What “School” Wars? There Are No Failing Schools

We’re all pretty familiar with the “Mommy Wars” that are fabricated and pop up every so often and we’re even kind of lumped in with the conversation I saw on my social media feeds yesterday about how female breadwinners are pretty much the downfall of man. YAWN. Seriously, I am over that mess. But there’s one narrative, a one one-sided conversation I should add, that plays out all the time about “failing schools” and nothing could be further from the truth. Schools aren’t failing, but communities surely are.

In my quest to ensure that people hear both sides of the story, I tend to write about schools and the No Child Left Behind laws and policies that have put them in a position to sound as if they’re all failing. Now that the Common Core has entrapped whole states by tying federal funds to it, teachers and school workers are held to a nearly impossible standard if they’re using evaluative tools by which they can fire teachers when students don’t perform. I’m sure everyone knows why this doesn’t work, but I’ll break it down anyway.

1. Students in “high performing” school districts often have the right tax bracket from which to pull funds. Those schools have all the books and technologies and extracurriculars they need to ensure that students are performing well. Of course, even when they have that, sometimes administrators and teachers cheat in order to meet the standards so that they’re not labeled “failing”.

2. There is a one-size-fits-all motif around performance in schools that doesn’t account for special education students or kids who come to school from drastic poverty. NCLB, also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, creates higher standards each year when schools offer assessments. The problem with them, as I’ve experienced in the past, is that states uses different assessment measurements that would be considered easier or harder to master depending on where you live. Common Core proponents claim that’s why we should all use the same system. The other problem I’ve seen repeatedly is that when students come to school hungry, abused, or scared of educational institutions then bringing a pencil to class is the least of their worries. They simply can’t perform well on empty stomachs or impoverished mindsets.

3. For-profit education is taking hold in this country in no small thanks to ALEC-embedded policies in many states. Chicago and Philadelphia are two cities I’m watching closely as they impose massive school closings (in the name of saving money) which leaves empty buildings that become prime real estate for charter schools to snatch up and begin enrolling certain students. Some charter schools, for example, don’t take special education students. Others make uniform-wearing a policy and charge students money if they don’t comply. They also charge families money for discipline issues. Public schools aren’t allowed to do that and could never expect a dime from families already living in poverty.

Here’s where the school wars get ugly: when one group, namely conservative for-profit education groups like the Walton Foundation or the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or, God help me, Michelle Rhee, decide that they’re going to tell the story of education and our failing schools.

It goes like this: your public schools aren’t doing enough and they don’t have the tax money to do it right so we’re going to offer vouchers to go to another school. We’ll put a bunch of money-backers into place and fix all that. Except, it doesn’t always work out that way. The Walton Foundation, for example, claims to “shift decision-making power” in three ways: 1) shaping public policy, 2) creating quality schools, and 3) improving existing schools. (I’ve always wondered why 2 and 3 aren’t together, but that’s because the Wal-Mart conglomerate can make money, too.)

That’s how the “education reform” narrative has been hijacked. Big money has found a way to profit off of students and are at work to close public schools. If these companies and “reformers” can continue to spout the “failing schools” narrative, then people in communities will believe them and jump at the chance to get their students through the doors.


It’s no wonder though, that schools are thought to be failing. But that’s not the real problem here. Schools aren’t failing, communities are. When a problem becomes too big for the society to manage and communities don’t know what to do, they put it on the schools to fix. For example, there’s a lot of violence in our communities but instead of just hoping that police are managing it, we’ve placed them in school buildings thus creating an easier school-to-prison pipeline. Thirty years ago we never thought about having school social workers and school psychologists, but now they’re in many buildings. We have parent educators, community liaisons, and a host of jobs that USED TO BE CONSIDERED COMMUNITY JOBS now placed in schools.

If you’re wondering if schools are failing, stop. They aren’t. Communities have to step up and take all those social problems back. It’s too easy to point fingers at school buildings and label them with disparaging titles than it is to pay attention to what we have to fix in the very neighborhoods in which we live.

Photo credit to Paula Steele

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