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Welcome (Back)!

July 4, 2011

(Re-published July 2011 for new readers. Originally published January 4, 2011.)

Dear Readers,

Happy 2011, everyone! Thanks for visiting and reading.

Though I’m not in the classroom this year, I still have that teacherly habit of taking a moment to review the rituals and routines of our space after returning from a break, so that’s what I’ll be doing here. I hope that frequent readers and newer ones alike will find it useful, as I’ve tried to include a round-up of what we do, why we do it, as well as some of the most useful and popular things we’ve done so far.

Why ‘Failing Schools’?

I started this blog/project last spring, as the two years I spent as a teacher in Denver Public Schools drew to a close. Though I absolutely loved (and still love!) teaching, my students, (most of) my colleagues, and the community I served, the experience of working for an organization that is often reactive and short-sighted (and self-serving, overly politicized, and downright corrupt at its worst) was hands-down the most negative experience of my life. (People who know the full extent of my personal history know just how strong a statement that is.)

As I became less consumed by the day-to-day business of teaching, and began paying closer attention to the overall narrative about public education in this country, I realized just how starkly disconnected the actual experience of being in a “failing” school is from common perceptions of these schools and the problems they face.

The overwhelming majority of people commenting publicly about the state of American education and “failing” public schools have never taught in, learned in, or sent their children to these kinds of schools. Many of these people have no understanding of the education profession, the social, political, and economic history of education in this country, or how teaching and learning actually work. Most are not educators, and many of those few who did teach and/or run schools did so for a brief period of time after entering the field through alternative means– without the benefit of a rich background in educational studies of any kind.

An even smaller number of those people have had any direct experience in these schools after No Child Left Behind took root, and therefore have difficulty appreciating just how problematic things have become. While the style and approach of the reform movement reflected in NCLB (and amplified by Race to the Top) have their roots in the actions taken after the election of Ronald Reagan and the 1983 publication of A Nation At Risk, NCLB created a dramatic shift in the way public schools are run, and the experiences had by those who work in, learn in, and/or send their children to public schools.

The assumptions, biases, and stereotypes carried by people who lack direct, informed experience in our schools have had a huge impact on the public’s shared understanding of what’s going “wrong” in schools and how it needs to be “fixed”, resulting in “solutions” that often cause more problems than they solve. We simply can’t hope to have an honest and productive school improvement process if the people with the most knowledge of the situation are heard from the least. Thus, the Failing Schools Project was born.

To get more of the back story on who I am, how the blog came to be, and my awesome co-authors, read the “About” sections, but also check out:

One of our original intentions has been to help people who don’t have direct experience within these schools and their surrounding communities to better understand what goes on there, and to create a space where the kinds of first-hand accounts that don’t get much airtime in the rest of the media can be shared, collected, and preserved. We use video and audio as well as written words to do this, and we’ve increasingly leaned into satire and humor to cheer ourselves up and convey some of the frustrating and painful realities that have become all-too-common features of the public education experience in America.

The “We’re Talking About…” pull-down menu is an easy way to explore our content. (We used to have a category cloud there– if you think that was a better approach, let us know in the comments!)

  • Teachers’ stories can be found here. Currently, these include teachers’ thoughts on current policy and trends as well as first-hand accounts of things like the difficulties of teaching in a “failing” school and accounts of harassment and retaliation that have occurred when teachers have tried to resist inhumane and/or unethical practices in their schools.
  • Students’ stories can be found here. They include some really creative and powerful expressions of resistance to current trends in schooling, as well as their thoughts on things like what makes a good teacher, and the changes they’d like to see in our educational culture.
  • Stories from parents and communities can also be found here. Often overlapping, these stories include reflections on parents’ and communities’ efforts to reclaim their right to determine how their children should be educated, and their thoughts on how schools can be improved.
  • Funny stuff can be found here. Some favorites (as judged by the number of views and comments) include:

Another goal of ours is to help give public school advocates information and rhetorical tools to counter some of the double-speak and disinformation we encounter in the mass media and public conversations about education reform. These posts tend to be updated more often and evolve over time, so it’s worthwhile to check them out more than once (or follow us on Twitter– see right!– to see when we re-tweet them).

  • Posts in the “word attack/language” category exist to clarify and/or break down narratives and terms that are often used, misused, and abused in education discussions.
  • Posts in the “media distortion” category deal with similar things, but are often direct responses to misinformation in major media events (like the Waiting for ‘Superman’ episode of Oprah, and NBC’s Education Nation)
  • Some posts are collections of information that people can use to find links to citations, etc. they’ll find useful for future study. We have a research findings category, but since we’re not a purely academic blog, it’s more often the case that this kind of information is embedded in posts in all of the different categories. (It’s good to follow our links; that’s how bloggers cite things!) The best example of such a post is “The data that counts, and the data that really counts.‘” which evolved out of Dr. Jesse Turner’s presentations during his walk to DC this past summer.

We also host an Actions page, where you can find ways to get involved with us and others who are trying to improve public education for all. The page is currently down so I can repair some issues and update some events, but you can expect to see it again within the next day or so.

Maria, Mark and I are really excited about some new developments in the works, and are currently in the process of setting goals, refining our mission and process, and generally trying to improve what we do here. Stay tuned for more of what we do best, as well as new ways to engage with us and support this kind of work. If you have any ideas, thoughts, or wishes, please let us know in the comments.

(And as always, please share your stories!)


Teacher Sabrina

11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2011 12:36 pm

    I feel your pain, more than you can imagine. I work with h.s. math teachers in Detroit Public Schools. I think we could give your district a run for its money when it comes to many of the less charming aspects. But there are, of course, many good people of character and principle who haven’t given up despite it all. That’s all that stands between the system and complete collapse.

    What particularly rankles is that so much of what’s wrong could be helped (and not with charters, vouchers, pay-for-performance, more high-stakes tests, or any of the the other educational deform nonsense being pedaled by Klein, Rhee, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the rest of the Kool-Aid drinkers) without the need to bash teachers as a group, destroy unions for the sake of mere union-busting, and the rest. But it really is both a systemic disease and a problem that exists in a broader, deeper problem of poverty, racism, and neglect on the part of the state, region, and country as a whole. Detroit’s been mostly left to stew in its own juices for longer than most people in the rest of the country realize. The collapse of the auto industry has made things vastly worse. Having a few incredibly corrupt and/or incompetent and/or ineffectual folks in high office in the city, county, and state hasn’t helped. Teachers and principals who aren’t good don’t help, but then even the most brilliant, dedicated ones imaginable couldn’t save things alone. In this regard, Geoffrey Canada got something right (though I don’t think he knows much about teaching, learning, or schools beyond that). Obama needs to drive and WALK through some of the neighborhoods where I work. If he didn’t break down in tears, then perhaps he’s not the man I thought he was when I voted for him. As for Arne Duncan, the less said the better.

  2. markfriedman1 permalink
    January 7, 2011 5:55 am

    It’s good to have a fresh reminder of why I write and participate in this blog, Failing Schools. Thanks Sabrina!

  3. May 16, 2011 4:20 pm

    Sabrina, we are kindred spirits. Your reasons for starting this blog are the exact same reasons I left the classroom and became an education columnist, and ultimately wrote my first book, Kids, Classrooms, and Capitol Hill: A Peek Inside the Walls of America’s Public Schools. For the seven years that I wrote that newspaper column I felt like a lone voice in the wilderness, advocating for teachers, the teaching profession, and the public school system. I am thrilled to see strong writers like yourself taking the lead and telling the story. You go girl!
    Kelly Flynn

    • May 16, 2011 5:07 pm

      Thanks, and rock on! Looking forward to reading your book– it’s on the top of my summer reading list 🙂

  4. May 27, 2011 6:25 pm

    We just sat at our committe meeting to day and had this same conversation. Why are people who are so disconnected from the classroom, making decisions for us and our students? It is mind-boggling! They are in their ivory towers , making decisions, that look and sound good on paper, but realistically, make absolutely no sense at all! If they had to spend one day in my classroom, one day, they would go back to their ivory tower with a whole new outlook.


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