Belief in the “bad school” is at the heart of modern school reform and accountability methods. We don’t always call them bad schools of course (failing schools?) but the concept is always the same. These are the schools that are failing students, that need to be fixed and that good parents need to avoid.

Standardized testing is a tool often used to identify which are the bad schools and which are the good ones. Education systems differ with how they respond to this information. Some try to help the bad schools while others simply close them and open up newer (better?) schools. But this is all predicated on the idea that we can identify which are the bad schools.

International testing programs such as PISA, TIMMS and PIRLS are examples of this practice taken to the nth degree. By using standardized testing, so the logic goes, we can determine where the good school systems are. Then the bad school systems can learn from them and become good.

School choice programs in their many forms are another example of a reform based on the premise that we can identify who the bad schools are. Parents who have children in a bad school should be able to move their child to a good school. Who can possibly disagree with a parent who wants the best for their child?

The main problem with these reforms is that bad schools simply don’t exist. Proponents of this thinking are missing the trees for the forest.

A school is not a single fixed entity that can be definitively labelled. The learning that happens in a school is dependent on many factors, but the relationship between educators and students is critical. Human relationships are complex  and complicated beasts that change and evolve over time. The question of whether a school is effective or not must always be asked in the context of “for which student?”.

Anyone who’s attended school can remember effective teachers and others who weren’t. What we may not appreciate, however, is that in every class we attended, no matter who the teacher was, effective or not, there was a group of students who were having the exact opposite experience that we were.

Students are incredibly diverse. The teacher who is too laissez faire for one student is the very same teacher who allows another student the “room to breathe” and to “express their individuality”. Some students crave structure while others run from it. Competition brings out the best in some students while others shrink from it. Educators work to meet all of these diverse needs in a single, flexible program.

Further complicating this task is that students are constantly changing and growing. At the start of each school year I take head shots of students. At the end of the school year I give those pictures back to students and they are often amazed at how much they have changed in just ten short months.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg of change when we include the other emotional and intellectual development occurring. I may be very effective at teaching a student in September, less effective in December and more effective again in May. Of course, teachers themselves change and grow and other students, support staff, the physical environment and student capacity all affect student learning.

This very complex dance of interactions take place every day in every classroom in a school and are the reason school based learning is much too complex be reduced to a simple good or bad dichotomy. Schools aren’t a single spotlight, they just look like a spotlight if you’re standing far away from them. Schools are more like a thousand small beams of light, moving in concert, shifting, individually dimming and brightening in an effort to meet the needs of students.

Schools are not effective all the time, because perfection is a theoretical concept, not a realistic expectation. When schools don’t meet all the needs of a student, without minimizing this, it’s also important to remember that there are many other students successfully learning under those same conditions.

When we think about education it’s important that we don’t miss the forest for the trees. It’s also important to remember that, like a school, a forest isn’t a single entity, it’s a collective. You can only create a healthy forest one tree at a time.