Not in “My” School

Over the past few years, we’ve heard a great deal about the school choice provisions for families in failing schools.  When it was passed into law, the critics painted a picture of a nation of students, fleeing their neighborhood schools (and the poor academic conditions they might house) and running for the nearest suburban school with shiny new desks, just out-of-the-wrap textbooks, and higher per-pupil costs.  We stood by and waited for the great migration, as those schools that missed academic goals for two straight years would see all of their students flee.

According to The Washington Post (, that scenario hasn’t exactly played out.    In fact, it doesn’t even seem to be a consideration.  Of the 5.4 million students eligible under federal law to switch from a failing school, only 1.2 percent have made the move.  That leaves 98.8 percent who have chosen to stay put.

Why?  Why, when given a chance, are parents not willing to give up on a failing school in their community?  Why, when given a chance, are kids not choosing to attend a school that is better, or at least better on paper?  Why aren’t poor-performing schools forced to close, as all of their students move to higher-performing ones?

Some will say that there aren’t enough slots in those higher-performing schools, and families don’t have the choices we seem to think they do.  While that may be true for a handful of students, is that really what is keeping more than nine of 10 students in their community school, regardless of its performance?

Of course not.  Students stay in their schools because we don’t want to believe our neighborhood school is failing.  Despite the AYP numbers, we trust our schools.  We have faith in our principal.  We like our teachers.  Our child is happy at the school.  The numbers must be wrong.  Other schools in the area may be failing, but not mine.  I just know it.

Back in 1990, the nation voiced loud displeasure for the job Congress was doing.  Some minor scandals, coupled with an ever-growing budget deficit and the sense of a “do nothing” Congress had voters calling for them all to be thrown out.  Much like today’s poll numbers, we were clamoring for the whole Congress to be voted out of office prior to the November election.  They were all corrupt bums.  We needed a new class.  So Election Day came and … virtually every incumbent was re-elected.  The pollsters went back to see if they had messed up their previous interviews.  What they found was startling.  Across the nation, we still wanted to throw those bums out.  Everyone, that was, but our congressman.  They’re all bad, except for my guy.

And that’s what we’re seeing with our schools.  We recognize our nation’s schools need help.  And we know it is hard to find a single school that couldn’t benefit from a more effective curriculum, better student measures, or more effective teachers.  But we’re not ready to give up on our own school.  Those other schools may need to be overhauled or closed altogether, but not mine.  Mine has hope.  Mine has potential.  It’s my school, after all, and I’m going to protect it.

That’s not a bad sentiment to have.  The next task becomes transferring that defense of school into a school-based effort to improve.  Take that school pride, and transform it into reforms that can make a difference.  Really give those parents a school (and school outcomes) to be proud of.

The ability to transfer from a low-performing school is a lovely rhetorical tool.  It puts all schools on notice, and provides parents and families the power to decide the academic futures of their children.  It provides some hope into what was once a hopeless situation.  But it is not a panacea for low-performing schools.

At the end of the day, the goal should be to fix struggling schools, not abandon them.  The objective should be to have students both happy and achieving in their neighborhood schools.  If the threat of transfer gets us closer to that goal, terrific. 

Numbers don’t lie.  We know which schools are performing, and which are struggling.  The challenge is taking the data and fixing the latter, intellectually rebuilding schools so all kids, parents, and neighborhoods really have something to be proud of.       

One thought on “Not in “My” School

  1. You have touched on a very interesting idea, and one that I think is completely on base. Having worked at a school that is eligible to receive students from a failing school I know firsthand that we did not receive more than 10 students from two failing schools. Friends of mine are parents at those failing schools and their reason for not leaving is exactly what you said. They believe in their neighborhood school. They like the principal, the like the teachers, and they like their children being able to walk to school with their friends.They went about reform the old fashioned way – They got involved! Parental involvement is so important to having not only a successful school, but a successful school community.Thank you for your site and your thoughts and comments!

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