What Is a 'Failing' School?

Two years ago, Kevin Kosar, a former graduate student of mine, conducted an Internet search for the term "failing school." What he discovered was fascinating. Until the 1990s, the term was virtually unknown. About the mid-1990s, the term began appearing with greater frequency. With the passage of No Child Left Behind, the use of the expression exploded and became a commonplace.

Kosar did not speculate on the reasons. But I venture to say that the rise of the accountability movement created the idea of "failing schools."

"Accountability" was taken to mean that if students have low test scores, someone must be blamed. Since Bush's NCLB, it became conventional to blame the school. With President Obama's Race to the Top, blame shifted to teachers. The solution to "failing schools," according to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, is to fire the staff and close the school.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently took this idea to an extreme by saying that he wanted a "death penalty" for "failing schools." He believes that when schools have persistently low test scores, they should lose democratic control.

They should be taken over by the state, given to private charter corporations, or put under mayoral control. In fact, none of these ideas has been successful.

Low-performing school districts in New Jersey have been under state control for more than 20 years without turning them into high-performing districts. Mayoral control in Cleveland and Chicago has been a flop. And private charters typically do no better than public schools, except when they exclude low-scoring students.

Undoubtedly there are some schools where the leadership is rotten and corrupt. In such cases, the responsibility lies with the district superintendent to review the staff and programs, and make significant changes as needed

But these days, any school with low test scores is called a "failing school," without any inquiry into the circumstances of the school.

Instead of closing the school or privatizing it, the responsible officials should act to improve the school. they should ask:

What proportion of the students are new immigrants and need help learning English? What proportion entered the school far behind their grade level? What proportion have disabilities and need more time to learn? What resources are available to the school? An in-depth analysis is likely to reveal that most "failing schools" are not failing schools, but are schools that enroll high proportions of students who need extra help, extra tutoring, smaller classes, social workers, guidance counselors, psychologists, and a variety of other interventions.

Firing the staff does not turn around a low-performing school. Nor does handing it over to a charter chain. Nor does mayoral control. Most of the time, what we call a "failing school" is a school that lacks the personnel and resources to meet the needs of its students.

Closing schools does not make them better. Nor does closing schools help students. It's way past time to stop blaming the people who work in troubled schools and start helping them by providing the tools they need and the support their students need.