Good Schools, Bad Schools: More Codes that Blind

On the first class of my May X course on educational documentaries, we watched the short and really powerful film Crenshaw by Lena Jackson.

The film introduces students to many of the key patterns of educational reform over the last thirty-plus years, including how we talk politically and publicly about good schools and bad schools as well as how we have chosen to address inequitable opportunities and outcomes among identifiable populations of students by race and social class.

Crenshaw specifically addresses the political strategies of closing so-called bad schools — often including takeover policies and cosmetic renamings of historically important schools for communities.

The morning of the second class, I read Why the board is closing Lincoln about the same dynamic in Charleston, SC, my home state.

Beyond the disturbing pattern of trying the same approaches over and over while expecting different results (the most blatant failure of the accountability era in education reform), this editorial support for closing a school exposes the problems inherent in how we talk politically and publicly about schools.

The editorial describes the school being closed, Lincoln Middle-High School, with “inadequate,” “shortcomings,” and “under performing.”

As a rhetorical and policy strategy, the editorial frames Lincoln against nearby Wando High, characterized as “academically one of the top high schools in the state.”

So we have Lincoln as “bad school” and Wando as “good school” — making this seem more than credible: “Why shouldn’t students from the McClellanville area get an education as good as students 25 miles down the road in Mount Pleasant?”

Let’s examine that more carefully.

As the editorial notes, “Lincoln’s students are predominantly black, and some people who have felt the brunt of very real racism over the years see shuttering Lincoln as motivated by a lack of regard for a minority school and its students.”

Both Lincoln‘s and Wando‘s state report cards document how test-based data seem to reinforce that Lincoln is under performing and Wando is a top school.

However, a key element of how these schools are characterized is omitted — the poverty indexfor each school:

LINCOLN HIGH: 94.67

WANDO HIGH: 24.08

The editorial is mostly wrong-minded throughout — except for its concession that race and racism lie at the foundation of why SC has refused to address adequately our investment as a state in “other people’s children.”

“Bad” and “good” contribute to our coded political and public discourse that reflects our collective unwillingness to do what is required: reform directly education so that all students have the sorts of opportunities that we do guarantee to the most fortunate children among us.

Lincoln as a school, the students it serves, and the community within which it sits — these are not “failing” but overburdened and under-resourced.

Wando as a school, the students it serves, and the community within which it sits — these are not academically “top” because of the school, but because this context is far less burdened, gifted a tremendous amount of slack within which students and by proxy schools can succeed.

Of course, students at Lincoln deserve the same opportunities as the students at Wando — but to act as if this somehow has something to do with the physical plants, the school buildings, is inexcusable.

If we truly believe “Why shouldn’t students from the McClellanville area get an education as good as students 25 miles down the road in Mount Pleasant?” (and I am pretty sure we do notbelieve that), then we simply need the political and public will to make that happen right there in Lincoln — and there is nothing hard or magical about that.

Closing schools, renaming schools, taking over schools, changing standards and tests — these, and nearly every education reform policy we embrace, is so much foolishness, the indirect but fake change that reveals beneath the codes that we simply don’t give a damn about some children and some communities.

“Bad school” and “good school” keep the accusatory gaze on buildings, educators, and even children. What we need is to spend some time in front of a mirror — where the real problems lie.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store