Public School Forum Report Calls for Action on Struggling Schools


Recently, a new round of school grades came out, showing that North Carolina has 489 “low-performing schools.” This is down from 581 last year, but still, that’s 489 schools that fell short on measures of performance and growth.

At many of these schools a generation of students has struggled with no significant change.

At some, not even 10% of the students can read. We are failing these students, with no regard to the long-term cost to our shared interests.

Predictably, many of these students are black or brown. Almost universally, they are poor.

We use the euphemism “achievement gap” to label these children as failures, as if they are the root of the problem. Then we mandate approaches that make for horrible learning experiences for the children that need the most creative and supportive environments:

  • We test the students incessantly.
  • We standardize the curriculum and dumb down classroom instruction to focus only on passing the tests.
  • We suspend children who struggle in such repressive environments.

Consequently, we end up with schools into which most educated, middle-class parents will not enroll their children. We abandon the neediest schools. We isolate and segregate the most at-risk students. And then we heap blame on their teachers and leaders, even while they are the only people hanging in there through the toughest of circumstances.

Students in low-performing schools are victims of systemic opportunity gaps. They lack the opportunities for cultural enrichment and social exploration that make school learning an enhancement to real-world experiences. Their schools lack the resources and learning opportunities that can help them overcome the challenges of poverty, school resegregation, unequal access to health care, food insecurity and so many other manifestations of racism and inequality.

Testing and school grades are not interventions for opportunity gaps. They may even exacerbate the problem by sending a signal to better-resourced parents to stay away from these schools and by indicating to community leaders that making investments in a school is “like throwing good money after bad.”

Why do we allow some schools to struggle year after year? Certainly one reason is that the families and communities that these schools serve have little political capital to demand a change. Neither the learning environments nor performance results of these schools would be tolerated by political leaders in wealthier confines.

We must also question the suspicious interaction between ignoring these schools and political efforts to promote school privatization. Over the past few years, privatization advocates have been actively courting the families served by low-performing schools to support “choice” initiatives such as charter schools and vouchers. Does allowing these schools to linger in failure actually benefit the proponents of the privatization movement? Does the labeling of these schools with a “D” or an “F” serve a purpose of encouraging support choice initiatives that undermine potential systemic solutions?

Choice policies will never result in educating all of the children in these schools. It is understandable why many parents would want a choice other than sending their child to a low-performing school. But the children who remain in these schools after others make a choice to leave are among the most challenging to educate.

The North Carolina Public School Forum recently produced a report with dozens of recommendations on how to improve educational opportunity, I want to highlight three that seem especially compelling to me as I listen to educators working in low-performing schools:

First, these schools need outstanding leadership. The school principal is the most important catalyst needed for change. We must invest in developing, supporting, and sustaining strong principals for these schools. To thrive, those principals need supportive district and school board leadership as well. Collectively, these leaders must have ambitious goals, additional resources, and an uncanny ability to sustain hope and persistence among their students, families, and staff members.

Second, the teachers in these schools need more time to do their jobs. The school day needs to be longer. The school year needs to be extended to prevent summer learning loss and provide more instructional opportunities. Teachers need more time for professional development on culturally relevant teaching, serving students coping with trauma, and using new teaching resources. Teachers also need more time for collaborative planning and peer-to-peer learning.

Yet, building political support for principals and teachers may be the easy task before us. There is one other call in the Public School Forum’s report which may have an even greater impact on improving student learning, but this change requires community investment beyond simply funding school professionals: the children in these schools would benefit from a renewed commitment to integration.

The black, brown and poor faces of these schools are part of the context of the problem. The resegregation of our schools is directly linked to the persistence of this overwhelming number of low-performing schools. What will it take for North Carolina to have a new path forward for a 21st century form of integration?

In the past, integration was only achieved through court order. Is it even possible that in our current century this can be done by choice? Not the “choice” of opting out of our traditional public school system, but the choice to reconstruct a system of schooling where all children have an equal opportunity to succeed no matter where they live. The active choice by white leaders and white community members to take an interest in the children currently stuck in low-performing schools. The choice to be persistent in pursuing equal opportunity for students, families and communities that are not where educated middle- and upper-class families live, study, work or play, but which are still a part of a larger community which we all share.

This was originally published by EducationNC on October 21, 2016.