made the same comment first. See if the building is clean and the grounds are well kept. In particular, are the bathrooms nice? A school may be old and worn by the tramping of tens of thousands of tiny feet over the years, but it doesn’t need to be dirty. Cleanliness and a neat appearance show respect for the children and respect for the community where they live. Nothing sets the tone for this better and nothing goes wrong more often and nothing requires more messy work and vigilance to maintain than the bathrooms. A good principal is one who is willing, as a last resort, to roll up his or her sleeves. Attending to the building is not a small part of the job. One veteran principal told me that her biggest surprise the first year she was a principal was how much of her time—well more than half of her long working day—she had to devote to the school building and its maintenance. “Principals come in thinking they are going to be dealing with instruction. That’s what they’ve been trained for,” she said. “They usually have high ideals about how they are going to educate students. Then they get hit with faulty air conditioning, roofs that leak, toilets that don’t flush, not to speak of the food in the cafeteria and buses that run late or not at all. Those things they are not trained for.” A good principal understands that all this is part of the job and learns how to get it done. A principal should know things like how to turn on and off the heating and air conditioning, where the fuse boxes and the spare fuses are, how the alarm system works, and so on.

The principal needs to have good communication with parents. But, if you call and the principal is always in the office ready to take your call, that’s a bad sign. In addition to looking after the building, a good principal knows what is going on in every classroom and with every student. The only way to learn that is to get out of the office, walk the halls of the school, and drop in on classes. And as the principal walks the halls, is he or she approachable? Do teachers naturally and comfortably come up to talk things over or ask questions? Do the students know the principal and are they eager to speak with him or her? And the principal should have something particular to say to each student in return. For instance, “Mr. Jones told me about your dinosaur report!” Or, “Is your brother over the flu yet?” It’s commonplace that a principal should know every child’s name, but that’s not really enough. The principal needs to know each child’s story too—performance in class, family, personality, illnesses, temporary or permanent hardships. All this information about the life of the school is impossible to know unless the principal is almost obsessively out in the school watching, talking, and participating. A district superintendent responsible for nineteen schools in Houston told me she could almost gauge a principal’s knowledge of the school by the way he or she dressed. A female principal shouldn’t wear high heels. They keep her from spending enough time out walking the school’s cement hallways. Hair shouldn’t always be neat, and makeup shouldn’t always be perfect. A male principal shouldn’t always have his jacket on. Principals who look too perfect are too removed from the fray.

A good principal is generally well respected. More than that, most good principals are genuinely admired. It’s one of the rewards of the job, but the principal has to work at earning that admiration. He or she makes sure to know the community the school serves, including the civic clubs, the churches, the Little League. It’s helpful to get to know the local politicians as well. The principal should also know and consult with the principals of the middle and high school the students will attend in a few years. In dealing with parents, the most important personal quality is a strong sense of ethics. Everyone must be treated the same. Little pressure groups and cliques form at almost every school. It’s tempting for the principal to start playing favorites, a practice that leads to certain disaster. Negotiating the parental minefields requires courage and self-confidence. A principal who complains constantly or one who keeps emphasizing his or her degrees and qualifications or one who brags (I mean about himself or herself; a good principal is always bragging about the school, the faculty, the students, the PTA) is going to have trouble.

That said, even the best principals have to suffer through some adversity. I’ve had personal experience sending kids to five schools, public and private. Luckily, I thought each principal in each school was doing a good job. Nevertheless, each year at each school a group of parents formed and openly or surreptitiously campaigned to have the principal fired. A certain level of dissatisfaction seems to be as natural in a school as chalkboards or Christmas vacation. Some principals do need to be fired, and certainly, too much dissension means that the principal has lost control of the school. But the existence of some dissatisfied parents is not in itself an indictment of the school or the principal.

Hiring the faculty is the responsibility of the principal. Good principals have learned how to do it well. More than that, they have learned how to keep good teachers. Often this involves giving small but frequent rewards and recognition to teachers because public appreciation of teachers is slight. One principal on a lark once gave small PayDay candy bars to the teachers on payday. It immediately became a tradition that each payday she would give some little treat. “Would you believe,” she said to me, “that has become such a big deal that now I have responsible grown-up people nosing around my secretary on payday trying to find out what the treat is going to be.”

If you have a good principal, each week on the same day you will get some kind of communication from the school. It could be printed on green paper. It could come in a folder your kid has made. It could be on any day of the week. But there it will be—announcements, calendars, a newsletter, and maybe more. It’s obvious that this practice keeps parents informed and helps build a community around the school. But it is also a clue to the most crucial test of all: A good principal has a system for everything. There is so much that has to happen at a school, but without a good system, nothing will get done or what little does get done will be at a great waste of time and energy. Students need to be registered; a good principal has a method for doing that. Textbooks need to be dispersed and then collected, grades need to be reported, and a good principal can show teachers exactly how that is to be done. A student is injured; everyone knows what to do because the principal has a system for emergencies. The bus is late; this doesn’t spread chaos through the school because everyone knows what to do in the meantime and when it finally arrives. A parent complains; the complaint is heard and responded to because the principal has a system for handling complaints and rectifying mistakes.

The main benefit here is not the sheer utility, although that cannot be overemphasized. The main benefit seems paradoxical, but it is this: The principal with the strictest systems runs the most free school. An experienced and much-honored principal told me, “The more freedom there is in the classroom for teachers and for students, the more strict and disciplined the school needs to be in its systems in order for the school to run. If it’s not clear how to turn in grades, a teacher has to spend time worrying about that and trying to get it done. With a good, strict system, the teacher doesn’t have to worry about it at all. The teacher is free to think about all the many possibilities for the classroom.”

Finally, a cafeteria that is very quiet and disciplined isn’t necessarily a good sign. Discipline is necessary. Discipline is crucial. Still, kids should like their school. Kids want to know how to do things, and they like learning how. Education is the product of a lot of forced labor—reading, memorizing, working problems. But the result of education is knowledge, freedom, and dignity. It says, “You can.” An active, talkative but not chaotic cafeteria is the sign of a school that’s teaching this simple but profound lesson.