What is a Failing School?

Imagine you're a new teacher looking for your first job.  You read the job postings and check online sources to learn about the schools.  School A is a much-lauded school in an affluent community.  The school has a high profile, oodles of technological tools, many advanced courses, a progressive schedule and students go on to succeed in many walks of life.   School B is in a high poverty community.   Many classes are remedial and there are few advanced offerings.  The state has rated School B poorly for low test scores.  The student body is transient with many moving in and out during the school year and attendance is a struggle.

If offered both positions, which would you choose?  Are you looking for optimal teaching conditions or to work harder and make a difference for kids who most need you?  In the current political climate, you'll be punished if you choose School B.  School B is a "failing school" and shame-casting will only increase there.

I for one am highly skeptical of the term "failing schools".  We hear the label from our President, politicians from both parties and the media.  Rarely do I hear a definition however.  So I looked and found two, one from Britain and one from the US.  From Britain, the label is a subjective one: "a school judged by the Secretary of State for Education, on the advice of inspectors, to be in need of special attention to bring it up to the required standard".  In the US, the term is objective and refers to any school that does not meet No Child Left Behind benchmarks.  A clear explanation of that can be found here.

President Obama last year announced that 5,000 failing schools in the nation should be closed.  And then what?  In Detroit and Chicago, public schools have already been reorganized under private enterprise.  The label "failing schools" sets a machine in motion under federal law (NCLB):  first sanctions including public shaming and the requirement to allow transfers from the school.  The school must offer additional (often private) tutoring to families.  Eventually, the failing school must restructure.  Under restructuring, teachers and principals are fired and the school is reopened under different leadership.  In many cases, this means private corporations.

Well, good, you might be thinking.  If the school is a failure, something drastic needs to happen.  Hold on a second though.  Shouldn't we look closer at what failure means?

In 2002, NCLB was passed by a divided Congress and Republican President.  It required states to design and administer tests in Reading and Math to all schools.  Some states such as Oregon administered rigorous tests; others such as Texas used much less rigorous ones.  Yet the consequences of not meeting the standards are the same, regardless of the difficulty of the tests.

It gets muddier still.  Not only must most of your students pass all of the tests (rising to 100% in 2013-2014), but students are disaggregated into ethnic, poverty, special education and English Language Learner (ELL) groups as well.  So last year in Oregon, 60% of all students in all grades had to meet benchmarks in Reading, Math and now Science.  60% of all low income students also had to meet, as well as 60% of Special Education and ELL students.

Lofty goals but contradictory.  According to  the US Department of Education, eligibility for Special Education requires "that there be a failure to achieve commensurate with (their) age".  Yet if that is in fact true, and if our NCLB assessments are accurate for grade level, wouldn't passing all of the NCLB tests DISQUALIFY a student for Special Education and therefore remove him from the category?  The DOE cannot have it both ways.

English Language Learners are similarly contradictory.  Students found eligible for ELL services must show a deficiency in the language.  The Reading OAKS (Oregon's statewide test) is often used to consider ELL eligibility.  Meeting the grade level English Reading standards implies satisfactory English and should remove the student from the ELL program --- and NCLB category.  Districts have gotten around this by deliberately extending eligibility for 2 years AFTER the child meets the benchmark.  Otherwise none would meet the NCLB requirement that 60% of ELL students pass the tests in Reading.

Finally, I took a look at the 75 Oregon "failing schools" listed by the Oregonian.  Examining the first 25 alphabetically on the list, I note the following:

  • All have poverty levels over 50% with 73% average poverty.  
  • 16 of the 25 have more than 20% ELL students.
  • 22 were rated Satisfactory on the Oregon School Report Card; 2 were Needs Improvement and 1 was too small to be scored.
  • 7 had met all of the AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) benchmarks under NCLB last year but had missed 2 consecutive years in the past so were still sanctioned.
  • 2 had missed AYP benchmarks schoolwide (the overall student body had fallen below the 60% requirement)
  • The remaining 16 had MET the benchmarks for their total student body but had failed to reach 60% among their Special Education or ELL populations.  These are being sanctioned for following eligibility requirements of the same Dept. of Education that imposes the sanctions.
There are another 50 failing schools on the list for Oregon.   Though I didn't look up the data on every one, I expect that the pattern above will hold.  These are the "failing schools" President Obama wants closed.

Add one more consequence of the punitive NCLB sanctions:  affluent schools waste little time teaching to tests.  Their students come from educated parents and pass the state tests with ease.  Their curriculum can be richer and deeper without wasting time on test preparation.  If you work in one of the "failing schools", you dare not take that risk.  Drill and kill to the standards replaces meaningful learning activities.

There are better and worse schools, no doubt.  There are certainly better and worse teachers within schools (see Wrong Focus, my earlier blog).  But the current shame-casting is undermining public education in its entirety.  And the focus is way off track.

If we want to identify "failing schools", let's not target the schools and educators who work under the most challenging situations.  Let's not drive excellent teachers and administrators away from the neediest neighborhood schools.  Let's not use NCLB's nonsensical standards for Special Education and ELL students.  

Want to improve education in the US?  Focus on instruction that works, reduce the amount of time spent administering and teaching to tests, focus on hiring the best teachers and implement best practices.  Want to destroy it?  Cast shame, close public schools and hand them over to private enterprise.

See also:  "Good Schools"


  1. You have already said much of what I intended to say on my blog after being "informed" of my oversight when I commented negatively about the state assessments to a parent at my school. Why does it seem that so few are willing to look objectively at the success or failure of NCLB? Why, also, do we put up with this policy of "casting shame", as you put it, which everyone knows is counterproductive?

  2. You're so right. Everyone disses NCLB but still takes the AYP ratings as meaningful. They're not.


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