Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Truth in Labeling

vonzastrowc's picture

The "persistently low achieving" label can be a mixed blessing for schools. The stigma it brings can be just one more burden on a school already laboring under so many others. But it can also supply a bracing dose of reality to a school that sorely needs it. Leaders and policy makers will have to play their cards right if they want the label to have the best possible effect.

That's the main lesson I drew from an op-ed by Patrick Welsh in yesterday's Washington Post. Welsh, an English teacher at TC Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, makes an uneasy peace with the dreaded "low-achieving" label after the feds apply it to his school:

Labels can be unfair. They never tell the whole story. But though we never wanted to achieve our new label, I have no doubt that it will help us get back to achieving our best.

Welsh writes that the label forced him to face facts. The school sends its top students to colleges like MIT and Yale, but too many of its low-income students don't even master basic skills. Welsh wasn't prepared for the challenges he would face as the school's demographics changed. "I just never thought that I would need to teach reading in the 12th grade." Williams is a good school, he suggests, but only for some of its students.

But the label can also do harm. Students can feel the sting, too. Welsh quotes a 10th-grader: "There are a lot of smart, hard-working kids here who are getting a great education, but with the state calling us 'persistently low achieving,' people outside of the school won't believe that." Wealthier families may well flee to the private schools.

The label can also weaken the teacher force, especially if news of mass firings is in the air. If Williams fired at least half of its teachers--and that's one of the feds' prescribed turnaround strategies--how easy would it be to attract the next lot of teachers? How many new teachers would be willing to place a long-term bet on such a school if they felt they might get the boot in a few years and, worse, carry the stigma of failure with them when they go?

Teach for America may be able to meet some of the need for new teachers, but not for the long term. TFA teachers may feel less pressure to make long-term plans, and it's easier for them to wear service in a struggling school as a badge of honor. But there aren't enough of them to go around.

So it's critical that leaders turn the "low achieving" label to the best possible use. Welsh credits Alexandria superintendent Morton Sherman with using the label to inspire rather than demoralize staff. "It seemed to be the first time that everyone was pulling in the same direction to confront the problems that helped give us the label we all hate."

Sherman had the flexibility not to fire most staff as a matter of course. Instead, he used the label to prompt difficult discussions about the school's future. Time will tell whether Williams will change course, or how many staff will stay on for the hard work of transformation. But if Welsh is right, then things look promising.

Labeling schools is a very tricky business. We can't always know from the outset whether a label will spur a school to great things or hasten its demise.