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'Dueling Realities': Shifting the Way We Talk About Our Public Schools

More than fifteen years ago, working with a non-profit and based in a Boston elementary school, I attended a Parent Council meeting at which the principal and teachers shared the school’s performance on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), the state’s relatively new standardized test. There was a lot of anxiety about MCAS, especially since the scores were used to rank schools and – when schools were too slow to improve – to hand down sanctions as required by the new federal No Child Left Behind law. 

As expected, the scores at the school where I worked were underwhelming. The principal and presenting teachers did their best to put a good spin on them. The scores, they explained, did not tell the whole story. And so they talked about the things test scores could not capture, among them the deep commitment of the school’s teachers, recently renovated facilities like the technology lab and schoolyard, and the myriad community partners and programs—like instrumental music, dramatic performances, and the social change curricula I was responsible for teaching.

Each year, scenes like this one are repeated thousands of times over. Principals, teachers, community members, and more marshal their most evocative and uplifting stories to combat the dominant narratives of failure that test scores appear to tell. Eve Ewing, assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and author of Ghosts in the Schoolyard, a recent book on the 2013 closure of 54 schools in Chicago, calls these competing narratives “dueling realities.” 

Ghosts in the Schoolyard by Eve Ewing

Often, these dueling realities co-exist in a rather benign tension—test scores tell one story, the school community tells another, life goes on for everyone. Come September, the school opens its doors and students file in for another year. However, this equilibrium falls apart when the narrative of failure (as told by test scores) is used to justify dramatic and disruptive policy changes that include dismissing all of the teachers or closing a school altogether. In the aftermath of announcements like these, dueling realities burst into vivid view. And with dueling realities come dueling conceptions of and criteria for what makes a good school.

In the protests that often follow announcements of school closure, families and students seldom if ever deny the actual fact of their test scores. Instead, they do what the principal and teacher at my school did: lift up a parallel set of facts and propose a more expansive set of criteria for establishing goodness. These facts and criteria often emphasize schools not as simply good or bad but rather as highly complex institutions bound by a web of human relationships. 

In Ewing’s account of the 2013 school closures in Chicago, she shines a light on many students, teachers, and community members making this case, often in deeply personal and affective ways. A former principal referred to her school and students as “the fruits of my womb, my labor.” A student referred to her school as “my home. And the teacher is like my, um, mother. And … the students like my brothers and sisters and cousins” (p. 107). Elsewhere in 2013, district officials in Philadelphia closed 24 schools. At one hearing, a student called her small high school “a second home,” asking plaintively, “Why would you take that away from us?” And just last month, in Boston, students from two high schools slated for closure pleaded their case in raw and emotional terms. One junior at the soon-to-be-shuttered West Roxbury Academy testified, “I’m so tired of repeating that we are people, human beings. Not numbers.”

A question that emerges from all of these testimonials is the following: why do people fight for schools deemed failures? The answer, put plainly, is that people who fight for schools do not consider them failures. They have fostered deep ties – longstanding, durable, kinship-like ties – to schools and these ties are stronger than standardized test scores. 

If we listen closely to school communities like the one where I worked 15 years ago – willing ourselves to see the good in so-called “bad” schools – a new set of hard questions emerge about the entire measurement enterprise. Debates about whether a school ought to be closed overlook more fundamental (and arguably more important) questions. Namely, are the metrics used to measure schools reasonable? What makes us think that these are the measures that best capture what matters most? And how can we justify turning away from the testimonies of students, teachers, and families who know, love, and fight for these schools?

In the ongoing fight for more just and equitable education, one front must be a movement to develop, pilot, and publicize new ways of measuring and talking about what makes schools good schools. Beyond efficiency ratios and value-added scores, these new measures would avoid single numbers and would include nuanced accounts of the relationships that sustain students, families, and communities. Beyond last year’s test scores, they would reflect the generations-deep kinship ties that bind communities and schools. Beyond building audits, they would acknowledge a more textured version of reality—one, in Ewing’s words, “in which the value of a school is directly related to its nurture and support of human relationships” (p. 121).

When students and teachers talk about schools they love, we need to listen.

To read a running commentary about Ghosts in the Schoolyard, via Twitter, see here

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