“Good School;” “Bad School.” What Are We Saying?

So often, I hear people say that this school is “good” and that school is “bad.” Do we really know what we are saying?

Whatever we mean, it isn’t meaningful in the work of really helping kids.  In fact, it creates images that are hard to shake, adding to the public’s doubt about supporting public schools.

Think about what makes up a school. In Louisville there are 100,000 children who attend its schools. Children make up schools.

You might say you aren’t talking about the kids when the “good” and “bad” terms are used, but the effect is the same.

I admit I have spoken too quickly and unfairly at times. As a school board member, I responded to many questions about comparing schools.  There are very good things to share about every school. Often, finding the right fit for a child is what matters.

There are many things that make up a school: the principal, teachers, children, and families. And, there are educational theories and methods that characterize schools as well.

No question, there are sometimes deficiencies that need attention.  That is an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed regularly.  But the fact that there are problems doesn’t reflect an entire school or district, or any child.

What has come to define schools is the annual reporting of state test scores, and the percentages of students who perform at high levels.

What’s good about reporting every child’s test score is that it forces a focus on each individual child. No time in history has the American education system been more focused on making sure every child learns what he or she needs to know.

What’s bad is that when we rank schools by scores, we rank kids. And, even schools that don’t post the highest overall scores are often bringing along their students farther and faster than others, and many children are being enormously successful in those schools.

We’ve gotten to the point that some families choosing schools focus only on the ones with the absolute top scores. That puts a value on the children.

I believe we are too careless with words.   We should think harder about what words mean and the perceptions they promote.

There are great needs within the school district. It is absolutely true that many children need more help than others to learn what they need to know.

But the same potential exists for children from Louisville’s East, West and South Ends.  There’s beauty – and educational benefits – to the diversity of the students in JCPS schools.

So I’d like to issue a challenge for all of us, to avoid summarizing a school’s success with simple words of “good” or “bad.” Our children and their schools are more complex than that.  We should value each child’s journey — whatever it is and wherever it is — and choose our words in that spirit. Let’s be precise in our meanings.

We might find that by thinking a bit longer about a school before calling it bad, positive words begin to come more naturally. And that would be good.




About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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