We’ve all been hearing about great educational systems of nations such as Finland and Japan. If you haven’t yet seen “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants,” unveiled recently at an event attended by Secretary Duncan, John Merrow’s blog post provides a succinct summary of insights and a link to the report itself.

It’s worth taking a look at what these countries are doing to see if we can learn from them. If these countries don’t debate school choice, teacher accountability, or high-stakes testing, why do we? Will all of our interventions and measurements really make our students achieve more? Perhaps Merrow is right to point to our divergent state policies and lack of support or respect for teachers as weak areas of our educational system.

Even so, that leaves us with the question, “What do we focus on right now?” We at CEP propose one word to serve as the foundation of every effort: relationships. Schools should not be failing our kids. In fact, unless the buildings are falling apart, schools can’t fail them. It’s the breakdown in communication and interaction between teachers and students, between administrators and parents, between faculty and staff, between educators and the wider community. It’s been heartbreaking to see recent stories on teachers leaving the profession because of iron-fisted administration policies or facing daily threats with a lack of recourse.

Students, teachers, and parents at these schools all lose, because the environment doesn’t encourage the development of positive connections and relationships that would lead to an atmosphere of teamwork. Contrast that with the inspiring tales of how parents taking charge can become partners in a school’s improvement efforts. While we agree with Merrow that there are no “magic bullets,” there are many ways that fostering relationship-building can benefit a school.

One mom heard that the elementary school down the block from her new home was horrible and that she should search for another school to send her kids to. After visiting the school and seeing its dilapidated condition, she instead chose to take action. With support from the principal, she enrolled her kids and gathered together a coalition of parents who came together to help make changes the school could not afford or accomplish on its own—painting classrooms and changing the neighborhood perceptions of the school, allowing the teachers to focus their efforts on teaching.

Another mom also started taking action when she heard about the facility conditions at her son’s school. She hung a shower curtain on a bathroom stall when none of them had doors and then took larger action to build a partnership with other parents that enabled them to develop a compelling case that the school district’s board members could not ignore. Now she’s the president of a reinvigorated PTA that is helping to develop more effective parent-teacher partnerships at other local schools.

While parents can have a powerful impact on schools, teachers have the most direct impact on student learning. To be effective, teachers need to work in an environment where they feel comfortable suggesting ideas, collaborating with others, and working together with parents and the school administration to gather feedback and make changes. This is why the importance of school leadership cannot be overemphasized. A caring school community can be developed through effective school policies that encourage the development of connections among staff as well as with students and parents. One of this year’s National Schools of Character is accomplishing amazing things while still managing to leading the district in closing the achievement gap—or perhaps they have closed the achievement gap because of these relationships.

Uthoff Valley Elementary School is a public school in Fenton, MO, that has about 20% of its students on free or reduced lunch. While everyone in the school works hard on building relationships, just one example of these efforts comes through monthly early release days, where cross-grade buddy activities are planned by staff teams. Each month, 20 – 30 parent volunteers will come in to the school that day and help run these activities. This frees up the staff, who can therefore be engaged in full-day professional development and planning opportunities. Staff members take the time to recognize and appreciate each other for their actions as well, both publicly and privately, often for something the staff member may not realize he or she had done.

How can we build on these individual school efforts? Great things are happening on a smaller scale—now we need to find a way to bring these empowering stories into the limelight and build some powerful momentum in a larger undertaking.