Friday, February 1, 2013

The School Failure Mythology

edited 10/11/20
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!. -- The Blind Men and the Elephant
John Godfrey Saxe (1816 - 1887)

Philadelphia’s new (2012) Superintendent of Public Schools has declared a substantial number of schools to be “failing schools” and has announced that they will be closed down. The newsmedia, which fanfares almost every new superintendent as an educational savior -- and remains strangely quiet when said saviors leave to escape the mess they have enhanced -- is again bubb-bubb-bubbling with delight.

The parents of the children who attend the “failing” schools are vociferously NOT delighted. They want the schools to remain open. The idea of having to pry kids out of bed earlier to be bussed through hostile gang territories to schools out of the neighborhood is clearly not a welcome prospect. And how, many ask, is destroying relationships with teachers and administrators the kids know supposed to help them avoid “failure.”

Also weighing in on (or dodging) the issue are teachers, administrators, and university people. For not too obscure reasons the teachers side with the parents, the administrators have determined silence to be the better part of valor, and the university professors of education tend to side with the superintendent, although there are nay-sayers.

Three basic facts are persistently disregarded:
1. Without a substantial, persistent consensus on what schools should be about, there are no practical standards to determine what counts as success or as failure, no matter what litanies of directives fall from the lips of funding agencies.

2. Just because one party (or a few parties) to the controversy presumes to impose a set of standards, does not automatically bring every interested party into agreement.

3. Ignoring or denying 1 and 2 above does not change their reality.

Many a state legislature in its profound unwisdom has put some phrase into their school code about providing each child with a “thorough and efficient education.” New Jersey did this back in the early 1970s. I was in a Temple University group asked by a New Jersey legislator in 1973 to help define "thorough and efficient education" after the legislation codifying the language had already been passed. Despite our best efforts, he did not manage to get the definition we produced, as “accommodating” (read here, “vague”) as it was, widely accepted when he took it home.

Through the early 2000’s I would ask administrators from New Jersey what had been decided about the meaning of the phrase “thorough and efficient education.” How was it put into practice? The general response was “inconsistently” or “haphazardly,” adding that it was a “mess of a criterion.”

The underlying situation is that our citizens have long entertained a variety of conceptions as to what schools should be doing and what should count as school success. The fact that there are, besides public schools, parochial and private schools in great variety is one proof of this.

Another proof is that, by and large, parents -- and students themselves -- do not see academic knowledge and intellectual skills to be school goals anywhere near as important as those aiming at the students’ emotional and physical well-being.

This was shown years ago in an intensive study reported in John Goodlad’s 1984 book, A Place Called School. In general, he found that intellectual goals in schools far exceed parental preferences; whereas, social goals do not meet levels preferred by students and parents. (Goodlad, pp. 62-69)

Little has changed, except for the increasingly strident hyperbole about “common standards,” and the attempts by governmental and professional educational organizations to impose their own conceptions of educational success on parents too poor or unknowledgeable to escape or resist.

For references and to examine these issues further, see School Image: Expectations & Controversies

--- EGR