Meet Joe Blacker. The day after the science teacher was hired by Kelsey Park School here, his new employer made the British government's list of worst schools.
Never before had a list like this been released to the public. But in May 1997, the newly elected Labour Party felt some housecleaning was in order. The 18 failing schools were front-page news.
A year and a half later, Mr. Blacker is adamant that it was a bad way to deal with Kelsey Park, which was taken off the list Oct. 1. "I'm still trying to figure out how it helped the school," he says. "It didn't help me."
Blacker echoes what many educators in Britain feel about what's been dubbed "naming and shaming": It's an insensitive policy riddled with bad effects. It's also a good example of how quick-fix approaches to improving education don't work.
Consider Kelsey Park. The school had a new headmaster and was in the process of addressing its problems, including poor financial management and quality of teaching. It had been cited by the government on these things a year before, but its inclusion on a list of schools with long-term problems came as a surprise to many. (Headmaster Richard Harknett first learned KPS was on the list when a reporter called him for comment.)
After the announcement, teacher and student morale headed south. The all-male, largely inner-city pupils had no choice but to wear their uniforms, which became the educational equivalent of a scarlet letter. "I couldn't be proud," one student says, recalling his embarrassment.
Efforts to recruit teachers were hampered. The ones who stayed wondered if the school would be closed. Their ideas for helping students were frequently dismissed by parents, many of whom took their children elsewhere (80 of 800 left). Blacker says he was left with no upper-level chemistry students. And, in an ironic twist, the reduction of students meant less money from the government.
The British Department for Education and Employment appears to have backed off this approach to dealing with failure. No other lists of the country's worst schools have come out since the first one.
But as Britain and the United States (where "testing and shaming" are common) look for ways to better schools, they need to resist impulsive solutions. Improving education takes time and cooperation, and leaves little room for finger-pointing.
Kelsey Park now has a waiting list, thanks to improvements in teaching that were under way before the naming. Headmaster Harknett says those tempted to credit the gains to the government would be way off - "naming" significantly set the school back, he insists. All the failing schools were promised assistance from the government, Kelsey Park got next to none. For their perseverance, educators were rewarded with overwhelming student reaction when the school was cleared this fall. Recalls Gary Hennesy, director of phys ed, "A roar went up like England had just won the World Cup."
* Kim Campbell is the asst. Learning editor. Send e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org