Let’s Stop Failing Schools


By Adam W. Jordan and Todd S. Hawley

“I do get tired” is one of our favorite Southern sayings. It applies perfectly to how we feel about the ongoing discussion of “failing schools.”

If you listen to the debate long enough, you could easily be convinced that most poor, rural, minority, and immigrant students are trapped in failing schools. By trapped, we mean the only choice these students have is to attend their local, assumedly terrible, public schools. These schools are usually labeled as “failing.” By failing, we mean that these schools are failing to meet benchmarks for student progress based on their students’ scores on state and national standardized tests. This system was created in the name of excellence and accountability. Ain’t that something?

In the current national debate on how to fix failing schools, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has become the face of the conservative movement to provide more school choice. Within this system of providing choice, students who attend a failing school and meet certain family income requirements could receive a voucher or scholarship allowing them to attend a for-profit charter, private, or religious school. At the heart of the school-choice movement is the belief that our public schools are failing. The current solution is to create a competitive marketplace where public schools compete with for-profit charter, religious, and private schools. In this model, the students and their families choose, and the money follows them. So called failing public schools are encouraged to accept the challenge and miraculously find ways to improve. They are supposed to improve, mind you, without additional support. Instead, they are bullied and told that their meager funding is on the line. If unable to improve, schools face being taken over by states.

The problem we have with this solution is that it abandons the system of public schools committed to developing future citizens and creates an environment that sets schools up for failure under unrealistic and scientifically unsound conditions. Another way that the school choice movement creates failing schools is by ranking them. The Education Choice and Competition Index (ECCI), published annually by the Brookings Institute, grades districts based on the level of choice provided to students. School districts where the only choice is the local, public schools receive an F. Districts with a competitive school-choice marketplace receive As. It’s like saying “bless your heart” when you see your friend’s baby. No one should have the right to tell you have an ugly baby,  and no one should have the right to tell schools they are failing because they do not provide enough competition. Don’t y’all just love it when folks make up systems that make no sense at all?

Again, we do get tired. We get tired of the continued perception that the administrators, teachers, and support staff working in public schools are failing. To us, this could only be the case if the administrators, teachers, and support staff who make up the school were intentionally doing nothing. As if they were somehow not doing what teachers in successful, high-performing schools are doing – teaching. Instead of working hard to plan and enact engaging activities and promoting student learning, teachers in failing schools must be phoning it in and getting rich in the process. Let us remember that in his Inaugural Address, President Donald Trump admonished “an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge.” That many believe this to be the case speaks volumes about the current state of public education in our country. We’ve been there. We are there. We’re sure that everyone teaching in single-wide trailers turned into classrooms, aka “learning cottages,” are feeling the effects of all that cash. Y’all remember corndog day in the cafeteria?  That’s what all super-wealthy folks eat, right?

This makes us tired for so many reasons. First, how do you think administrators, teachers, and support staff feel when they are repeatedly told they are failing? Or when they are threatened with the possibility of being labeled as failing? Teaching is already hard enough. In an accountability-based system, where teacher pay is increasingly tied to performance, teaching becomes more about teaching students to pass tests. Focusing on student performance on high-stakes tests takes the place of teaching students to be creative, innovative, thoughtful, or to solve problems and to care about other people. Add in the perception that your teaching has failed students and you have the recipe for teacher burnout and frustration. Its no wonder more teachers are leaving the profession.

Second, we do get tired of the idea that the way to improve schools is to create a competitive environment where some schools are excellent and others are failing. A system of public schools in a democratic society shouldn’t rely on competition to improve schools. Rather, all public schools should be supported equitably so all students can learn, be engaged, and develop into engaged citizens of our democracy. With decreasing support from the federal government, local districts rely on their state and local funding models. Under this system, schools in urban and rural districts are often the ones that do not have the administrators, resources, teachers, and support staff to educate adequately the students who live in the neighborhood. They lack the resources they need to succeed, but then they are labeled as “failing.”

Let’s stop failing schools. Let’s stop failing schools by changing the national conversation about how bad some schools are, while celebrating other schools that produce students who have high scores on standardized tests and then go to prestigious colleges and universities. Let’s stop failing schools by refusing to divert millions of dollars to for-profit charter, religious, and private schools. Let’s stop failing schools by providing an adequate number of support staff (librarians, school psychologists, teachers’ aides, nurses, and occupational therapists) for each school. Let’s stop failing schools by removing competition as motivation and create a system where all schools are spaces that honor students’ cultures to create innovative learning environments. Let’s stop failing schools by abandoning pay for performance and a system where teachers are encouraged to improve test scores by only teaching to the test. Let’s stop failing schools by rethinking our budget priorities and invest in public schools because all citizens deserve the opportunity to develop their full potential, however diverse that potential may be.

If we agree that both national and state governments are failing schools and that the public perception of teachers, students, and schools is at an all-time low, then we need to find ways to change the discussion. What if we stopped talking about failing schools and instead focused on the ways that we are failing schools? If we take this approach, and see ourselves, citizens and elected representatives, as failing our schools, we can begin to have open and honest discussions about the best ways to fund and support public schools so they all perform well.

The time has come to stop failing schools. We cannot continue to get tired. We must begin to speak out for public schools, for a system that adequately funds all schools. We must fight for teachers who work hard every day no matter where their school is located. We must fight for the students who come to school every day, and who want their neighborhood public school to be a place where they can grow and develop, be challenged, be accepted, and find their voices as citizens. We owe it to all local communities to support public schools with adequate funding and with a public commitment to advocate for teachers. We owe it to our future. Let’s stop failing schools.

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