Education is NOT a Zero Sum Game

Today the Alabama State Board of Education published a list of 75 “failing” schools in the state of Alabama.

You may review the list of schools in Trisha Powell Crain’s article here. It includes two schools in Huntsville City: Lee High School and Columbia High School.

You should also give Anna Clarie Vollers’ article a look as she deftly points out that the decline in the number of “failing” schools in Huntsville is the result of just one thing: closing (or renaming) those schools.

As Vollers writes: “Johnson was the only Huntsville City school on the failing list in 2015. In 2014, nine schools were on the failing list, some of which have since closed or merged with other schools: Butler High, Chapman Middle, MLK Jr. Elementary, Davis Hills Middle, Ed White Middle, Johnson High, Lakewood Elementary, Dawson Elementary and Westlawn Middle.”

Johnson wasn’t on the list this time because the board closed/renamed Johnson as Jemison, and as Vollers points out:

when a school that was on the failing list in the past closes and then opens with a new name and school code, that school does not appear on the failing list as there is no data for the school.

So, the most reliable way to get off the failing school list is to close the school. Keep this in mind; it’s crucially important.

The State creates this list by looking at each school’s scores on the ACT Aspire test. This is the same ACT Aspire test that HCS students have been guinea pigs for since 2012 when Dr. Wardynski made a deal with ACT for that purpose.

The most important fact to remember about this list is that by state statute no matter how improved a school may be from one year to another, no matter how much the educational process has improved over time, six percent (6%) of all of the schools in the state will be on the “failing” list.

Let me say that again.

No matter what, 6% of the state’s schools will always “fail.”

Setting Up to Fail

Let me ask you, when you were in school, did you want to be graded on a curve, or did you prefer receiving the grade you earned regardless of how your peers did on the test?

Let’s imagine this situation: You are in a class with 100 students. Your teacher gives you a test, and on that test the grades ranged from 100 down to lets say six students who made a 75.

Using the system that the state legislature has devised, those six students who made a 75 on the test are automatically given an F. Is this an accurate representation of the work those six students did?

Let’s imagine another situation: You are in a class with 100 students. Your teacher gives you a test, and on that test the grade ranged from say a 50 down to lets say six student who made a 25.

Using the system that the state legislature has devised, those six students who made a 25 on the test are automatically given an F, but the other 94 students would receive a passing grade. Is this an accurate representation of the work those 94 students did?

Either way, this system is setting up 6% of the school to fail. And it is giving the 94% a false sense of achievement.

This system is not designed to give parents an accurate understanding of the educational quality of the schools in the state.

It is instead designed to set up 6% of the schools to fail.


Well, that’s simple. Being on the failing list means that the state will give you a little bit of money, a fraction of the amount it was paying to education your child, to pull your kids out of the failing school.

At first, this seems reasonable as who would want to be in the bottom 6%? Shouldn’t we close those failing schools down anyway?

But the problem is that when we do close that 6% down, what happens next year?

Another 6% will, by statute, take its place.

Zero Sum Thinking Doesn’t Work in Education

This system is based on the flawed understanding that education is a zero sum game. The state legislature and sadly our HCS Board President, Elisa Ferrell, as well are convinced that education is a competition. And as we all know, in any competition, there can only be one winner. I suspect that this is why when Vollers asked Ms. Ferrell about the failing school list, she repeated put the responsibility of improving on the schools themselves:

I’m very confident they’ll work their way off the list.

It’s nice of Ms. Ferrell to share in taking responsibility for her role in improving our schools, isn’t it? Ms. Ferrell and the state legislature are wrong about this. Education doesn’t work this way, and it never has.

I know it’s unpopular to say this in this state today, but education is the ultimate participation trophy: Everyone who participates in education wins.

The student who gets a full-ride scholarship to Harvard as a result of her GPA and ACT scores benefits from participating in education.

The student who is on the autism spectrum, like my son, who learns life skills that help him navigate this increasingly insane and hostile world with a bit more independence benefits from participating in education.

In fact, a student like my son will actually benefit from his education far more than the student going to Harvard. The Harvard student would likely be successful no matter what.

It’s a pity that Ms. Ferrell isn’t aware of this. You would think that someone who was on the board of education would actually have an understanding of how education works.

I’m convinced that the state legislature is completely aware of it, however. This system of grading schools is just a way for the state to cut back on education expenditures because an educated populace is harder to control.

The purpose of this “failing” school list is simply to close down schools.

"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.


  1. You can take issue with the “failing school” label, but having a measly 2.2% of students “proficient” in any subject is pretty pathetic. And I know the administration at this school and several of the teachers — they are doing yeoman’s work. These results are discouraging.

    1. I am not arguing that the results aren’t discouraging.

      I’m simply arguing that a ranking of this nature is fundamentally flawed, and that the purpose of the ranking is not to improve education in the state.

      Yes, those numbers are discouraging if (and that’s a significant “if”) the test results are valid.

      As this is the first year this test has been used in the 10th grade, we have no data to compare it with, so it is frankly far too early to tell.

      It is significant that neither of these schools were on the failing list a year ago, however.

  2. It was no nice to see a blog from you in my inbox. It has been awhile. I also appreciate so very much your endless efforts to research the HCS regime of the past 5.5 years and to inform the public. There continue to be board members whose motives and agenda are questionable. I trust that you will be relentless in investigating and exposing those whose priority is not the education of our children.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts. I really appreciate it.

      I’m grateful that there are many others who are also working to keep the public informed these days. The Times, WHNT, and WAAY are all doing some excellent reporting these days.

  3. Honestly, I think switching to an objective goalpost would be worse. There are so many schools that are objectively failing that it would kill entire districts; just compare property values among the Madison county high school zones.

    Why do we wonder that they don’t care about tests on information that has nothing to do with helping them solve their current problems or preparing them for their future struggles? Why are we surprised when they act out of frustration and boredom?

    The entire system needs a new metric of “success”. One test designed to help colleges measure you is so limited it’s useless.

    1. You’ve already touched on a solution.

      We don’t really need an artificial metric like a test that might or might not predict how a student will do on a test that might or might not predict success in college, that itself might or might not predict success in life.

      It’s fairly easy upon even a cursory observation the difference between a strong and weak school.

      These tests exist primarily to make money for the testing company.

      They are not adequate evaluators of anything other than maybe a Kid’s ability to take a test.

      1. I’m not convinced the Legislature is fully aware or want to be aware and understand. They hide their collective heads in the sand and tell those concerned it’s a state department of education problem. Then they turn around and want monies from the ETF and keep trying to find ways to get their hands in the RSA cookie jar.

        It’s all about money to them as a body of “leaders”.

        They also listen to lobbyists and those who silence teachers from speaking out.

        Teachers have got to find their voice and speak up and speak out. It will cost them some in the short while but will save their jobs in the long haul. Most teachers work hard and long, not because it’s a job but a calling. Most Teachers have always trusted those in authority over them. That time for many is gone.

        Teaching has become “hard” not because of subject matter or kids but because of hundreds of regulations, rules and directives, the loss of support within individual schools and the loss of an independent creative spirit.

        Legislators in Alabama have lost their minds when it comes to education. Teachers have lost their voice. The greatest loss is to our students and their families.

  4. OK … I see these problems. What I don’t see is a clear solution. I think the school system has several problems … some more serious than others. Pointing out problems is an extremely important first step … but, the second step (identifying the “best” solution, realizing that no solution is perfect) and third step (implementing the solution by whatever means necessary) are also crucial to solving the problem. What we need now is a leader to propose a “best” solution … and another leader to sell it to parents, BoE, and political leadership. I speculate that the school “system” is currently so swamped with problems that these issues will not be addressed in the near term. So, what are our options?

    1. Well, as I mentioned above, the “problem” of identifying weak schools is not much of a problem.

      Addressing the problem of weak schools is much harder. There remains a correlation be educational performance and poverty, so redirecting our elected officials away from their attempts to close public schools by labeling them failing and towards addressing poverty instead would be a great start.

      Since getting an elected official to even acknowledge poverty is extremely difficult (credit to Ms. Ferrell for at least mentioning poverty), some stop gap measures would be to make teaching at high poverty schools more attractive to our best and most experienced teachers by giving them more freedom to modify their approaches to education in their classrooms, and perhaps by paying them more.

      Of the teachers I know, freedom would be a FAR better incentive.

      How’s that for a start?

      1. As to identifying weak or failing schools, I was hoping that you would suggest a viable metric … some meaningful objective minimum “standard” of performance that would allow comparison and evaluation of schools … statewide and nationwide. The term “failing school” is meaningless without a meaningful standard.

        Acknowledging that poverty is a factor is not a novel or disputed fact … but, many have risen above poverty … embraced education … and excelled. A better indicator of success is not financial status but parental emphasis on education. I hope that Dr. Ben Carson will have success in his new job as HUD Secretary … he is an example of a very financially poor student who succeeded … because of his Mother’s refusal to accept anything short of his best effort. Parental emphasis is “the” success indicator.

        The reality is that school systems have no control over poverty or parental commitment to education … so … the school system must adapt and overcome. Your suggestion of using our best teachers (who are paid more) in failing schools is an excellent option which deserves serious consideration. At the very least, this option should be given a limited trial to assess the impact. Perhaps great teachers can overcome parental indifference … perhaps not. Worth a try.

        Your second suggestion … of allowing teachers to use their own intelligence, experience, and knowledge of their students to customize or tailor the educational plan is essential. One size does not fit all. Even before the advent of IEPs, savvy teachers knew how to get the best results from their students. The Common Core approach is counterproductive to education … as common sense would predict. Every teacher should retain complete control of their classroom … just as every pilot has complete control of their aircraft. Teachers must be trusted … and respected … and … allowed to teach.

        1. For starters, I reject the need of a metric (and especially a single metric as our current system considers) that allows for the education offered at one school to be objectively compared to the education offered at another school.

          I meant it when I said that everyone benefits from participating in education.

          If I were forced to develop a means of comparing schools, I would attempt to include a wide variety of points of comparison.

          Some of those would include: test results, graduation rate, retention, teacher education and experience, administration education and experience, parental involvement, and curricula variety (arts, sciences, languages, extra curricula support and inclusion).

          However, I still reject the necessity of comparing schools to one another.

          Your idea that everyone acknowledges that poverty plays a role in education is quite often a disputed fact in my experience, but I’m glad to hear that it isn’t in yours.

          Of course people overcome poverty. Education is the silver bullet for this.

          Parental emphasis is absolutely crucial; a parent having time to emphasize things (as opposed to having to work 80 hours a week to make ends meet) brings us right back around to the issue of poverty. Yes, there are those who manage to do both. Making it a little easier, just a little, would be helpful. It wouldn’t solve every problem (yeah, there are parents who don’t see the value or importance of education. I’m not sure how we overcome that problem right now.)

          I agree that school systems have little control or influence over the poverty level found in the system.

          Thanks for the support for moving our best teachers to our weakest schools as well as supporting individualized education. My son, who has an IEP, is frankly getting a better education than my daughter who doesn’t.

          One thing that taking an individualized approach would require is smaller classrooms.

          Just making the classes smaller alone isn’t enough, but making them smaller _and_ taking an individualized approach to education, in my experience, does work.

          Thanks for the discussion and for challenging me to do more than identify a problem. I’ve discussed much of this in other posts here as well, but it’s important to reiterate them. So thanks!

          1. First, as difficult and unfair as it may seem, there must be a “method” of comparing schools … otherwise, how can we identify schools that require help (our best teachers, smaller classes, additional resources, etc)? I was wrong to suggest that there should be a single “golden rule” metric … all of those items you mentioned combine to produce a comprehensive “picture” of school performance. I really like your scope and methodology. This school “merit” concept should be sold to BoE and politicians vice the current 6% solution … which is the craziest idea I have ever read. Also, the personnel who collect/compile the school merit data must be independent of the school and school system to ensure data is not corrupt.

            You have done an excellent job of identifying problems … and suggesting potential solutions to the problems … now we need an effective implementation plan … otherwise, all efforts are wasted time. So, the challenge is … who has the ability and is willing to execute the solutions? How do we make this happen?

            1. We contact our board members, we hire superintendents who support this type of approach, we contact our mayor, or state representatives, and our national representatives and share our views with them.

              We vote for people who support approaches to public education that seek to make schools better rather than those that seek simply to turn them into a profit center.

          2. Huntsville City Schools is a major contributor to the number of adults who must work two jobs to make ends meet. Nearly all of their support staff is paid at wages which qualify for government assistance! I’m sure the aide who works with your son doesn’t get sick time or yearly raises. Take a look at the published payscale for HCS some time: it’s quite enlightening.

  5. Came over to see if you had posted lately and was glad to see this post. Yes, an educated populace is harder to control! Closing and renaming schools is a shell game. My daughter’s wonderful kindergarten teacher quit HCS because the loss of freedom and personal control in his classroom made him miserable. He was one of those teachers who really understood that different kids need different things, not a cookie cutter approach and constant regulation/testing. Keep fighting the good fight!

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