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Success Stories from a Failing School: Teachers Living under the Shadow of NCLB

reviewed by Sarah McCarthey - February 09, 2009

coverTitle: Success Stories from a Failing School: Teachers Living under the Shadow of NCLB
Author(s): Marilyn Johnston-Parsons and Melissa Wilson
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1593117779, Pages: 184, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

Success Stories from a Failing School is a collaborative effort by a university professor and the teachers of an elementary school situated in a large urban district. The voices of the teachers and students ring loudly and clearly from this “failing” school as the authors focus on particular students and events within the larger context of No Child Left Behind, testing, and mandated curriculum. The book is organized into thirteen chapters written by Johnston-Parsons, guidance counselors, classroom teachers and special education teachers interspersed with brief “Recess Stories” written by other teachers reflecting upon a particular event or student.  

The students who attend the school come from poverty with parents who earn low wages in unskilled jobs; they are: “crack babies,” children who are abused, neglected, moved from one foster home to another, children who live in battered women’s shelters, have ADHD, or a learning disability. They are also children who are loved by grandparents and other relatives, learn a second language, become leaders, learn to read and enjoy literature, construct portraits of their lives using digital cameras, and are participants in the larger “village” of Park School.

Teachers tell the stories of their students—sad stories and happy stories, stories of failure and success. They tell the stories of having their school in “lockdown” because of strangers entering the building or nonguardian parents showing up to take their children. They tell stories like Abdul’s who learned to vent his frustrations through pictures and words rather than fighting and swearing. They tell stories of parents who come to the school to teach others about food from the Sudan, stories of students who are learning complex concepts, and stories of attitudes towards school changing from negative to enthusiastic. Teachers tell stories about their huge investment in the success of children by visiting students’ homes so the children could get needed services, assembling homework kits with resources children lacked at home, and meeting with parents to communicate their children’s successes.

The authors also tell the larger story of what happened at Park School as an indirect consequence of No Child Left Behind. They describe the shift from having rich conversations about literature with students, going on field trips where students learned about art or the community, and supporting writing of students’ own stories to a mandated curriculum, a focus on testing, and eventually a school that is closed.

What happened at Park School? The teachers describe how they began as a community of caring teachers with a concerned principal who welcomed parents and children, but due to the demands related to NCLB, became disillusioned and deskilled. The main culprit in the story of Park School is “The SCRIPT.” In the collaborative chapter “Living in the Land of the Scripted Reading Program” the teachers take turns writing the history of a common curriculum developed to address the consequences of student mobility. This common curriculum, initially written by teachers, became a living nightmare, called “The SCRIPT.” It was so explicit, sequential, and lockstep that all teachers were directed to be on the same page at the same time; the focus of the reading program was on specific skills and decoding specific words at the expense of learning strategies, making inferences, or drawing conclusions from texts. The SCRIPT began to control teachers’ lives, becoming more ingrained in the school culture as it was adopted citywide throughout all grade levels. The “script police,” officials from the district who would monitor whether the teachers were following the curriculum, arrived periodically at the school, instilling fear and resentment. As a result of the adherence to the curriculum, teachers were not able to take field trips, use tools and activities they thought were meaningful, or have students meet in small groups because these activities were not part of the SCRIPT. Not only did they have little input into the curriculum as a whole, but teachers no longer had control of daily decisions about assignments and activities. They reported becoming less child-centered and more academic in their curriculum and feeling that they became less sensitive to diversity than before the SCRIPT. When teachers wrote to administrators at the district to share their critique of the curriculum, it was ignored, and teachers feared reprisals and sanctions.  

Success Stories from a Failing School is a strong testament to the failures of oppressive mandates and a focus on standardized testing linked to No Child Left Behind. At the same time, the book champions students and teachers who come together to learn in spite of the huge obstacles they face. What the book does not accomplish as well is making the link between the school closure and its label as a “failing school.” In Chapter 13, the fifth-grade teacher writes about what he was able to do with his students once the standardized testing season was over. The Epilogue, less than two pages long, relates the news that teachers at Park School were receiving bonus pay because their school had reached three of its four goals once the district used “value-added data” to the standardized test scores. The author of the epilogue also notes how sad it was that teachers could not be together since the school had been closed and teachers dispersed around the city. However, like the teachers who wondered why the school had closed—was it the teachers’ complaints about using the Script, or the students’ failure to make AYP, or the district’s need to consolidate schools that resulted in the closure of Park School--the reader is left to make the link between NCLB and the school closure. The implicit message from the cover and the brief explanatory paragraph in the opening chapter is that the school closure was related to its status as a “failing school.”

While the lack of clear explanations for the closure leaves the reader a bit dissatisfied, the book as a whole makes a valuable contribution to the literature on the effects of mandated testing and curriculum (e.g., Cawthorn, 2007; Darling-Hammond, 2007; Finnegan & Gross, 2007; McCarthey, 2008a, 2008b; Nichols & Berliner, 2007). It raises questions about the consequences of a law that had the goals of raising standards, diminishing the achievement gap between white students and students of color, and assuring that students had access to high quality teachers, but has many unintended consequences. Because the book is written by teachers with the strong support of a university professor, it lends grass roots evidence for the growing number of educators who are questioning the extreme emphasis on standardized testing; the focus on narrow skills in reading and math at the expense of more thoughtful, integrated and relevant curriculum; the penalties for schools who do not make AYP; and a lack of funding to support students who are not passing that have resulted from the implementation of NCLB. It also describes in detail the lesser-known consequences such as the loss of close relationships among teachers, students, and parents and the disengagement of individual students and teachers from a system that rewards only those who score well on standardized tests.


Cawthon, S.W. (2007). Hidden benefits and unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind policies for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. American Educational Research Journal, 44 (3), 460-492.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2007). Race, inequality and educational accountability: The irony of “No Child Left Behind.” Race Ethnicity and Education, 10(3) 245-260.

Finnagan, K.S., & Gross, B. (2007). Do accountability sanctions influence teacher motivation? Lessons from Chicago’s low-performing schools. American Educational Research Journal, 44 (3), 594-629.

McCarthey, S.J. (2008a). The impact of No Child Left Behind on teachers’ writing instruction. Written Communication, 25, 462-505.

McCarthey, S.J. (2008b). Understanding English language learners’ identities from three perspectives. In Guofang Li (Ed.), Multicultural families, HomelLiteracies, and mainstream schooling. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Nichols, S.L., & Berliner, D. C. (2007). Collateral damage: How high stakes testing corrupts America’s schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 09, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15565, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 12:07:54 PM

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About the Author
  • Sarah McCarthey
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    E-mail Author
    SARAH MCCARTHEY is Professor of language and literacy in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is co-editor of Research in the Teaching of English (with Mark Dressman and Paul Prior). Her research interests include teachersí literacy practices within current policy contexts and studentsí literacy learning and identity development. Her most recent work includes: McCarthey, S. J. (2008). The impact of No Child Left Behind on teachersí writing instruction. Written Communication, 25, 462-505. McCarthey, S. J. (2008). Understanding English Language Learnersí Identities from Three Perspectives. In Guofang Li (Ed.), Multicultural Families, Home Literacies, and Mainstream Schooling. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
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