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Closing Schools: D is for Demographics

In a 2009 presentation, the DoE lists six Guiding Principles that it says it used to shape the formulas behind the High School Progress Reports. These reports assign a letter grade to every school. Here is one of those principles:

Produce outcomes [letter grades] that are not correlated with socioeconomic status, Special Education populations, or other demographic characteristics

That’s a fine principle: schools should not be punished for the academic challenges with which students arrive. But, in reality, the cards do correlate with demographics; the formula is deeply flawed. In spite of all the high-minded principles, the money, and the brains behind them, High School Progress Report grades reflect the academic challenges with which students arrive, rather than the quality of the education they receive.

Certainly this is true for the high schools the DoE wants to close. Primarily, DoE grades schools against cohorts of “peers,” which are schools the DoE claims are demographically similar. A school grades is determined to a large extent by its performance in relation to its peers. When I compared closing schools to their peers, I found that:

• Of the 31 schools that do not serve self-contained Special Education students, 24 were awarded A’s and none got D’s.

• But nearly one third of the schools (29%) were handed D’s if their population consisted of 10% or more of these students. Only 18% of these kinds of schools were rewarded A’s (compared to 77% of schools without these kids).

• That’s 18% vs. 77%. Our statistical expert Rhonda Rosenberg has verified that in the peer groups of closing schools there is a “a significant negative relationship” between a school’s overall Progress Report score and the school’s percentage of self-contained Special Education students. “As the percentage of these students rises, the school’s overall score declines.”

So much for principles. To a significant extent, it’s not quality of education being measured. It’s demographics.

For those wondering what is meant by self-contained, understand that Special Education students are broken into at least two broad categories:

• Low need (LRE) students need some support but can succeed in general education.

• Self-contained (high-need/MRE) students face more significant academic and emotional challenges. In order to thrive, they require intensive support including smaller classes (12 students at most), and significant social, academic and emotional support.

Anyone who has had the privilege of teaching high-need students knows that it can be about the most meaningful and rewarding work that teachers do . But these kids are not statistics. They do not make progress in the same ways that other students do.

The schools the DoE wants to close work with high populations of these students, and the DoE formulas have punished them for it. Last year Columbus had 14%, and got a D. Maxwell with 13% came three-tenths of a point from a C. Smith, with 12%, got a C. Overall, the 14 closing high schools, which all have C’s and D’s, had an average of 8% high need students. “A” schools, meanwhile had an average of 3%, but of the 69 “A’s, a full third of them had none at all.

We already knew DoE managers were shutting schools on our most vulnerable students. And we already knew that they were adjusting their own standard from school to school, and omitting their expensive and intensive Quality Reviews when the reviews didn’t match the outcome preferred by the managers. And, we also knew that DoE had no plan for high-need/self-contained kids once their schools were shut.

But now we know something else. We know that the Progress Report cards are stacked against these schools. DoE didn’t intend this problem, but it did create it. It created Progress Reports that punished schools who served our neediest students, and gave A’s to those that didn’t. Then it blamed the schools and now it wants to close them.

What kind of school system have we become?



  • 1 Ellen Mc Hugh
    · Jan 25, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    Please let me correct one misunderstanding that so many people have about special education…..there is no MRE in the law. The law explicitly states that the LRE is the place where the child,with appropriate supports and services, will learn. The LRE, Least Restrictive Environment, is the right place the first time, it is not a guess, not a game, not a try this til we find the right place. It is not a sliding scale of less to more. Please don’t fall into the trap set by the DOE to confuse and confound parents and advocates

  • 2 Dear Chairman Chang: Don’t Close Schools, Bad Science Does Not Make Good Schools. « Ed In The Apple
    · Jan 26, 2010 at 9:16 am

    […] children without these disabilities, not surprisingly the output was higher graduation rates.   The data from the large high schools reflects the larger numbers of Special Education youngsters and in lower graduation rates in the […]

  • 3 jd2718
    · Feb 18, 2010 at 10:16 am


    you write that the formula is deeply flawed.

    I do not agree. I think the very existence of the Progress Reports is the problem. They were designed to discipline and punish schools, teachers, and students.

    You also write that “DoE didn’t intend this problem” – but neither of us can know intent. But there is a track record. This DoE, Klein and Bloomberg, they have acted against the interests of students, teachers, and schools again and again.

    At best we can claim ignorance – we don’t know their intent. We could make a strong case that intent was present based on their other actions.

    It stretches credulity to claim that they didn’t intend the problems they have created. There is no basis for making such a statement.