To the Editor:
My optimism faded to disappointment while reading “Mapping the Future of Education” (April 26, 2023), an opinion collection with the Aspen Institute Education & Society program. While the road map’s noble ambiguities allow varying perspectives to work together, I was surprised at the term “failing schools” in one of the five pathways. That controversial—not to mention pejorative, archaic, and hegemonic—term jumped off the page and sullied the otherwise affirmative nature of the collection.
The act of labeling schools as failing serves to stigmatize communities. In addition, the burden of “failure” is placed on the shoulders of dedicated teachers and hardworking families and ignores the fundamental systemic issues that inhibit appropriate improvement.
The term “failing schools” is increasingly exploited as potent political rhetoric and is, thus, inappropriate for education’s future. In my role within a local arts education nonprofit, I engage with many Title I schools, some labeled as “failing” and threatened with closure. When I enter those schools, I see a community needing support, not stigmatization. I see gifted young learners needing relevant educational experiences and assessments, not a state-mandated schoolwide letter grade. I see hardworking teachers needing intentional and dedicated resources, not relegation as political scapegoats. And I see families who need living wages and additional support services, not threats to close their local school.
If we want to support educational opportunity, we must remove the deficit-based language of “failing schools” and acquire asset-based terminology that inspires and supports communities through compassion and understanding.
Artist and Programming Manager
Arts for Learning Virginia
A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2023 edition of Education Week as Ditch the Term ‘Failing Schools’