The phrase "failing schools" has become much more frequently used in American English in the last 30 years, and that tells us something about how Americans feel about how our K-12 education is doing. I've wondered about what precisely this phrase might mean, and so turned to my dictionaries. The first useful definition of failing I found in my Concise Oxford English Dictionary (COED) is "be unable to meet the standards set by (a test)", while Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary yields "to lose strength".
Under this latter definition, schools in general in the United States are failing: as Craig Barrett points out today in The Huffington Post, "the US is essentially the only OECD country where our 25-35 year olds are less well educated than the 55-65 year olds." In California in particular our schools, including even the world-famous University of California, are failing in this sense along with our entire state, and the state legislature in about to make the situation worse: Julia Brownley's Assembly Bill 440, for example, would now require all chartered schools in communities with failing schools to have proportions of English learners--students whose test scores show they been unable to meet the English standards set by the relevant state tests--that are equal to those in the failing schools the families involved have been trying to flee, in which case what is the point of trying to get the chartered schools' students to learn English and get out of English learner status any faster than in the failing public schools?
But this point is too specific for a general definition of school failure. Having worked in a couple of failing schools, and using the COED definition above and the standards of success I posted yesterday, I would say that a failing school either (I) has no coherent philosophy that guides its faculty's decisions; (II) is governed chaotically, with revolving management; (III) is unevenly staffed, with many unprofessional teachers; (IV) is fraught with unruly, misplaced students; (V) lacks a set, coherent curriculum, or has one that will not yield students able to compete either in the workplace or at the next level of education; (VI) provides nothing like adequate support for students; (VII) lacks any significant co-curricular or after-school life, so that students flee from school as soon as the day's final bell rings; (VIII) lacks the resources necessary to support a competitive school program; (IX) is isolated from its surrounding community, with a hunkered down, fortress-like posture; or some combination of the above.