What does a failing school look like? Ron Berler’s latest book, Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of American’s 45,000 Failing Public Schools is an in-depth attempt to answer that deceptively simply question. Berler, a seasoned journalist who has written on youth issues for The Chicago Tribune and many magazines, embedded himself in the Brookside Elementary School in Norwalk, Connecticut for a year. Faculty, staff, students, and parents shared with Berler. The result is a nuanced, thoughtful, and surprisingly complex study of an issue that is consistently simplified in the media.
The key adults in the book are Mr. Hay, a dedicated principal, Mrs. Schaefer, a talented reading specialist who must allocate her time with the utmost precision, and Mr. Morey, an idealistic teacher who very much wants his students to learn. Marabella, a nice girl who is not particularly interested in school, and Hydea, a smart but not engaged student, are the students who figure most prominently. Both children learn and make progress, but in many ways, fifth grade is not their time. The book closes with a more optimistic brief look at them in middle school.
Failure is a powerful concept. Failure’s most comfortable environment is in a zero-sum game with its antonym, success. One fails or succeeds, one wins or loses. A useful way to keep score in sporting events, the failure/success binary is a less useful tool when scope, duration, and outcomes are contested. In fact, the really important issues are not those of failure and success, but how we go about thinking about scope, duration, and outcomes. The nature of the question shapes the answer.
Failure, as legislated by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), is defined by a school’s inability to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) according to a state’s testing criteria. Each state sets its own tests. Connecticut’s Mastery Test (CMT) for third, fourth, and fifth graders was the primary measure for an elementary school’s AYP during Berler’s study. All of Norwalk’s schools consistently failed the CMT since NCLB was enacted in 2002. Berler identifies multiple reasons for the poor showing on the test, which was originally designed for a very different purpose. Educators have also demonstrated that the CMT is not as effective with English Language Learners. Many parts of Norwalk are predominantly Hispanic with Spanish spoken at home. In addition, the CMT is not regarded as a reliable predictor of future student success by many Connecticut educators. Bureaucracies move very slowly, however, and the CMT reigned supreme at Brookside Elementary.
The CMT has a profound impact on the lives of those connected with Brookside. Teachers and administrators rework their curriculum, their plans, their classes in order to accommodate CMT priorities. Student learning was deeply affected. Students were acutely aware that their performance is high-stakes for their school and their community. Learning may be the purpose of school, but the recurring motif of fifth grade at Brookside through Berler’s study is one of struggle through the CMT.
Failure and success also imply agency when they may not be present. There is no one to “blame” at Brookside Elementary. The school lacks a villain and there is no sinister conspiracy undermining student learning and performance. Rather, we see many people struggling, looking for ways to be effective and instill student success, Brookside Elementary would look familiar to most Americans. Berler’s book illustrates a short interval in the very complicated journey that children take as they grow up and learn.
Education cannot function effectively without measures of assessment. What I wondered, though, after reading Raising the Bar was whether some “failing” schools might not at all be failures.