Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My problem with “FAILING” schools

There is so much talk in the education world about “failing” schools. Reformers and politicians alike want to turn-around or take over failing schools, they want to punish or close failing schools, in Pennsylvania our own governor wants to offer students vouchers to get out of failing schools; however, much like the oft-scapegoated “bad” teachers, there are many problems with this obsession with FAILING schools. 

According to No Child Left Behind (2001), any school that does not meet its Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals for a given year can be designated as FAILING. Further, a school can be labeled as FAILING if any of its subpopulations (low-SES, Special ed, ELL, African-American, Asian, Hispanic, White, etc) don’t meet AYP in a given year.   There are a host of problems with this provision of the legislature (and to get deeper into them I highly recommend Diane Ravich’s The Life and Death of the Great American School System), but what it boils down to is that at any given time, a school or district that does not have 100% of students reaching proficiency is in danger of being labeled FAILING. 

(Interestingly, if all public schools in the United States don’t reach proficiency by next school year, by its own criteria, NCLB itself ought to be labeled FAILING… though we don’t have to wait that long to know that it is an utter failure when it comes to supporting the education of our nation’s neediest students.) 

Politicians and reformers alike are obsessed with this idea of FAILING schools and it makes me cringe every time I hear the term. 

Educational scholars Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell (the current vice-president of NCTE) explain in their work The Art of Critical Pedagogy:

Given the overwhelming body of evidence that reveals decades of funding and structural inequalities between schools in high- and low-income communities it is illogical to compare schools across these communities and then decry urban schools as failures. When one set of schools is given the resources necessary to succeed and another group of schools is not, we have predetermined winners and loser. In this scenario, failure is not actually the result of failing.  This is the paradox facing urban school reformers.  On the one hand, urban schools are producing academic failure at alarming rates; at the same time, they are doing this inside a systemic structural design that essentially predetermines their failure. (p. 2) 

How is it fair to label a school as FAILING when it is perpetually under-resourced, has a teaching staff that consists of under-trained TFA members,  and serves a population that is highly mobile and struggling with poverty and even homelessness.

Later, they cut directly to the point:

Urban schools are not broken; they are doing exactly what they are designed to do.   (p. 2)

Many politicians and school reformers are playing with a stacked deck.  When you under-resource schools so severely (as has been done all over the country, but especially in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), what other outcome can you expect but failure. 
**It is important to note that Duncan-Andrade and Morrell do not use this argument as an excuse, but rather as a counterpoint to the constant “failure” of urban schools.  They don’t suggest that we should accept schools as they are, but rather offer the resources that urban schools need to improve, rather than punish or close schools.

So there are major structural problems with labeling schools FAILING, but what about the effect that this label has on the school, the community, the teachers, and… lest we forget… the students. 

An article published recently in Mother Jones outlines (among other things) what students, teachers, and administrators feel when they find out they’ve been labeled FAILING.  The author, Kristina Rizga, describes the principal at Mission School in San Francisco as he deals with the aftermath of making the state’s low-performing school list.  The school’s graduation and college acceptance rates have been improving, as have their test scores, but it doesn’t matter if they didn’t reach AYP.  Now principal finds out that because of their low-performing status, they are eligible for additional funding (which is a GREAT thing for a school on a bare bones budget), but they must undergo “major restructuring” to remain open. 

Thus is the fundamental problem with the labeling of FAILING schools.  The system does not account for individuality within the school system. If you don’t meet certain standards, make way for the corporate reformers.  This is not to mention what effect that labeling a neighborhood school as “FAILING” has on the surrounding community or students who attended the school.  
Imagine you see someone fall off a boat.  Do you wait for them to drown before throwing them a life preserver?  Of course not…

NCLB and the current educational climate have created a system in which schools must “drown” before they receive any supports (funding, resources… anything).  In this climate, of course students are flocking to charter schools (both reputable and otherwise).  Students and their families are being bombarded with information about how their schools are FAILURES.  Would you want to stick around to help revive a FAILING school?  Neither would many members of urban communities...  and that’s exactly what corporate reformers are counting on. 


  1. Thank you so much for this very well-stated and oh-so-true analysis of a longstanding problem. Setting children and their teachers up to fail, then punishing them for failing in the name of education reform is the ultimate hypocrisy.
    Also, it's not just an urban phenomena. I have seen it for years here in the rural South. This is a national shame.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I hope to continue to integrate my policy & reform analysis with what I'm experiencing everyday at school.
      You're absolutely right to bring up rural schools. They often don't get the spotlight, but face many of the same inequities as their urban counterparts.

  2. Chris, so happy to see you joined the world of blogging. And great post here. I especially appreciate the Mother Jones piece. Keep spreading the word.

    1. James- Thanks for the feedback. I will continue to use your voice and your blog as inspiration and a role model.