Dysfunctional schools are not necessarily under-resourced schools. In fact, many struggling schools do amazing things with minimal resources. And many affluent schools simply cannot seem to get it right, despite having the best of everything.
(That said, severely under-supported and under-funded schools are a different matter altogether. To all intents and purposes, it is physically impossible for a school to function adequately if it receives practically no funding, while servicing a socio-economically disadvantaged community. What follows is not aimed at these schools.)
Dysfunctional schools can be found across the spectrum. And, perhaps controversially, much of what makes them dysfunctional is either poor policy choices or sheer inertia. They are marked by…
- Disengaged, alienated and under-motivated students
- High failure and drop-out rates
- Unhappy teachers and high staff turnover
- Angry and / or apathetic parents
- Discipline problems and behavioral issues
- Poor attendance
- An over-emphasis on grades and canned curricula
- Staff absenteeism
In order to understand what makes a school dysfunctional, I have compiled this handy list of acronyms which go some way towards explaining why schools fail. (You'll notice, I'm sure, that the bulk of these have one of three things in common: failure to nurture staff, the lack of a concern about students, and policies which block innovation.)
(Feel free to suggest your own in the comments section.)
FOOP (Fawning Over Over-Protective Parents)
In place of taking the time to investigate what is really going on, or protecting teachers' professional integrity, school leaders too easily allow parental interference to guide interventions and even policies. (Note: This is not the same thing as dealing with real parental concerns or unprofessional staff.)
DAFT (Do it All For Them)
One of the central outcomes of education is teaching kids to stand on their own two feet and to be confident, independent young citizens. Dysfunctional schools do too much for kids, and this undermines their ability to develop in this way. (Often, this problem is related to FOOPing – see above.)
WEE (Written Exams Are Everything)
This feature of some dysfunctional schools means that most often, teaching is aimed at a final exam, rather than at the acquisition of meaningful twenty-first century skills. It also means that new ideas (such as the integration of technology) are trampled down “because they will still have to write an exam”.
HID (How It's Done)
As in: “We've always done it like this” or “This is how we do things”. Often taking the guise of 'tradition', this insistence on doing things the way they've always been done stunts innovation and growth.
SOS (Syllabus Over Students)
Syllabi are prioritized over the needs of students. (For good schools, the two are not mutually exclusive.)
BASS (But the Authorities Say So)
Poor policies and methodologies are justified by an erroneous appeal to some larger authority. Often this is pedagogical research from the 1960s. More often, it is the government or the education department, as in: a “The Department mandates that we do it this way.”
UM (Urging Mediocrity)
When mediocrity is the safe option, it is tacitly encouraged. At dysfunctional schools, mediocrity is the default setting (in staff and students), and it is seldom challenged.
DRI (Discouraging Real Innovation)
Mostly, this is done by penalizing teachers who fail in the process of trying something new.
PAPP (Pretending a Progressive Pedagogy)
Dysfunctional schools pretend to enhance critical thinking, creativity and all those other wonderful twenty-first century skills. That, or they misrepresent them, and thus dilute them, making creativity akin to making something look pretty, and critical thinking synonymous with some kind of ill-defined 'deep thinking'. And, of course, failing schools will actively discourage real innovation and analytical thinking across the board, because they are afraid of having their own weaknesses revealed.
LOO (Lack Of Opportunities)
Every person at a school, including staff, students, support staff and managers, need to be given opportunities to grow and improve in the ways that they choose. Dysfunctional schools limit these opportunities (often consciously), either by not creating enough of them, or by forcing irrelevant, one-size-fits-all 'enrichment' opportunities on staff and students.
SAP (Seriously Apathetic Parents)
Parents on the other end of the scale from those involved in FOOPing.
NET (Never Enough Time)
Broken schools fail to carve out time for enrichment, innovation, planning, reflection and collaboration. Sometimes, these schools will deliberately create an atmosphere of empty 'busyness' so that they can insulate themselves from having to do these things. (See PAPP above.)
STEM (You Know What it Stands For)
I am a huge proponent and supporter of all things STEM. But not when a focus on STEM goes on to imply that the Liberal Arts and Humanities are either unimportant, or merely a set of cute and fluffy 'enrichment' subjects. Yes, the world does need more analytical thinkers, but not at the expense of artists, dancers, writers, global thinkers and social conscientizers.
MAH (Mass Acquired Helplessness)
Ineffective schools inculcate a culture of learned helplessness. Rather than trying to get things done, or to solve problems independently, staff and students will complain that they don't know how to do something, or that no one showed them how, or that they need someone to do it for them. Robust, healthy schools encourage a sense of empowerment and independence.
LOC (Lack of Communication)
It's one thing for teachers not to communicate with one another. Or for management not communicate with parents. But it's quite another when the management team fail to communicate with one another or with the staff as this makes people feel either imposed upon on undermined. Worse still is when staff try to communicate individually with their management team, and are simply ignored.
SAD (Stay Away from my Domain)
Bad schools encourage separation and isolation. Whether it is an overly rigid and hierarchical structure, or a lack of collaboration between subjects. Worse, because the teaching profession is so fraught with sensitive personalities, teachers in some subjects will often compete with those from another, trying to 'outdo' them in the quantity of homework they give their students, or in their academic results (as if in doing so, they will be seen as better teachers). This is often associated with LOC.