Are there bad teachers out there? Sure, but that is a problem that is not just in out "failing schools". Schools that have incredible test scores usually have two things going for them. They don't have to deal with as many cultural issues as schools that are "failing", and they have plenty of kids who need very little who could still score highly on a state test. What's the similarity to both of those advantages? It's the culture that a child lives in.
So what are the so called characteristics of a school with high test scores? Most are in areas that are filled with middle class - wealthy families, and most have a majority of students who have two parents still in their life. That does not necessarily mean that the parents are still together, but the influence of both parents over these students are generally felt. In general, these students have more structure in their lives which makes it much easier to establish structure at school.
Are the teachers at these schools better? I think in general yes, but I think that also goes back to culture. While there are some folks who will go into a low performing school to make a difference, most teachers want to go to schools that are already successful. It makes it MUCH easier to hire high quality. At these schools though, you will of course still see issues. There are still plenty of teachers who are not adding benefit to their students. It might not show up in test scores though because most of their students are capable enough to pass test with or without them.
Why are some schools "unsuccessful". I think the first question here to ask is are we defining success correctly? School success is built on test scores, and then we deem schools "failing" when those scores come badly. From my experience, the biggest factor in a lack of success if the culture around it. First, it all starts at home. Student's from poor home lives generally perform worse no matter what the teacher does. Many come into school with very little structure at home and very little emphasis on education. Think back to your own childhood. Would you have been successful is your parents did not care if you went to school or not? This lack of emphasis can come from several reasons, but the real fix would have to be an overall cultural shift.
Another issue for so called "failing" schools is getting great teachers to go to them. If you were a new teacher just out of school, what would it take to get you to work with kids who come with a host of problems for the get go? There are some great folks who do it to make a difference, but are there really enough to fill a school? I think the answer to that is definitely no. Then once you get great teachers in your building, the question becomes how do you keep them? I have been a school for a while that has some of my favorite teachers to work with. They have plenty who I would be pumped for my own children to have. Those teachers though are so overrun with paper work to deal with the variety of issues that their students have. They struggle to get to a point where they can just teach, and it means that their turn over rate is pretty high.
So how do we fix things? The first thing is to not blame teachers. I totally understand that we need to get rid of teachers who are unsuccessful, but are current system is broken. There should not be an over reliance on test scores. Teaching is not easy, and really we need to find a system to get rid of the ones who just don't care. If a teacher really wants to improve, we should put every effort into it instead of going through the more expensive hiring process.
The second thing we need to do is take reform out of the hands of politicians so we can truly work to the root of schools problems. Politicians want to blame the teacher and constantly reform standards. You know what that does? It just frustrates teachers and gives them more work. They have to meet the standards set by politicians which includes a lot of paper work and other things that are not teaching. This leads to teacher burnout, and it does not change anything.
What we need to do is work on our culture. We need to start with parenting classes and family services in tough areas. We need to help parents establish order within their home, and we need to turn the culture where it is ok to abandon children that you fathered. Many times, you can trace a child's problems back directly to the lack of a parental figure in their home. I think we also have to do something to raise the level of income for families. I don't want to go into the specifics on how because that would be a very political issue, The reason this is so important to the success of our schools is that it would allow parents to be at home with their children instead of trying to work 3 jobs to make ends meet.
We also need to make teachers want to go to some of these troubled schools. I think some school districts are doing that with major financial benefits from joining these schools, but what else can we do? I think the best way to really fix these schools is to figure out a way t build teachers from within. Who is going to want to go into these communities and make a difference? It's people who have grown up there. Could we use some of the funds that we pour into these schools to help put the best students in these areas go to school, and then they can come back to be teachers.
We also need to do everything we can to simplify. Schools have become more and more about following the hundreds of laws that govern them, and less about students. We need to simplify any process that is to complicated including but not limited to IEP, ESL, RTI, and the many other processes that add paper work and meetings for teachers. We need to get it back to just teaching for our teachers.
It truly is lip stick on a pig when we talk about much of the education reform that goes through the legislature today. Until, we truly address our culture, schools will not change. We need to also quit blaming teachers. If we simplify and actually let them teach, who knows where they could go in the classroom.