Getting to Excellent: How to Create Better Schools

reviewed by J. Winfield Green - 2005

coverTitle: Getting to Excellent: How to Create Better Schools
Author(s): Judith A. Langer
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807744735, Pages: 129, Year: 2004
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What criteria do school administrators and teachers use to evaluate for excellence? Better yet, do educators want to know the ingredients of an excellent school? Judith Langer’s book, Getting to Excellent: How to Create Better Schools, answers one of the most perplexing questions in the era of educational restructuring, “What makes some schools particularly successful and other, comparable ones less so” (p. 107)? As one will soon recognize, this is a must read for all educators, parents, and community members who desire to impact their schools.


What makes this book a cut above the rest is the research-based approach. The appendix describes the action research model used by the author to conduct her study. Her research took place over a five-year period with 25 schools, 44 teachers, 88 classes, and some 2,000 students selected to participate (p. 108).

 Langer provides the reader with an assessment tool at the end of Chapters 2 through 6 to determine if a school is more or less effective. Chapter 2 addresses the impact of mandated testing. Chapter 3 deals with the professionalism of school personnel. Chapter 4 focuses on the quality of academic programs. Chapter 5 examines the effectiveness of instruction, and Chapter 6 places the spotlight on the importance of parent and community involvement. As an added feature, Chapters 2 through 6 contain a bulleted summary after each section within the chapter. Each synopsis provides a quick review of the essential principles evidenced by exemplary schools.

 The author addresses several external forces from National and State agencies that contribute to the recent mandates on education. However, as the author’s study reveals, these new regulations do not suffice for spawning successful schools. Schools that are doing well exhibit surprising dynamics regardless of the mandates and regulations handed down to them. Excellent schools are characterized by distinctive hallmarks separating them from those that are less effective. In Chapters 2 through 6 the author takes an introspective journey inside our nation’s schools to expose what it takes to create an excellent school.

 One of the major differences that Langer’s research exposed was how schools view testing. “There are essential differences in the ways higher-performing schools respond to the increased focus on testing in comparison to more typical schools” (p. 9). Langer found that one of the essential differences was how the school officials responded to mandated tests.  In the low performing schools she discovered, “the administrators and teachers in these more typical schools see the high-stakes tests as a hurdle” (p. 10). The high performing schools had “teachers and administrators use their own high standards to inform their response to statewide high-stakes tests rather than using the tests to dictate what to do” (p. 10). The bottom line indicators suggest that excellent schools already operate at a higher standard and expect top-quality performance from their administrators, teachers, and students.

 In Chapter 3 the discovery is made that links teacher growth and development within a collaborative environment with student academic success. Effective school teachers are lifelong learners. As they grow, the process of student learning and achievement is also enriched. “In schools that work well, administrators believe teacher knowledge makes a difference, and they create an environment that fosters professional involvement and growth within a connected and communicating professional community” (p. 20).  Consequently, the outcome of a growing, collegial working environment enhances student achievement. 

 In Chapter 4 the reader will soon find that excellent schools make academic programs a priority. The academic department is central in fostering excellence (p. 31). Evaluation and expectations are the catalyst to igniting change within the academic programs. Langer observed, “In effective schools, teachers are always involved in the ongoing effort to maintain a coherent but up-to-date academic program” (p. 36). As a result her research, Langer found the more effective schools developed an interdependent network to ensure coordinated, connected, and comprehensive academic programs (p. 40).

 Two new concepts are introduced in Chapter 5, “environment-building” and “generative learning,” that are extremely crucial to the development of the excellent school. In what Langer has coined as “environment-building,” teachers feel the freedom to provoke students’ thinking. In the more successful schools, students are challenged to think outside the box, entertain innovative ideas, and test new paradigms against existing ones. The second concept that Langer presents is the “generative learning” approach. Teachers, in schools that excel, implement strategies that cause students to think, analyze, and reason through concepts. Excellent schools go beyond the norm and allow students to put their understanding to the test.

 School governance is directly affected by parent and community involvement. Chapter 6 depicts the connectivity to the community as another characteristic of successful schools. The stakeholder approach is introduced as an effective interdependent network of all who are impacted by educating a child. Langer’s research revealed that, “In schools that work well, everyone is also directly involved in children’s school lives; they work together and offer support. Parents and community members are not merely informed about school programs and offerings but get involved in how they work” (p. 57).

 Chapter 7 provides a case study of two schools in the same neighborhood. What’s more, they are made up of the same demographics. One school is considered high-performing while the other is low-performing. What identifying marks separate the two? Examine this real-life case study and find out what makes the difference in successful schools. How do these two schools measure-up based on the five criteria of an excellent school outlined by the author in Chapters 2 through 6: testing, professionalism, academics, instruction, and parent and community involvement?


Chapter 8 explores ways that schools can change. Specifically, teachers, administrators, and parents are encouraged to work together toward change. Langer provides proven principles that lead stakeholders on the path toward action to become an excellent school. “No one group –be it teachers, administrators or parents—can go it alone and institute the substantive and pervasive features that make school work well” (p. 86).

 Parents will particularly find Chapter 9 intriguing. Langer responds to the most often asked questions by parents. She has formulated four categories to assist parents in becoming more knowledgeable about the school environment. As parents become better equipped to assess how the school is educating their children, teachers and administrators alike would do well to know what interest parents the most and how to adequately answer the questions and concerns they have. In knowing how to address the most frequently asked questions from parents, they will feel more integral to the school.

 Creating excellent schools cannot be mandated or regulated by outside sources. A passion for excellence is developed from within the school community. Instead of condemning the educational efforts of all schools by lumping them all into one basket, Langer went into the field and discovered what schools are doing well. The distinctive hallmarks of excellent schools are woven throughout the fabric of these pages ready to be discovered and practiced by all who dare to change and desire to “Get to Excellent.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 2, 2005, p. 300-303 ID Number: 11384, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 4:47:15 PM

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