Bad schools forever

Are Bad Schools Immortal? Fordham’s new report finds bad schools usually stay that way.  Few improve or shut down. That’s true for low-performing charter schools as well as district-run schools, writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.

In the study, David Stuit examined low-performing schools in ten states from 2003-04 to 2008-09. A sizable number of those schools were charters. One might figure that, if the charter model was working as intended, these charters would either improve or go out of business. Yet 72 percent of the charter schools remained bad – and remained open – five years later. (Another 19 percent were shuttered–better than the 11 percent in the district sector, but still not great.) Just nine percent improved enough to climb out of the bottom quartile of performance (as measured by proficiency rates) in their respective states.

So why are so many low-performing charter schools continuing to stumble? They have strong incentives to improve – conceivably they could be shut down, plus they need to attract students – and most are free from the myriad constraints that low-performing district schools face. They don’t have teachers unions. They can remove and replace staff relatively easily. They have total control over their curriculum and school day. Except for their funding, their destiny is in their own hands. And yet achievement remains stubbornly low.

Consider the alternatives for parents in high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods. Test scores are low at the nearby district-run school and at the nearby charter school, but the charter is safe and orderly.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is putting $3.5 billion into grants to turn around failing district-run schools, notes Petrilli.

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  1. It’s very likely that low-performance is not caused by the schools but by something else entirely, but that would piss off too many charter-philes.

  2. Consider the alternatives for parents in high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods.

    Actually, I prefer to consider the alternatives for the students.

  3. How many of the poor-performing charters are “schools of last resort”? The test scores may be low and the drop out rates high at such charters, but the alternative for many of the students might very well be not being in school at all.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Let’s presume a permanently bad school is shut down.
    Now what?
    Kids have to go someplace. What happens when they get there? They get better? The school gets worse? Neither? Something else?

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    There’s no such thing as a “bad school.” There’s nothing magical about the buildings in the worst schools that makes them suck, just like there’s no such thing as a “dangerous neighborhood” except for maybe the one near the abandoned razor blade factory, next to the munitions factory, where all those downed powerlines are caught in the trees.

    What there are, and I’ve no way to put this delicately… what there are are people who really suck at life, at teaching, at thinking, or any of a whole host of other skills.

    Educating a child is a team effort, and like most teams, it’s only as strong as its weakest link. Sometimes that link is in the classroom. We all know how that goes. Sometimes the link is at home. Sometimes the weak link is in the principal’s office, and sometimes the weak link is the kid him or herself. (Such weak links usually must be forged by incompetent smiths, however, and usually don’t appear until middle or high school.) It actually doesn’t matter where the weak link is: there’s only so much the other links can do. If you throw a rod in your engine, it doesn’t really matter that the other three pistons are still working.

    “Bad schools” have a lot of weak links. “Horrible schools” have almost nothing but weak links.

    If the problem is just the teachers (it rarely is) they can just be replaced.

    This is all by way of responding to Richard Aubrey and the post that prompted this discussion: there’s no such thing as a “bad school.” There’s just communities that suck. Faculties that suck.

    What happens when you close a bad school and move the kids? It depends on whether the primary driving factor was the teacher’s sucking (the kids will improve), the administration’s sucking (the kids will improve), or the parents’ sucking (the kids will not improve and the school will get worse).

  6. CarolineSF says:

    A large number of San Francisco public schools have gone from “bad” to anywhere from acceptable to stellar over the past 10 years. The middle school both my kids attended (2002-2008 total, Aptos Middle School in SFUSD, was one of them. So is the neighborhood elementary school that we rejected in favor of an alternative school back in 1996, Miraloma Elementary (it somehow managed to soar without our presence!).

    It does have to do with changing demographics. The way I describe it is: A school that enrolls a critical mass of low-income, challenged, high-need kids becomes overwhelmed and struggles, becoming what is cruelly called a “failing” school (a term I reject as it’s a harsh judgment on a fragile school community, its teachers and its students). A school that enrolls a manageable proportion of low-income, challenged, high-need kids can function well.

    Sensitive ears warning: Non-PC bluntness coming. The two factors effecting these changes are the steady increase in Chinese students — who are statistically likely to be high academic achievers — and the return to public schools of the white middle and upper class, after many years in which private was their default choice. Privileged white students are also statistically like to be high academic achievers, though eclipsed (overall on average) by Chinese students.

    Here’s a partial list of some other schools that also improved during the same 10-year period. These are all schools that parents who are my demographic peers (white middle class) largely or entirely fled — often in horror and panic — 10 years ago and that are now popular with the same demographic: Balboa High School, Galileo High School, James Lick Middle School, Roosevelt Middle School, Sunnyside Elementary, Fairmount Elementary, Leonard Flynn Elementary, Sunset Elementary, Ulloa Elementary, Jose Ortega Elementary, Daniel Webster Elementary, Lafayette Elementary, Peabody Elementary, Marshall Elementary, Monroe Elementary, McKinley Elementary, Grattan Elementary, Starr King Elementary, Alvarado Elementary, Glen Park Elementary — want me to keep going? You get the idea.

    These schools improved without firing the principal and replacing the staff, becoming a charter, or any of that ignorant, magical-thinking education reform hooey. They simply experienced demographic changes until they reached a percentage of high-need students that no longer overwhelmed them.

  7. Roger Sweeny says:

    It’s very likely that low-performance is not caused by the schools but by something else entirely, but that would piss off too many charter-philes.

    And the charter-phobes. Nobody in this business wants to say, “Hey, we can’t do very much better than we’re doing.” Alas, that may be the truth.

    The Washington Post economics columnist Robert J. Samuelson surveyed the lack of progress over the last 30 years and lamented:

    “Reforms” have disappointed for two reasons. First, no one has yet discovered transformative changes in curriculum or pedagogy, especially for inner-city schools, that are (in business lingo) “scalable” — easily transferable to other schools, where they would predictably produce achievement gains. …

    The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. … The unstated assumption of much school “reform” is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers.”

    However, Samuelson concludes that schools and teachers generally can’t provide the missing motivation, which means student performance isn’t going to improve much.

  8. These are all great, rational comments. Petrilli’s finally putting his finger on the problem: some kids are almost impossible to lift up to a high level. Sadly. The fact that union-free charters struggle just as much as district schools gives the lie to the reformers’ diagnosis of the problem. KIPP’s success does not invalidate this proposition: KIPP is a de facto skimmer. No one has discovered a “cure” for those left behind.

    Use of the term “bad school” reflects fuzzy thinking. It implies that the school is causing the kids’ dysfunction. In fact, it’s the other way around: the kids’ dysfunction is causing the school’s dysfunction –as Caroline’s post implies. At my middle class middle school, a colleague is trying mightily to teach remedial math to a group of tough 8th graders. She is working incredibly hard. She’s smart. And yet the kids rip her to shreds day after day. I’m sure many teachers in inner-city schools face even tougher circumstances. And Davis Guggenheim and his glib reformer-friends have the gall to suggest that these beat-up teachers are the root of the problem.

    The further away you are from the classroom, the easier it is for you to romanticize the children and demonize the adults.

    Should we give up hope? No. But let’s give up dreams of quick turnarounds, and stop grasping at false solutions based on false diagnoses.

  9. An outrageously dishonest an unethical moment in “Waiting for Superman” is when Guggenheim, in his own voice, claims that bad schools cause troubled communities, not the other way around. He presents no backup for that outrageous lie (he couldn’t, since it’s an outrageous lie) — just moves on to other lies and propaganda.

    That man really makes you hope there is a hell.

  10. This is one of the first posts I’ve read on this blog wherein the post itself and the comments didn’t simply blame teacher quality and public schools for failing students. While I agree with the fact that teacher quality should be improved, several comments here struck at the heart of what I’m referring to: raising a healthy, well-educated child takes a whole community. Teachers are not the only ones responsible for our students.

    I appreciate it. Thanks.

  11. palisadesk says:

    On the topic, but a humorous satire:

    Very funny, but way too close to the truth in some of the descriptors….

  12. Nick –
    Nope, it doesn’t take a whole community. Just a real parent or two. Unfortunately, many of today’s students would be better raised by flesh-eating zombies than those who would call themselves parents.

  13. The “it takes a village” meme is wrong; it takes parents, preferably a whole community of parents, all doing their jobs. That’s how Asian communities, even those of new, very poor immigrants do it; they keep the kids away from those who might disrupt those community values. If “everyone” is responsible, then no one is responsible; the last 40 years of increasing the nanny state has proved it. It’s the same in the classroom, if “everyone” is special, no one is special.

  14. Roger Sweeny says:

    Wasn’t “blame the teachers; blame the schools” pretty much inevitable? If what students bring to school doesn’t matter much, if good teachers can teach anyone, if good schools educate everyone, then failing students must be the school’s and/or the teachers’ fault.

    But if what students bring to school matters most, then schools just aren’t that important. No one in the ed business has been willing to make that argument. Exactly the opposite: for years we have said, “we are so important, we are so powerful, we deserve lots more money.”

    To admit that we are not so powerful is to take away a major argument for giving us money. (And might eventually result in significant loss of jobs and prestige.)

  15. roger, you make interesting points. i mostly agree with you. but as to your last statement: “.. . result in a significant loss of jobs and prestige.” well, what of countries like japan, where the students really are so important and yet the teachers still have prestige?

    i think teachers deserve respect for what the do — whether with well adjusted students or not-so-well adjusted students. having a student that comes prepared and ready to learn, with a high i.q. doesn’t diminish what the teacher can do to help move that child a long. it just makes it easier.

  16. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Just because parents are *able*, by virtue of their proximity and special relationship to their children, to step in and be the whole chain, effectively replacing the other weak links, doesn’t mean that it’s not better to have a fully functioning team.

    Yes, parents can do a good job by themselves.

    But that doesn’t mean we should just throw up our hands and get rid of schools.

    At the same time, the reality is that the only way that schools are going to be able to overcome the weakness of really crappy parents is to cut the parents out of the team.

    Which, let us be honest, is exactly what many people (not I) would like to see happen.

  17. The role of the teacher is central to the learning process if the teacher is the “sage on the stage” who is transmitting knowledge and skills, but much less so if the teacher is the “guide on the side” . In the latter scenario, beloved of the ed schools, the student is central and the teacher is not seen as a conduit of knowledge and skills, since that would be “inauthentic.” The teacher’s role is therefore much diminished and is likely to be less respected.

  18. Roger Sweeny says:


    I think I’m trying to make a big argument. Just about every politician will tell you that schools are the great equalizer, the great escalator to the middle class (or beyond!). So the more schooling that people get, the better and fairer things will be, and the more rich everyone will get. Thus governments should encourage more schooling through laws and spending.

    But if schools largely replicate the existing inequalities, if teachers can’t lift lots of people up, this justification for the privileged place of schools falls down.

    Of course, this leaves a different line of justification: that schools provide useful skills. But the increasing prominence of stories about “college educated waiters” and such indicates that beyond a certain point, this is often not true.

    If schools are no longer considered the number one road to prosperity and social opportunity, I think teachers will lose prestige. If that causes the school sector to shrink, there will be fewer jobs.

  19. Roger is on target as are most of the bloggers here. Schools with massive numbers of fractured dysfunctional families will NOT realize consistent academic progress. The truth is that a vast portion of the American population cares very little for erudition and scholastic excellence. The reasons for this are too complex to discuss here of course but at the risk of sounding like a stuffed shirt elitist (I’m not),I will suggest one and wait for others to respond; The dominance of wall to wall techno advanced NON LITERATE POPULAR CULTURE!!
    As a teacher it is laughable how my profession is often demonized for the cause of underachievement when in reality the few hours spent at school each day affords the average adolescent the only audible intelligent language they ever hear. No generation listens to more “stuff”…………. yet literacy and communication skills seem to be diminishing ……… hmmmmmmm