Why are So Many of America’s Schools Failing?

National award-winning principal Stephen Wallis details his school’s journey from failure to excellence, providing insights—perhaps an antidote—for struggling school communities throughout America.

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About the Author

Stephen Wallis is a retired high school English teacher and school administrator. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the American Federation of School Administrators Distinguished Leadership Award, which cited him among “the top eight school principals in the nation.” His publications include chapters in books by The Heritage Foundation and The Calvert Institute of Public Policy. He was co-founder and president of the proposed Business Preparatory Institute, a charter high school for urban youths.


Publishing house reviewers & first-rate educators have called DEAD LAST...

"A penetrating, compelling, poignant, and optimistic read”

“An antidote to everything that’s wrong with American schools.”

“Template for CEO’s in understanding how to transform an underperforming and toxic work culture into a rewarding enterprise, resulting in a workplace setting of shared values, momentum, and quality results.”

"A breath of fresh air that offers real hope to all those so disillusioned with the state of American education in the 21st century"


If this book revolves around any one meaningful message, it is that the soul of any school is its character, what the Greeks called ethos, without which meaningful teaching and learning can not—will not—take place.

Many throughout the United States look at the seeming precarious state of national and international affairs and believe, as I do, in the importance of renewing our commitment to the philosophy and tenets of our country’s founding. In doing so, I wonder about the role the declining state of American education has played in our current condition.

We look at our social and cultural state of affairs and find too many Americans devoid of basic knowledge, from their math facts and both oral and written skills to a lack of knowledge of history— American or otherwise. Company managers regularly complain about job candidates’ inability to express themselves. That should be no surprise, as many high school and college graduates lack both hard and soft skills—from writing proficiency; public speaking; and data analysis to critical thinking and problem-solving; paying attention to detail; and understanding leadership, communication, and listening; as well as the importance of interpersonal connections, etiquette, and teamwork. The dearth of workplace talents makes it all the more difficult for graduates to find, much less to hold, the jobs that are increasingly based on knowledge and information. Folks on both sides of the political spectrum, young and old, have bemoaned the continued overall abysmal state of American education.

We have our share of successful schools throughout the country. It is fair to say, however, that American K-12 education annually lags behind the educational systems of many other industrialized nations. Why is it that so many schools appear chaotic, “graduating” students year after year bereft of the most basic skills, much less the ability to think critically?

This is a story of a hard-luck public school that occupied the low end of the achievement scale for years, a school that many teachers felt was not a place where they wanted to teach, a school abhorred by many parents, a number of whom actively sought out other schools or education locales in the effort to provide their youngsters with a better education. Such dreadfully poor-performing, disruptive school environments can undergo remarkable transformation, when there are underlying values that revolve around character and a tireless, near-monomaniacal emphasis on self-discipline, quality instruction, continuous improvement, making connections with one another, and establishing partnerships—day after day, year after year. It’s a story about hope; about grit, fortitude, determination, caring, passion, perseverance, and teamwork evidenced by students, staff, and parents. It’s a story about character.

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