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.