The Warning Signs Of A Failing School

The Warning Signs Of A Failing School

by Dr. Les Stein

There is an unsettling trend in American education. Since the turn of the millennium, the number of “failing schools” has increased dramatically. Much of this can certainly be attributed to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, which made “accountability” a buzzword in education and which has highlighted a continuing decline – or lack of improvement – in our students’ skills on both national and international assessments.

Unfortunately, the increased focus on failing schools raises some disturbing questions about how we identify a school’s low performance and how we respond to its impending failure.  It is unproductive to claim that a school has failed only after a large number of students have not  received an appropriate education. Why isn’t school failure identified while there is still time to help students reach their academic performance goals?  Educators know from experience that no school fails from one day to the next; the reasons for school failure must have been manifest for some time. Why then weren’t these problems addressed in time to help the students?

To illustrate this point, what would be your initial impression of a school if the first thing you saw when parking your car and walking to the front entrance is adults loitering across the street, a building in need of significant maintenance and repair (to include broken windows, chipping paint, and missing door handles), a playground littered with broken bottles and unsafe equipment, and graffiti on the walls? It is not unreasonable to expect most visitors to make a value judgment about this school long before they enter the building, checked to see how many students were at or above grade level, or ascertained the number of properly certified teachers at the school.

In recent years, however, a school’s failure has often been simplistically (and almost exclusively) definedby its students’ end-of-year test results, i.e. how many students are below grade level as measured by the state’s high stakes tests in reading, math, and science. If we are serious about helping our low performing schools, then it is incumbent upon our educational leaders to identify failing schools at the earliest stages of decline. As in any organization, a rapid turnaround is still possible after the problems are first identified, but once they have been allowed to fester, the turnaround not only becomes much more difficult and cumbersome, it rarely succeeds.

As noted earlier, schools don’t just fail from one day to the next.  Every failing school exhibits warning signs that require action on the part of educators and community leaders. Individually these signs may not indicate impending failure; collectively, however, they clearly show that the school is either on the verge of failure or headed in that direction.

Warning signs primarily associated with administrative or institutional leadership

  1. A high turnover of leadership (at least one principal or assistant principal) every 18 months to 2 years.
  2. No one appears to be in charge, i.e. the principal is often away from the school building and when s/he is there the office door is usually closed.
  3. The school principal does not include members of her/his staff in the strategic planning process.
  4. The school principal has an authoritarian style of leadership and teachers are afraid to approach and/or talk to her/him.
  5. The school principal is afraid of confrontation and avoids making decisions on issues that are, or appear to be, controversial.
  6. Ineffective teachers are tolerated, and no action is taken to remove them.
  7. The school principal does not visit classrooms and does not provided constructive feedback to teachers.
  8. The school principal does not acknowledge or recognize students and teachers who are doing a good job.

Warning signs associated with Teacher Leadership

  1. 9. Teachers are not respected by their students; classrooms are noisy and out of control.
  2. 10. Teachers have low academic and behavioral expectations of their students.
  3. Annual turnover among teachers exceeds 25 percent.
  4. Teachers have a high rate of absenteeism, both excused and unexcused.
  5. Teachers and staff exhibit low levels of self-confidence, appear to be burned out, and rarely arrive more than a few minutes before their students in the morning or stay more than a few minutes after their students have been dismissed for the day.
  6. Teachers yell at their students as a means of maintaining order and discipline in the classroom.
  7. Teachers make little or no effort to contact the parents and keep them informed.
  8. Teachers are not interested in training or staff development; they don’t understand the value of training and staff development to their profession.
  9. Teachers wear inappropriate attire to school.
  10. Teachers do not have prepared lesson plans; there is no established standard for preparing lesson plans.
  11. The school’s staff changes academic programs (math, reading, science) based on the latest fads in education.

Warning signs directly related to the school’s culture

  1. The school building is run down, needs repairs, and is in a poor state of cleanliness, both indoors and outdoors.
  2. There is poor lighting in the hallways and classrooms.
  3. The school is noisy during the time when classes are in session.
  4. Students are in the hallways without purpose or permission.
  5. There is high rate of absenteeism among students, both excused and unexcused.
  6. There is little regard for authority and little or no uniformity in programs and procedures.

Warning signs associated with strategic planning

  1. The school’s leadership does not understand the value of strategic planning and how it relates to the success of the school.
  2. The school either does not have a strategic plan or no one can remember when the plan was last discussed.
  3. The school’s staff and teachers do not know the school’s mission and they do not have a vision for the future.
  4. The school principal does not pay attention to the budget and has little or no understanding of how it was developed.

Warning signs related to a school’s communications network

  1. There is no formal mechanism for teachers to either collaborate on best practices or discuss school-wide concerns.
  2. There are few or no staff meetings.
  3. Staff meetings are disorganized and used by the staff as a time to complain about the school.
  4. The primary form of communication is e-mail with few or no face-to-face meetings among staff members.
  5. The school does not keep the parents informed through newsletters or other forms of communications about what is happening at the school.
  6. Parents are not expected to meet with teachers face-to-face at least once, and preferably twice, each academic year in order to discuss their children’s overall progress.
  7. The school fails to provide parents with ample notice (at least three or four months) that their children may be at risk of academic failure.

Warning signs related to the use of student performance data

  1. School leaders and staff do not use data to support their instructional strategies.
  2. Teachers do not understand the value or proper use of formative evaluations or summative assessments.
  3. There is limited or no use of benchmark testing to identify each student’s academic starting point for the school year and his or her progress throughout the year.
  4. Teachers cannot determine if a child has made progress or the extent of that progress.
  5. The school is using assessments to measure academic progress but teachers do not know how to interpret the associated diagnostic tools.

Concluding Thoughts:

A school’s failure should never be seen as surprising or inevitable.

The warning signs are neither difficult to discern nor impossible to correct. The biggest question facing community and school district leaders is whether or not they are willing to take the time to visit their schools and look for the tell-tale signs of poor performance. There are no excuses for school failure, and waiting until the end of the academic year to realize that the school has failed simply means that we have consciously allowed our children to be left behind.

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One thought on “The Warning Signs Of A Failing School

  1. We’ve made these same observations and agree on all counts. Here’s a seminal problem: NCLB almost could not have gotten it more wrong. It merely created an illusion of accountability. Equally useless is an American media and political body that looks first an foremost at teachers as the culprits when schools fail.
    A simple truth is that no institution can long rise above the level of its leadership. When a U.S. Navy vessel fails, we understand that leadership is responsible. When an NFL team doesn’t get the job done, we look at leadership. When Toyota, GM, Sears or any other business fails, no one blames the employees. Leadership, rightly so, is fingered.
    The one element you didn’t address is school boards. In failing and mediocre schools and districts, school boards don’t do their jobs. In fact, they act as a barrier between parents and teachers who care about students, and the lazy, incompetent administrators the school board itself hired. NCLB didn’t address this; media and state legislatures are too lazy to comprehend this.

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