Why people fight to save bad schools

Can a bad school be good for the neighborhood? asks Andy Smarick on Education Gadfly.

It’s very difficult to “turnaround” a chronically low-performing school, he writes. By contrast, closing a bad school and starting from scratch “can move the quality curve to the right.” That’s his argument in  The Urban School System of the Future.

Furthermore, some arguments for keeping bad schools open are unpersuasive, he writes.

Their “closures-are-a-civil-rights-violation” argument causes most to reply, “It’s a far greater violation to force low-income African American and Latino children to remain in failing, unsafe schools.”

However, it’s not so easy to dismiss the argument that closing a school — even a failing, unsafe school — will destabilize the neighborhood, making things even worse, Smarick writes. It’s clear that “good schools are a powerful asset for troubled neighborhoods.” But “every school, even the lowest-performing, is woven into the fabric of its neighborhood—and tugging on that thread affects the entire cloth.”

Even if educationally dysfunctional, the school likely has its share of caring, educated adults who serve as role models and mentors for needy children.

The school may serve as the community hub for social services or civic activities.

Maybe its athletic teams still serve as a source of community pride.

. . . Maybe the neighborhood sees that school as the last thing that is actually theirs. Other families moved away. Businesses shut down. Churches closed their doors. But their school remains.

In There Are No Children Here Alex Kotlowitz describes how two boys try to survive in a dangerous Chicago housing project. “A government policy developed by mostly benevolent leaders hoping to improve the lives of the disadvantaged—in this case, by razing old, low-income, ostensibly decaying neighborhoods in favor of gigantic public-housing skyscrapers—did incalculable harm to those it was designed to help,” writes Smarick.”Those who cleared Chicago’s ‘slums’ to make way for new high-rise public-housing towers didn’t realize that they were severing intricate, generations-old social bonds.”

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Comments

  1. Stacy in NJ says:

    Any system designed by and implemented by the manderin class is bound to fail, be it public housing or public education. We have something like 50 years of reinforcing experience here. Charters opened by local activists/parents and for-profits have a much lower threshhold for failure because they’re not supported by layers of rent seekers.

  2. “A government policy developed by mostly benevolent leaders hoping to improve the lives of the disadvantaged … did incalculable harm to those it was designed to help”

    The lesson, that trying to “help” people in ways they’ve never asked for in order to make one’s own self feel better nearly always fails, seems impossible to learn.

    Why is that?

    • Look at the people who relentlessly and uncritically promote the policies and you’ll have your answer.

      Those policies are only tangentially about the people they’re purportedly designed to help. The true beneficiary are those that promote the policies as a function of their own conceits.

      “Oh look how generous and compassionate *I* am”, said those who once championed project housing.

      Once the symbols of their generosity were constructed, and their dreadful impact became apparent, the noble purveyors of society’s largesse pointedly ignore the damage they caused in preference to their next, noble endeavor.

      If you want something to worry about consider that the same sorts of people responsible for public housing now want to save the planet.

      • What a conspiracy theorist. I suppose you also beleive that the world’s elite, like the British royal family, are all blood drinking shape shifting lizards from the 5th dimension here to enslave us?

  3. Mark Roulo says:

    “A government policy developed by mostly benevolent leaders hoping to improve the lives of the disadvantaged—in this case, by razing old, low-income, ostensibly decaying neighborhoods in favor of gigantic public-housing skyscrapers—did incalculable harm to those it was designed to help,” writes Smarick.”Those who cleared Chicago’s ‘slums’ to make way for new high-rise public-housing towers didn’t realize that they were severing intricate, generations-old social bonds.”

    Reminds me of PJ O’Rourke:

    The housing project was one of those War on Poverty, a-Hand-Not-a-Handout, Great Society, Give-a-Damn edifices that they tore down a perfectly good slum to build in the 1960s.

    PJ says it with more humor.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Somebody has to build those multi-storied septic tanks. Costs a lot of money. Probably a bit falls off the table, here and there.

  5. It isn’t unusual for schools to be important to their communities, even in areas far removed from the inner cities. New England small towns began to consolidate high schools in the 50-60s; I was in the last class of my HS for this reason. A relative who taught for decades in one such school said that he had observed that his union school didn’t have the same emotional connection with the town in which he lived as did its old, “own” HS, even though the new, bigger school was only a couple of miles away and was able to offer much better academics and extracurriculars. I understand that, but economics have to be considered, as does the quality of education. BTW: there is a hundred-plus year tradition of NE towns too small to have their own HS providing vouchers for their students to attend the school of their choice, including parochial. My own HS had a significant number of them. Unfortunately, a court case (20-25 years ago?) removed the parochial option. I’d like voucher options for everyone; let the parents/kids choose the school that meets their needs.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      momof4
      My dad ’39, and everybody else in Norwich, CT went to Norwich Free Academy on the city’s dime. That way, they didn’t need a high school of their own. Screw up, disciplinarily speaking, and you were getting on the bus to New London.
      I think that’s still the situation.
      You’re right about small towns and their schools. There’s a difference between a school which costs too much–overhead doesn’t scale with student count even if the admin is honest–but that’s not the same as being disfunctional and costing too much.

  6. Most students and parents are inherently good, and most principals are good people overwhelmed by conservative trash trying to make them teach to huge standardized tests and rape the curriculum RE: classic example: evolution. Need I say more? There are a lot of really, really, really bad teachers out there though… And the good ones are fired for saying words in class like “evolution”.

  7. I think this is another example of the “Congress approval” mindblock: Take a poll around the country and Congress gets horrible approval ratings, like about 10% (or worse!). Now, ask those same people what they think about THEIR Congress member… And 90%+ will say that THEIR member of Congress is doing a good job! It must be those other 534 that are screwing up. Thus, the disconnect…