What makes a school good or bad? And what can be done to turn around a failing school?
Choosing the right school for their children is a major concern for parents around the word. School rankings are one criteria, but do they reflect reality? And what can be done to turn around a failing school?
In many parts of the world, school rankings are based on national exam results. But many people criticize this system which see private schools topping the leaderboards. We went to Portugal to see how fair this approach really is.
Carla Sousa chose for her daughter Catarina the same school that she attended: Basic and Secondary School of Cerco, a public school in a difficult neighborhood of Porto. Never mind that she no longer lives there, and that this school is at the bottom of Portugal’s ranking.
“The school ranking doesn’t worry me at all,” Carla says. “To me it’s important that my daughters feel good, that they succeed at school and that they do their homework.”
Catarina studies Technological Sciences in the 10th grade, and benefits from a scholarship that allows her to also study music. Despite what the ranking says, she’s very happy there. She says the problem is not the education, but pupils’ lack of motivation: “Lots of pupils don’t study, don’t make an effort, but some have good grades and can go to university to study medicine, engineering, law.”
The school’s director, Manuel António Oliveira, says this lack of motivation has a lot to do with poverty and unemployment among families who don’t value education. To him, Portugal’s school rankings, which are mainly based on national exam results and are widely published in the media, just don’t make sense.
“We can’t ignore the rankings, and our school is defined by the state as needing priority attention, but we can’t compare what is not comparable,” he says. “For example, when we talk about colleges or private schools, we’re clearly talking about radically different things, because they select their teachers and their students, and the educational project is tailored for them.”
At the top of the country’s school rankings is Colégio Nossa Senhora do Rosário, a private school in one of Porto’s poshest neighborhoods. But even its director, Maria Teresa Nogueira, says it’s not relevant to use purely academic criteria for these rankings, “because students are much more than that.”
“To compare academic criteria between public and private schools can be unfair. Let’s face it, private schools like ours benefit from favorable conditions for success,” she says.
Her school offers tailored education where pupils can pursue extracurricular activities and work on a volunteer project. Nogueira even says she’s educating tomorrow’s leaders. The school costs around 500 euros a month, but parents see it as a good investment and pupils feel privileged to attend it. One of them, Carolina Magalhães Silva, says: “It helps me become a better person and all of this will open doors for me in the future – doors that wouldn’t be open if I was in another school.”
Failing yesterday, thriving today
Is it possible to transform a failing school into a competitive one? If so, what steps need to be taken to boost academic achievement? We went to Germany to see an example of how school performance can be turned on its head.
Gropiusstadt, a poor neighborhood in Berlin, was once home to a school infamous for its dropouts, violence and overwhelmed teachers. “What happened outside of school was what mattered most, and our teachers were only reacting and trying to handle groups that had inevitably formed and were openly fighting with each other,” said Reinald Fischer, its principal.
Parents launched a petition, and an idea popped up that proved remarkably successful: the neighboring elementary school merged with the middle school. They now share a single campus, and a comprehensive education project. Cooperation with social workers was strengthened, and teacher-pupil relations revamped.
“You can call this an almost complete turnaround. A school close to having to shut down turned into something remarkable, where all kinds of new things are being tried out, and where people work towards a common goal,” said social worker Guido Beneke.
The neighborhood remains a tough one and child poverty is a real issue. But the project got strong support. “We managed to hire teachers who were interested in the project, interested in the common campus and interested in the relational work that we offer here,” Fischer said.
Eighty percent of the school’s teachers were replaced. Among the new ones is Erkan Karakaya. He came from the South, where salaries are higher and social tensions in schools generally lower.
“The fact that they were turning everything upside down at this school was decisive for me. I come from a more conservative system, where change is generally not welcome,” he said.
At Campus Efeuweg, he can try new things to improve behaviors, such as having pupils paint their own classroom.
There’s now one dedicated teacher for every age group. This fosters mutual trust and respect, something that was clearly lacking before. As pupil Jasim Ljuma put it: “We have new teachers and they know better how to impose themselves. They’re also nicer, but basically they have more authority.”
And to make the new campus even more attractive, just next door a new high school is being built, where pupils will one day be able to complete their A-levels.
“Those are the objectives – in five years from now we’re hoping to offer a comprehensive concept that’s well-planned, well-resourced, that’s what we’re hoping for,” Fischer said.
That would also prove that even the least privileged neighborhoods can have good schools.