What We Can Learn From Failing Schools

failing-schoolsUpon hearing the phrase, “failing schools,” we conjure up the images from the media: Crumbling ceilings, stacks of decrepit old books, and growling, ancient teachers. We see slouching, apathetic students who are hand-tied by their own intransigence, and indifferent parents who are incapable of managing their children.

While those things exist and are accurate for a pathetically large number of schools, the reality is that the majority of “failing schools” have none of those things. Instead, they have well-kept buildings, modern teaching materials, and passionate teachers. Students are engaged learners, and their parents are doing the best they can with what they have. Yet, for all their intact infrastracture today, the best these schools can do is not good enough for state governments and the US Department of Education.

Instead of railing on what’s actually not working with these schools, I want to highlight some of the many things these schools can teach us.

3 Things Failing Schools Teach Us

We Are Not Teaching Students The Right Ways. Young people today are almost wholly different learners than students from 20 years ago. Yet many schools are still teaching them with methods, practices, and activities used 100 years ago. The culture of schools is also a relic from a bygone era, when respect-through-fear and punishment-by-reward were the dominate management models. Today’s organizational leaders know that collaboration and transparency are the most effective models for directing people; school administrators and educators can learn this, too.

We Are Not Teaching Students The Right Topics. When students spend their days learning too much about too few academic subject areas, we are not doing something right.The tyranny of expertise demands we all know too much. We must maintain curiosity, illuminate uncertainty and revel in the unknown. No Child Left Behind shoved students to perform in core content areas like never before, and with the Common Core in full effect across the nation, STEM is fully focused on now, also. In a democratic society, we have the responsibility of educating the hearts and minds of students, and that includes a wide (liberal) arts education, as well as many other areas.

We Are Not Accountable For The Right Outcomes. When students are tested and measured and tested and measured, adults aren’t held accountable for the right outcomes. In a time when parents, teachers, administrators, and elected officials are all under pressure to perform like never before, we’re not being held accountable for the right outcomes. Instead of performance-driven outcomes, we should look for process-based learning and evolving capacities of students to show us what they’re learning. Schools should be accountable for application more than outcome; process, not product.

Why It Matters

For more than a decade, I’ve been working directly with K-12 schools across the United States to promote meaningful student involvement throughout education. I’ve worked directly with thousands of educators, parents, and students as partners. We’ve transformed building, district, and state policy; fostered cultural development; and helped evolve the attitudes of people within and surrounding the education system. The most urgent places I’ve been brought to were marked as underachieving or failing, labels slapped on them by state agencies and the federal government, apparently attempting to focus assistance on students in need. Last year, I took over the operations of a program in Washington state designed to re-engage students who have left school before graduation.

All of these experiences have given me insight into the functions, futures, and possibilities of learning, teaching, and leadership into the next century. We must, must take action to improve schools, and the very best way we can do this is by learning from what failing schools teach us.

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