Failing Schools: Conflicts over How to Write, Talk, and Make Films about Them

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.








Filed under Reforming schools

14 responses to “Failing Schools: Conflicts over How to Write, Talk, and Make Films about Them

  1. Pingback: Failing Schools: Conflicts over How to Write, Talk, and Make Films about Them | Educational Policy Information

  2. Jerry Heverly

    I’ve found that the one thing that is not permissible to say in public discourse is that a problem has no solution, or at least none that is widely reproducible. To me it is fascinating that extraordinarily smart people can prescribe diametrically opposite measures to “save” US schools–and both can point to measurable, verifiable successes using their prescriptions. Heck, Jay Mathews sat in Jaime Escalante’s classroom day after day observing actual miracles, not the kind that needed numbers for proof. Yet Escalante could not replicate his own successes when he moved to Sacramento.
    Dr. Labaree has it right, I think, when he says that the whole system is based on two contradictory goals: private gain for some kids or public benefit for society. We’ll never resolve this contradiction.
    I think I know what would help my school (not quite inner city, but bordering on one of the toughest neighborhoods in the US) do a better job, but my solutions are all based on the personalities of the various local players. I doubt my solutions would work in nearby schools.
    And California is trying to implement a grand, social-engineering system devised by Jerry Brown. It brings additional money to poor schools. Yet I can already see how this system will have some catastrophic results in my school owing to the way our superintendent reads the tea leaves. Another district, another school, and this new funding system might produce Escalantian improvements. But improvements for who (I can hear Dr. Labaree saying)?

    • larrycuban

      The issue of multiple goals for tax-supported public schools in the U. S. has been a persistent one since their very founding in the early 19th century. You put your finger on two of those multiple goals that conflict. There are others. Because U.S. school reform depends upon crises and simplification, the fundamental conflicts get smoothed out. Which is why I believe it is important, Jerry, for you, me, and many others to keep hoisting into public view those conflicts again and again so they can be dealt with openly. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Thank you, Larry, for once again saying what needs to be said. The turnaround emperor really has no clothes. How sensible to take an investment approach, with all that implies: stop pouring good money into bad projects, help teachers improve or move them out, understand that schools in difficult circumstances need more resources, not less. This approach takes time, though, and the attention span of the US public and the commentators who pander to them is short.

  4. Ooh. I love this topic. Have you read Bulman’s “Celluloid Classrooms”? His thesis is that the representation of urban schools in film reinstates middle class fantasies about these communities.

  5. Oops. His book has a different title. Robert Bulman “Hollywood Goes to High School.” And I should have said “white middle class fantasies”

  6. Pingback: This Week’s “Round-Up” Of Useful Posts & Articles On Education Policies | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

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  8. “…Working closely and investing in those teachers, students, and parents who have somehow overcome the academic disengagement, the inertia, and negative peer-driven cultures…” I grew up going to five different elementary schools that were all on the wrong side of town. As a teacher I have only ever gravitated to the classrooms that are on the wrong side of the school. It seems to me that even at the most “dysfunctional” schools there are a few good teachers that lead the highest classes. I am reminded of Du Bois and his “talented tenth” argument. What about the rest of the kids?
    I ask this because I have worked withe lowest performing/behavior issue students at a high school, I currently work in a similar middle school, and I want to try my hand next year at the lowest elementary in my district. I am finding that building authentic relationships based on trust is the key in any setting and there is no real magic bullet. When I started this teaching adventure I thought I would find answers, the only thing I have found is strong relationships and bonds my students.
    Can you share some words of wisdom, readings, or even blogs of people not working with the talented tenth and making progress? Can you point out model schools or systems in California that are not just catering to the average or high achieving students?

    • larrycuban

      Edward, I wish you well. In Silicon Valley, the schools that fit the target kids you wish to reach that I know would be in the Milpitas Unified District, selected regular and charter schools in Oakland (CA), Ravenswood elementary district, and particular schools in San Francisco Unified. I believe you are correct in what matters in student learning.

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