‘Failing’ schools are the oxygen of the modern education reform movement. Up until about 10 years ago with the rise of Democratic education reformers like Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, and TFA alum Michelle Rhee, I hadn’t heard the term much. There were schools with low test scores, of course, but everyone understood that low test scores did not mean you had a school staffed by self-serving ‘adults’ who were the sole cause of these low test scores. Accountability became defined as identifying and punishing ‘failing’ schools and identifying and punishing ‘ineffective’ teachers.
This ‘failing schools / ineffective teacher’ narrative peaked, I think, around 2010 with Obama’s Race To The Top program which required states to invent metrics to better identify the ‘failing’ schools that need to be turned into ‘high performing’ charters and the ‘ineffective’ teachers that need to be fired. The movie ‘Waiting For Superman’ helped make this narrative ingrained in the public consciousness.
I’ve worked at four schools in my career and three of those schools would be deemed ‘failing’ by most education reformers. Yet I was impressed by the majority of the teachers at these so-called ‘failing’ schools so I know that most schools that states are labelling ‘failing’ are actually not to anyone who really gets to know the school.
Teach For America actually has many corps members and alumni working and even leading schools that have low state report card grades. They have also had many corps members and alumni in public and also charter schools that have been closed down because they were considered beyond help. Surely Teach For America knows that most methods of rating schools in this way are not accurate.
But Teach For America has not come to defense of these schools, it would be too risky to do so. You see, TFA has benefitted much from the ‘failing schools’ narrative. Politicians who love to talk about ‘failing’ schools also are big fans of TFA. What could prove how awful the schools and teachers are in this country more than to show how beginning teachers and upstart charter schools constantly outperform them? Without the belief that our country is infested with ‘failing’ schools and ‘ineffective’ teachers, TFA would not be an organization with a $300 million a year budget, some of that coming from governmental grants.
There are a bunch of TFA institutes going on right now around the country. In Houston, where I taught for four years, the corps members train at several schools that they partner with for their summer school. I found it interesting when I looked into the data for one of those schools, J.W. Robinson, Jr. Elementary School.
TFA must think the school is pretty good. It is run by a TFA alum, Paige Fernandez-Hohos. The teachers at the host school often serve as mentors to the new TFA corps members so TFA must think that the teachers there are at least somewhat effective. And based on the enthusiasm that the corps members are expressing on Twitter after their first day there, the corps members probably would agree that Robinson Elementary is a pretty good place.
There’s just one problem. By the school rating system in Texas, Robinson Elementary is a ‘failing’ school. It doesn’t have an ‘F’ but with a ‘D’ and a Houston rank of 720th school out of about 1000 total, this is a school that, by this rating system, is very below average.
I’m not writing about this to trash this school. I want the corps members who are working there and who are admiring this school to understand, though, that the bogus rating system that makes Robinson ‘failing’ is the same kind of rating system that is being used by all the supporters of TFA who want to declare a large percent of schools, like Robinson, failing. It’s lies like this that have fueled the growth of TFA. Without this growth, most TFA CMs wouldn’t even be in the program right now as it would be a much smaller program than it is.
I think this would make for a good discussion topic for the TFA corps member groups who work at this failing school. If you are one of those corps members, bring this up at one of the daily meetings and report back how the TFA staffers respond.