A for sale sign went up recently on my neighbor's house, which I thought was strange since they had organized a block party just weeks before. I learned that with their son a few years away from school age, they were looking to move to the next town over. The reason: better schools. I can think of countless others who have moved, paid for private schools and stressed themselves into a frenzy out of fear of sending their kids to what No Child Left Behind has labeled a "failing school."

I started my teaching career at a so-called "failing school," and I will never forget the looks on peoples' faces when I told them where I worked. They would say "Wow, tough school," to which I would always ask what they meant. They rarely gave an answer, I suspect out of fear of sounding classist at least or racist at worst.

Today I teach at what we call a "good" public school and now when I tell people where I work, they tell me as much. When I ask them what makes it good, they also stumble for a response. It seems that No Child Left Behind has given us the right to associate "good" with high-income and "bad" with low-income — but few are willing to say that out loud and we usually aren't asked to.

The low-income school where I spent my first eight years had the most dedicated staff I have seen, and the students were teenagers with the same characteristics that all teenagers possess. The primary difference was that most also had jobs outside of school and responsibilities within their families. What they didn't have were parents with college degrees, money for tutors and enrichment classes, or even quiet places to study. The fact that their test scores were lower isn't likely a reflection of the school at all, but is instead a snapshot of a reality we might not want to see.

Maybe if we can't answer the question about what makes a school good or bad knowledgeably or comfortably, then we need to ask ourselves what is truly behind the decisions we make and the labels we so readily accept. I know that many of our "failing schools" are actually great schools, and I hope that more of us will look a little more closely before we put up for sale signs.

With a Perspective, I'm Alison Liberatore.

Alison Liberatore is a teacher at Burlingame High School and parent of a kindergartner in Redwood City.


Good School, Bad School 12 February,2013perspectives
  • Kwabena Tumaini

    Allison, I just listened to this and it was great! I am in my first year of teaching and have battled with the same thoughts as you. Thank you for sharing.

  • Linda Bell

    Such an important topic!
    I worked in schools for thirty years and know this is an issue. You hit the nail on the head.
    Time to move forward in our thinking about schools and not move out of our neighborhoods.
    Thank you, Alison!

  • Denise

    Thanks for this! Been teaching after school band for 13 years, and this is spot on.

  • Daniella

    Wonderful perspective, thanks for sharing!

  • Kenneth

    It’s something not a lot of people would like to admit — thanks for being willing to have the discussion. I’m a teacher in the East Bay and have seen this happen all to often. Sadly, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy for these schools. The label is the kiss of death. What I like most from your perspective is the need for us all to challenge these things and do a little less head nodding when we hear our neighbors parrot these labels.

  • Guest

    I had to finish listening to this piece before getting out of my car this morning at the middle school where I teach. This is exactly how I feel as a teacher at 2 schools, one perceived as “good” the other “mediocre”. Thanks for sharing Alison!

  • S L D

    You speak the truth. As a teacher at private preschools for two decades I have personally witnessed the angst which parents experience in choosing a K-8 for their offspring. And I have often heard unapologetic racist slurs from their lips as excuses for opting for the $25,000/year school.

  • Karen R.

    You adeptly articulate a pernicious hidden bias that harms our schools. Surfacing the bias may bring about reflection by parents and school officials about the biases we feel and on which we stay silent. Thanks for speaking up!

  • Citizen Kane

    If income levels don’t discriminate good schools from bad, then what does define a good school? Standardize test scores?

    What are the key determinants or predictors to a good primary education?

    Many an academic study has been performed in the pursuit of the answer to this question. Unfortunately, the answers they one finds are too disturbing and politically incorrect for most public officials and school administrators to cite. So instead they address the more neutral “reasons” for academic outcomes, such as federal funding per student. This leads us (all communities) down the same path that public education has been going for the past 30 years: the flight of wealthy families moving to school districts with the highest CST scores and most favorable school demographics.

  • Katy

    This piece resonated with me enough to search it out and post a comment. I too taught in the “good” school, and also in the “bad” school, and know what district funds and family income can do to affect a child’s education. My own deepest lessons were learned at the Bay Area school in which I taught a literacy improvement program for below grade readers. I gave them the same enthusiasm and opportunities for choices in their learning that I did for my high-end students, and it made a wonderful impact on them. There is much hidden, and not so hidden bias within every community when it comes to disadvantaged learners.

  • Jean

    Interesting perspective. I am a parent who took my child out of a public school and put her into a private school. The public school may have had dedicated staff, but I didn’t see it. What I saw was a public school with a preschool renting space on the grounds, and a charter high school for students who were just trying to learn a vocation rather than finishing high school. I found out later that a lot of the high school students were problem children. And because their “campus” ,separated by a chain link fence and a gate that was never locked, had no running water they had access to the same bathrooms and playground as kindergarten through fourth grade students. This information was not offered to parents before enrollment. And this was in the middle of Santa Rosa. I still don’t understand why this situation was allowed to continue. There was a constant flow of people to and from the preschool who did not check into the office. It was a huge safety concern. Maybe instead of hopping to the conclusion that it is test scores think of it from another perspective. Safety. Every parent wants their kids to be safe and when you send your child to school there is a reasonable expectation that they will be safe. My child was not. She was hurt twice on the play ground by older children because there was one playground monitor for almost 300 kids. Dedication of the staff doesn’t matter if there are not enough of them. Before you judge someone for considering schools please think of all the factors. Safety. Quality of education. Is that school looking at your child the way the auction yard looks at a fat calf? Money should not be the first consideration. And in my experience with this particular school it was all that mattered.

    • kenneth

      Jean. It sounds like you gave the school a fair shot… which is what I believe Alison Liberatore is asking people to do. I think most teachers understand that safety is another matter.

  • Erika R.

    We miss you at the “bad” school! Thanks for speaking up for us – it’s very much appreciated and so true.

  • Terra

    I also teach at a “failing school,” and what I’ve observed matters the most isn’t the kids … it’s the presence of adults. There are not enough administrators, para-educators, and teachers at my school because there’s not enough money to hire them due to sanctions caused by No Child Left Behind. If we had the resources that suburban schools had, we could do better – and the kids would feel more respected, as well. You can’t make kids study harder and do better on tests if there’s not enough support, plain and simple.

  • Liz Ditz

    Thank you for making this strong point

    ‘[students] most also had jobs outside of school and responsibilities within their families. What they didn’t have were parents with college degrees, money for tutors and enrichment classes, or even quiet places to study. The fact that their test scores were lower isn’t likely a reflection of the school at all, but is instead a snapshot of a reality we might not want to see.”

    This is a reality for most low income students. Pundits on school reform, especially those espousing “school choice” (ie, greater privatization of public schools) ignore this reality.

  • Raymond Difley

    Great article Alison!

  • Curious

    So, what is the answer?
    Studies confirm that school funding plays a very small role in educational outcomes despite constant bleating from teachers and the left (is there a difference?)
    My kids attend a public school in the South Bay – supposedly, one of the best in the state. I shudder to think what the other end of the spectrum is like. When a math teacher insists that my daughter’s score of 60% on a test is correct (because she scored 15 out of 20) and when I receive written communications from teachers riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, and when I read almost unintelligible test questions, I must say that I despair.
    High school graduates are generally ill-educated, and college graduates often not much better.
    No wonder we lag behind most other countries.

  • Rich

    students have many distractions, expecially in middle school with social and physical hormonal changes and drama. Those distractions add up to lack of learning and reading.
    At the same time the struggling readers are trying to cover up their inabilities out of shame, while being asked to read materials that are way over their heads like a foreign language.
    I thnk a school is successful if it provides all students the non-distracted periods of time when they can get their work done and learn to focus without or despite numerous distractions.

  • Jennifer

    You hit the nail on the head. I see this happening in my own neighborhood in Mountain View. Thanks for raising the topic.

  • Parent at a “failing” school

    I didn’t know this until our school landed in “failing” status: Schools do not get scrutinized for their progress (where more and more fall into No Child Left Behind’s Program Improvement, i.e., failing category) if they don’t get the supplementary Title I money from the US govt. That money is only given to schools where over 40% of the children are from severely impoverished families (as defined by the US govt). In short, if the school has enough families with enough money, they won’t get reviewed, i.e., they will never be considered failing, even if their students aren’t doing well! Hm.

  • Rhianna Macauley Menzies

    Thank you so much, Ms. Liberatore, for this article! As one of your former students at the “bad” school, I want to thank you for the 2 years you taught me. Attending the “bad” school made me realize just how much I wanted to work in education. I recently started my 10th year (where does the time go?) working with Deaf children in secondary education. I wouldn’t change my high school experience, or my current job for the world. See!? Good things DO come out of students at the “bad” schools!

    P.S. History is my favorite subject! 🙂

    • Jeanelle

      Ditto, Rhianna! I’m now in my 7th year, teaching History at another site in the same “bad school” district and I wouldn’t change my experience or current job either. I often reflect on my high school years at the so-called “bad” school and am so grateful for the lessons I learned and the people I met while there. A wise teacher once told me that you get out of education what you put into it. The bottom line is that students can and will be successful at any school they attend if they put effort in to their education.

  • Kari Stone Ouch

    I was also a student at this so called “bad” school. Not only did I have the most dedicated teachers in both the classroom and in athletics, but this school was so “bad” that I was able to enter college with almost an entire year’s worth of units due to the AP classes and tests that I passed due to the dedication of the teachers, including you Ms. Liberatore. This allowed me to pursue a double major and still graduate early. And, nothing can speak to the level of acceptance and tolerance and respect for all people that I learned at this “bad” school tht has helped me leaps and bounds in my career and personal life.

  • Greg C.

    I’m going to be the unpopular one here and say I have to disagree. I think Elsie Allen was and is a “bad” school. I don’t believe that No Child Left Behind was or is the only indicator of this either. What made EA a bad school (along with a few other things) was the low expectations the “dedicated” teachers set for others and me. That’s sad. There was a lot of wasted potential. I was never really pushed and witnessed the same fate experienced by many of my peers. I was dragged down by many of the students that “had jobs outside of school and responsibilities within their families” because that is who the teachers taught to: the lowest tier student in the classes. But I guess that’s public school for ya, or at least the bad public schools.

    Some of those teachers from EA have moved on to teach at other schools (some in rich, white areas like San Mateo) and some even send their kids to other high schools in Santa Rosa. There’s nothing wrong with that. They should be able to send their kids wherever they want and move to wherever they want. But I have to say it is hypocritical, because those teachers were the ones who sold us on the dream that being a Lobo meant you were part of a family. Just note that the kids of former and current EAHS teachers will and are sending their kids to other schools and its not because EA is a “good” school.

    And by the way: those people aren’t classists or racists who mentioned that Elsie Allen was a “tough school.” To ignore the fact that is was a tough school and look the other way is harder to do than to simply observe it and embrace the fact. But if that make me a racist, well then so much for common sense.

  • Roland W.

    Kudos to all of those dedicated teachers in the “bad” schools. But, there really are bad schools and bad school districts. Here in San Jose Unified some teachers and administrators have sexually abused students, covered up those occurrences, not reported felonious assaults, and passed students doing failing work.
    The state of California continues to raid any monies meant for the schools and rarely holds School districts accountable for poor performance. The school teachers unions (and I’m a big union advocate) hold the districts hostage by protecting “bad” teachers that should be gone. I’m spending my daughter’s inheritance for private school because I cannot trust San Jose Unified to provide her a decent education in a safe environment. They closed her top-performing elementary school and sent the children to a nearby very “bad” school.
    San Jose Unified is top heavy with administrators in a system that promotes people because they are near the end of their careers and need to “spike” their pay rate for a higher retirement.
    WHAT IS LOST IN ALL OF THIS is the need to nurture the careers of “good” teachers, weed out the bad, AND DO WHAT’S BEST FOR THE KIDS.

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