Defining School Failure

What makes a failing school a failing school? I’m not asking why the school fails, but rather what does failing mean? Certainly, I’m not the first or last person to ask this. People seem to disagree about what failing means in this context, which is why I’m raising the question. When I talk with people about why schools fail, they often struggle to define what school failure actually is. This prompts me to wonder how anyone can know if a school is indeed failing.

Defining school failure should be simple. If the goals of a school are clearly defined and the school cannot achieve these goals, it has failed. It might fail in one specific area, or it might fail universally. For example, suppose a primary goal of a school is to ensure at least 90% of its students can read at grade level by a certain age. If only 80% can do so by this age, then the school has failed. If a school aims to have all of its students graduate on time and it falls short of this, it has failed. When a school aims to achieve anything and it can’t, it has failed.

Or has it?

What if the students are the ones failing? Perhaps the school has adequate and appropriate supports in place, but the students simply can’t achieve to levels commensurate with their ages and grades. The school team does all it can, but students fail to reach benchmarks. The majority of students might have limitations that are beyond what the school can address. If the school has no ability to undo the effects of factors such as poverty, family strife, and community dysfunction, has the school failed when students fail?

I worked in a school that served as an interesting model for what I’ve described above. Students in the school all had physical disabilities. Most had cognitive delays as well. At the time I left the school, approximately half the students in the building had intellectual disabilities. All but a few had some cognitive delays resulting at least in part from their physical disabilities. Several had impairments that would prevent them from ever reading or speaking. Almost no students in this building could read at grade level. This persisted despite class sizes being small and the school having more reading programs and educational technology than the staff had time to use. Was the failure of students to learn to read the fault of this school? I doubt many rational people would try to argue that it was.

So why claim that schools with highly disadvantaged populations are failing? Of course, few schools have a majority of students with congenital disabilities or brain injuries. Many supposedly failing schools do have vast numbers of students who had poor prenatal care, insufficient nutrition, and exposure to trauma during childhood. These schools often serve students whose parents can’t read, whose home lives are tumultuous, and whose opportunities for constructive stimulation are outnumbered by opportunities for destructive conflict. Do schools fail these students, or is there no way for schools to succeed with them?

Any allegiance to the stance that schools might not be at fault will appear to some to be part of a cycle of blame. Having been a teacher, I might be expected to take the side of schools and point a proverbial finger at the disastrous communities that send students to schools. Please understand: I’m not a blind defender of public schools, nor am I a caustic critic of depressed communities. In truth, most schools that serve such dysfunctional populations are dysfunctional themselves. They face their own limitations such as threadbare budgets, transient employees, and questionable management. The unknown is how these schools would fare if the issues that plague them could be erased.

Some schools with disadvantaged populations do well in helping students achieve despite the limitations weighing on all involved. Why not replicate their formula everywhere? Unfortunately, what works in one region, community, or individual school isn’t necessarily going to work elsewhere. The schools that overcome the odds that typically lead to failure seem to be exceptions. Lateral strategies such as charter schools haven’t shown consistent enough results to prove they are the remedy. No alternate strategies have caught on in a convincing manner.

The disappointing but predictable trend seems to be that the highest performing schools usually have the most capable students. These students were ready for school upon entry and have networks of support to ensure success. The lowest performing schools simply have the opposite. While the better schools might have more effective systems in place and the weaker schools might struggle to keep the bathrooms working, each school is only going to perform as well as the students entering it can. The better schools might not be succeeding any more than the weaker schools are failing. These are broad generalities, but fairly reliable ones.

I’m hoping all of this is obvious to readers, but I’m writing this piece in case it isn’t. Attempting to define school failure can lead to semantic acrobatics. Schools can have different goals from one another, thus leading to differing criteria for success or failure. An elementary school in an affluent suburb probably has different goals than an urban alternative education center for delinquent youth. A community’s expectations for a school might not match the school’s actual mission. Regardless of the nature of its goals, a school can fail if these goals are feasible but the school fails to realize them. However, claiming the school has failed if its student body is too damaged to succeed according to prevailing standards is somewhat suspect. To turn special education reasoning on its head, how can the school be expected to achieve up to particular standards if it doesn’t have the academic capital in its student body to do so? That might seem like a harsh way to phrase the issue, but special education proponents use this logic all the time.

None of this is to damn anyone. Students in impoverished communities aren’t to blame if they are actually the ones failing within supposedly failing schools. Simply blaming their communities is much too simple. Massive, systemic failings that spiral out into the fabric of society at large all contribute to school failure. These same failings have to do with why the supposedly failing schools can’t afford paper towels. Although this piece isn’t intended to cast blame, it is intended to make a few points. First, the “no excuses” model adopted by the administrations of many supposedly failing schools is either lip service or complete delusion. Second, the categorical blaming of schools for student failure is woefully naïve. Third and finally, any failure needs to be qualified before anyone can claim anything or anyone has failed.

Defining School Failure

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