I have been a social studies teacher for 14 years in schools that were black and poor. Even before test scores determined whether a school was failing, the three urban schools I taught in were viewed as ____ (choose your favorite word: losers, basket cases, lousy, failures) because of the neighborhood in which the school was located and the color of the students’ skin. And that was over a half-century ago.
When I would read newspaper articles about where I taught then, the school often had the adjective “ghetto” or “slum” in front of it. Both were accurate insofar as characterizing students’ color of skin, family income and residential segregation that kept families where they lived but was far too simplistic in overlooking the many men and women in these neighborhoods who took pride in their homes, brought back weekly paychecks, and urged police officials to rid their streets of muggings, gangs, and drug-related crime.
Here is where my values come into conflict in writing about failing schools. I prized, then and now, the honest portrayal of unassailable facts of any low-performing school including the ones I worked in more than a half-century ago. By all academic criteria, they were doing poorly. The numbers graduating high school, dropouts, suspensions–name any school-wide metric–and they would have registered on the failing side of the ledger. The schools were in the center of neighborhoods that were different from the rest of the city as a result of residential and class segregation. Non-working and working poor families mixed with upwardly striving ones sometimes on the same street. Sure, those schools were housed in old buildings containing under-resourced science labs and libraries with few books. The truth of those meager investments and failure on common academic measures has to be told.
Yet–you knew there was a “yet” coming–another value that I prize is capturing the complexity of what happens in failing schools decades ago and now. As an insider in those schools, I saw first-hand the cadre of teachers who stayed late and came in early to work with students who wanted to succeed academically. I saw the many students, the first in their families to attend college, put in super-intense work in their academic classes. And not to be ignored, I saw first-hand the consequences of poverty that spilled over the school in dozens of ways. I also saw uncaring teachers, administrators who twiddled their thumbs, and students who, for any number of reasons, acted out and eventually left school.
So how do I capture, then and now, the mix of persistent effort by some determined, hardworking teachers, students, and upwardly-striving parents who succeed in the midst of neighborhood poverty within a school doing poorly academically? For sure, not a black-white picture but ones shaded in gray.
Yet authors, artists, turnaround specialists, and even academic experts over the decades–I have learned–are far less interested in grays. Black and white hats fit their tastes better. For over the past half-century, portraying urban schools as unredeemable failures has become a cottage industry of books, articles, speeches, and films.
These authors and artists have faced no dilemma. They have created simple tropes that tell hero and villain stories about failing urban schools. Over time, they have resorted to blaming students, families, neighborhoods, and teachers for school failures.Consider Hollywood films such as “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), “Cooley High” (1975), Boyz in the Hood (1991) that fastened images of bad kids, bad teachers, bad principals, and crime-ridden neighborhoods onto the public consciousness. That tradition continues with “Bad Teacher” and “The Substitute.” Books, such as Shut Those Thick Lips have pursued similar tropes:
Not all of the stories use these “bad” tropes. Some artists and experts flip the negative and make bad teachers (and principals) into heroes and bad kids into likable, hard-working students who, with a little help, can pull up their socks and succeed. “Good” tropes replace “bad” ones. There is the heroic teacher in To Sir with Love and Dangerous Minds and those hard working Latino students and ever-demanding teacher in Stand and Deliver. Don’t forget that in-your-face principal Joe Clark in Lean on Me, and entrepreneur Geoffrey Canada who rescues the classroom, school, and neighborhood in “Waiting for Superman.” Good or bad stories still have villains be they families, students, teachers, principals, and “the system.”
So here is the policy point I want to make in analyzing conflicts I face in writing about failing schools. What too often goes unnoticed in today’s scramble to turning around failing schools–”dropout factories,” where district officials fire the entire staff and restructure the school to convert a loser into a winner is how even in those failing schools effective work by cadres of teachers, students, and parents exist. I don’t think it is uncharitable to point out that there is little evidence that firing staffs works to turn around schools–called “restructuring.” I am reminded of some critic of the U.S.’s failed Iraqi policy, called that strategy “clumsy gestures based on imperfect knowledge.” Current turnaround policies are anchored in tropes that no longer blame young children and youth as they did decades ago. Instead, top decision-makers resort to other familiar ones to explain failure: bad teachers and bad administrators.
Other alternatives? Some say the best thing to do is just close the school and start anew. Others, including myself, say that working closely and investing in those teachers, students, and parents who have somehow overcome the academic disengagement, the inertia, and negative peer-driven cultures in these failing schools is the route to take. Both alternatives, however, are experiments since no body of evidence clearly supports either. But at least the latter one avoids creating anew the villains that populate so many films, stories, and accounts of failing schools.