The Truth about “Good” Schools

When I posted about how political and media labels of “good” and “bad” schools are significantly misleading—more about race and class than the actual quality of the schools—I received a request to identify some “good” schools.

Here is the disturbing truth about “good” schools: Among formal schools, both public and private, there are no “good schools.”

Traditional schooling is mired in a number of wrong-minded approaches to children and young adults, to teaching and learning, and to what we believe the purposes of schooling are.

Formal schooling is mostly bad.

Good teaching happens when teachers take risks, work outside the norms of schooling.

Good learning happens for many students in spite of formal schooling.

In this last circumstance, consider how English classes tend to make students hate reading, that students who are avid readers often do so under the school radar—toting around huge books they choose to read (instead of doing school work), reading and collecting comic books (please read Louise DeSalvo’s Vertigo for some vivid examples of this reality).

That formal schooling is mostly bad, that good teaching occurs mostly by renegade teaching, that good learning happens mostly in spite of formal schooling—these are all made more disturbing because children in privilege (living in slack) suffer far fewer negative consequences in these realities, but children under the weight of poverty and racism (living in scarcity) suffer the double negative consequences of a bad life and bad schooling.

Children living in scarcity must be superhuman in order to learn in spite of schooling—especially since their teachers are under heightened pressures and even less likely to be risk takers.

We must stop demanding superhuman (and inhuman) expectations of the most vulnerable children and young adults. We must stop looking for and pretending there are “miracle” schools—outlier good schools—we can use to shame bad schooling in an inequitable society.

Instead, we need to reimagine formal education that is unlike the inequitable society those schools serve—attending instead to the needs of all students, regardless of the lives no child chooses (whether one of slack or scarcity).

5 thoughts on “The Truth about “Good” Schools”

  1. The high school where I taught for the last 16 years of the 30 that I was a public school teacher was a good school but by the corporate reformers testocracy standards that profit corporations like Pearson that copyrights the tests and shares no details with anyone, that high school is labeled a failing school.

    The ratio of children living in poverty that attended that high school was 70% when I taught there and is 80% today. When I taught there the Caucasian student population was 8%. 8% were African American. 8% were Asian American and most of the rest were Latino/Hispanic. The community around the school was dominated by a violent multi generation street gang culture with all the drive by shootings and drugs associated with that nonviolent.

    But inside the school fence, every school in the district was staffed with dedicated, hard working teachers. I often worked 60 to 100 hour weeks and only 25 + or – an hour or two, was spend in the classroom in instruction. The rest of the time was spent correcting work, planning lessons, contacting parents, attending meetings, attending curriculum groups of teachers to prove lessons and teaching methods, meeting with students that belonged to the clubs I was the monitoring teacher of, etc. For instance, I didn’t eat lunch outside of my room. I ate in my room so the student chess club I was an advisor for had a place to eat and play chess or the environmental club had a place to meet and plan events and activities, etc. For 7 of those 30 years I was also the staff advisor for the student staff of the high school newspaper and it was not uncommon to arrive at 6 AM in the morning to meet with the student editors of the paper so they could publish the monthly high school newspaper on time, and we also stayed on those days until 10 PM or later when the custodians kicked us out because they were turning on the school’s alarm system.

    While there were always a few (with an emphasis on few) burned out teachers, the vast majority of teachers worked long and hard to reach and teach as many students as possible in a challenging environment that is totally being ignored by the for profit corporate testocracy industry.

    The high school offered tutoring in the library after school for students were were reading below grade level or needed help with their math. We couldn’t force those students to take advantage of that help but the unpaid volunteers, teachers and students, were there to help anyone who came and they were there almost every day of the school year from 3 PM when the last class let out until 5 PM or later.

  2. But there are good schools. My daughters attend one. It’s good precisely because they focus on learning rather than teaching – what is it that engages kids with the learning process? Their school taps into their own curiosity, allows them to do hands-on projects of their own choosing and design, provides rich resources in all sorts of areas from science to music to art to P.E, etc. It may not be perfect, but it strives mighty hard to not interfere in children’s own learning processes.

    Of course, said school, like most such schools, is a private independent school. But there’s no reason that such schools couldn’t work in the public system. There’s no reason why public schools have to be desks-in-rows, teacher-up-front, everyone-learning-from-the-same-textbook/worksheets. Well, no reason except for high-stakes tests.

  3. I find this topic interesting in that for many long years I worked inside two of our district’s secondary schools — one more suburban and wealthy than the other, the other being a school which was 98% non-dominant-culture and far from wealthy. Before NCLB pushed out its punitive mandates for test score invasions, I would have considered both schools to have been “good” simply because we, all of the employees including the administrators and various misc. staff, considered ourselves to be part of valid educational institutions. It wasn’t until the vicious years of test-score-based reforms took over our poorer schools that there came about such a massive public division about “good” and “bad” schools. (Today the wealthier school is considered “good” while the poor school is endlessly touted as “bad.”) I am reminded of how there is now so much hateful division in many Middle Eastern countries where, before “benevolent” first world invasions, there was often relative harmony among differing cultural groups.

  4. I appreciate how clearly you put this. As a teacher who works at a “good school,” deemed so by high test scores (at least according to the previous tests), I wrestle with so many of the issues you write about. I think we are successful – well beyond our test scores– because so many of us rebel. As a school in the giant LAUSD, we never followed the curriculum mandated by the suits with clipboards. We knew better. This is a constant battle lately, trying to stay one step ahead of the testing-industrial-complex mandates in our district. We know what our students need. And, we have so much more work to do to get closer to the “good school” we know every student deserves. Which is really impossible within formal schooling, I agree. But knowing it is what I can impact, I battle on.

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