The Center for Public School Renewal

Note: Published in slightly different form as "Don't Make Teachers the Villains for Problems Imported to Schools" by The Detroit News, February 5, 2001.

Original Title:
What is a Failing School?
by Barry McGhan

Once upon a time, I taught in a school where one out of three students failed to make it to the end of the year, absenteeism was well over 30% per day, and test scores were the lowest in the district. Sound like a failing school?

The school held barely 500 students, but always had a list of another 200 kids anxiously waiting their turn to enroll. Openings, even in mid-March with barely three months of the year left, were easily filled. Teacher absenteeism, often a mark of a troubled school, was the lowest in the district for that grade level. At graduation, parents--tears in their eyes--thanked teachers for helping their child. It was the most successful teaching experience of my life. Sound like a failing school?

Sometimes the cold and simplistic facts about test scores, absenteeism, and graduation rates just don't tell the most important part of a school's story. Keep this in mind the next time you hear a politician or pundit offering up brave talk about closing "failing" schools. Maybe they don't really know what they're talking about.

My school's story? It was an alternative high school for dropouts, kickouts, and pushouts from the Flint School District. These were kids that few people, even some of the kids themselves, expected to finish high school. We looked on our work as saving two out of three that the rest of the system had been unable or unwilling to help. We would have saved more if we could have found a way to do it.

Which brings up another question. Are some students' needs beyond what a school can be reasonably expected to meet? Here again we hear brave talk, about how "all children can learn," and the evils of low expectations. The politicians and pundits say that holding high standards and ending social promotion will help children learn. They don't know what they're talking about here either.

The staff at my former school would say that some students--perhaps not permanently, but in that time and place--were beyond help. They had been so brutalized by their social and physical environment by the time they reached us that we were powerless to help them.

The "all children can learn" slogan represents a theoretical view of human development. It's a valuable theory to believe because it helps you remain optimistic and hopeful about what you can accomplish with students. But it's not always a realistic view to have when talking about real, live, here-and-now children.

Those who thoughtlessly preach that all children can learn must think that kids are like lumps of clay, to be shaped as the teachers wish. But children have their own histories, wills, dispositions, gifts, and shortcomings. Elementary teachers will tell you that even very young children have well developed attitudes and habits that help or hinder their schoolwork. I sometimes think the "all children can learn" crowd must have no experience with real children, and no memory of themselves as children.

"All children can learn," "low expectations," "high standards," "failing schools," and "ending social promotion" have become mostly meaningless slogans. They give politicians and pundits something to say that sounds good, as long as we don't think too deeply about it. They give us convenient villains to point the finger at--bad schools and bad teachers--when the problems are primarily somewhere else.

Consider this--thousands of people die in hospitals all over the country every day. Is there a great outcry to close bad hospitals and fire poor doctors as a result? No. Everyone dies sooner or later, often from an untreatable disease for which doctors are held blameless. Why then, should there be such a widespread hue and cry against schools and educators for failing to overcome all of the subtle and complex problems some of their clients bring with them?

A more important question for Americans to answer is "How can schools be better than the society that supports them?" This is a society with 20% of its children living in poverty, many without adequate medical care, nutrition, or protection from learning-related environmental hazards like lead and mercury. Our divorce rate is near 50%, along with unacceptably high rates of child and substance abuse. Isn't it just a tad bit crazy to think that schools will be able to rise above these calamities on the strength of a few near-worthless slogans?

A former colleague had a saying that sums up public educators' frustrations. He said educators are playing in a game where they can't win, they can't tie, and they can't stop playing. Is it any wonder that about half of new teachers leave the profession within five years?

Maybe those of us who stayed are the crazy ones.

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