Every year, Mayor Bloomberg’s DOE creates a new list of struggling schools. Once the schools have been identified, the DOE generally moves to shut them down.
This year of the 21 high schools have landed on Bloomberg’s latest struggling schools list, at least 8 (38%) are new schools that were opened on Bloomberg’s watch.
And, when you consider that Bloomberg’s new high schools represent about 40% of all existing high schools,1 you quickly realize that Bloomberg is shutting his new schools at about the same rate that he shuts the older ones. Put another way, this year, DOE is thinking of closing 5.4% of its new schools and 5.8% of its old.
Figure out the sense in that. But if you can’t (because I can’t), read on.
Schools Targeted for Closing
Which new schools are in the crosshairs for closing down? The ones that teach high-need students, of course, and particularly students specifically identified for special focus (students in self-contained classes). As I’ve been saying for a few years now (for example, here, and here), virtually every school that serves these students in higher percentages has become a target for the DOE. Generally, that has meant older schools because new schools do not take self-contained students in large numbers. Old schools close, and new ones open. But now we see that if the new schools educate self-contained students, then the DOE generally labels them as failures too.
Students who are in self-contained classes are unlike any other demographic group commonly used to determine the level of academic challenge a school confronts. When we identify the percent of students who live in poverty, for example, we are identifying a possible learning challenge by proxy. Poor students do tend to struggle in school, but of course not every poor child struggles.
Self-contained students are different. Every single one of these students has been specifically identified by a team of experts to have cognitive or emotional difficulties that significantly impede their learning. Thus, the percent of student who are in small, self-contained classes in a given school gives us a very direct window into a school’s level of challenge. That doesn’t mean they represent the extent of a school’s needs (these schools generally have high rates of poverty as well, for example), but they are a very good place to start.
Of course the DOE does not simply look at the demographics of a school and then label it a failure. Rather, DOE awards each school a letter grade after it runs the achievement data through a formula that is intended to tease out the differences in school performance after the differences in populations have been factored out. Theoretically, all schools have an equal chance of getting good grades. That’s the theory, but in reality, schools with fewer challenges get a lot more A’s and schools with higher challenges get more D’s and F’s. (For statistical details, see this post by UFT analyst Rhonda Rosenberg). Thus, DOE gives the public the illusion that it is taking a sophisticated look at school performance, but, by and large, it’s not.
To illustrate the point consider the 98 high schools where not a single student needs self-contained support. Over three quarters of these schools (78%) got A’s or B’s. Only 5 of the schools got D’s — but none of those D’s are targeted for closing. None of these schools got F’s.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum sit 19 schools where 10% or more of the students have been identified as needing the special focus of self-contained classes. The Progress Report grades for these schools — and their destinies — are nearly a mirror image of the others. Half of these schools are either already closing, or are newly listed for possible closing. Two more have been targeted for closure in the past (and were saved by the UFT). Four are in danger for next year because they have a C on their Progress Report and have never had above a B.
- 0% self contained = 98 Schools never in danger of closing
- 10% self-contained = 19 schools of which 75% are in danger of closing or already closing
New Schools, Old Schools. No Difference.
I said at the start of this post that at least 8 (or 38%) of the schools that landed on the latest list of “struggling-schools” are new schools. As with the old schools, demographics drive their destiny.
Let’s compare. If we line up all the new schools that are old enough to have received grades, and then we zero in on the 10% that have the highest concentration of self-contained students, we wind up with 15 schools with concentrations ranging between 7.8 and 13.2%. For comparison, we have 32 older schools with self-contained concentrations in the same range. Take a look at the results.
|Comparison of New and Old Schools by Percent of Students Identified for Focus (self-contained)|
|Type of school||% self contained||No. of schools||Already closing||Being considered for closing||% D’s & F’s||% A’s & B’s|
|Schools with no self-contained students||0%||98||0%||0%||5%||78%|
*This captures the 10% of all new schools with the highest concentrations.
If anyone believes that the policy of closing schools is a winning one, then the chart above should give them pause. Old or new, schools with high concentrations, have high failure rates on the Progress Reports, and slide toward closure.
And it’s not just the school grades that stay the same. Here are the graduation and attendance rates, as well as the survey safety scores from the new and old high-concentration schools. You tell me what’s changed.
|Comparison of New and Old Schools by Percent of Students Identified for Focus (self-contained)|
|Type of school||% self contained||No. of schools||Graduation rate||Attendance||Safety survey score|
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, of course. At the new schools, the principals got to pick their teachers and create their cultures. DOE policies meant that student populations in new schools could not grow beyond a certain size (about 525 kids), and the small size had the potential benefit of making education more personal for students.
So what went wrong?
Conclusion — And A Way Forward
Frankly, what went wrong is pretty much what the UFT said would go wrong. DOE is fascinated by measures, systems, and accountability, and that’s not the same as a fascination with education and real schools. Have you ever had dinner with a bunch of teachers and there’s one non-teacher, some luckless spouse, at the table with you? The teachers are busy trading secrets of the trade, and the non-teacher is glancing at his watch. For the non-teacher, it’s a long night. For DOE it’s been a long ten years.
Here are some of the things DOE needed to do, but didn’t, and while I recognize that DOE likes to be cutting edge, and everything has to be new, new, new, all the time, the fact is that the ideas teachers have been suggesting for ten years now are the ones that sooner or later, the DOE ought to try:
Focus on academic diversity in school admissions. As DOE knows, high concentrations of high need students overwhelm schools and undermine academic achievement across the school. Yet when DOE began to break up large schools, and institute a free-choice admission program, it did nothing to ensure that student populations under the new policies would be academically diverse. Quite the opposite in fact. Current admissions and accountability policies actually encourage most schools to market themselves to the “best” kids, leaving a system that is segregated in nuanced and troubling ways. And that means that other schools, like the ones that are the focus of this post, wind up with higher concentrations.
Giving families choice in a city as large as New York is a great thing and there’s no reason it shouldn’t continue. But as families select schools during the admission process, the DOE must ensure that the schools accept a diverse population in all but a few select schools that have special admission policies driven by stellar academic achievement, special talents, or truly unique programs.
Connect the schools. High-concentration schools need to be brought into a common fold where they can share what they know, receive direct on-the-ground support, and be directly connected through the central DOE to the best thinking on education. That’s what these schools need, but with DOE the attitude is basically “into the deep water with you, and let’s see if you can swim.” For the DOE, schools are start-up businesses and principals are their entrepreneurs who must choose networks that in turn spend a lot of time marketing various services and approaches to principals. Across a city of about 1600 schools, each school is expected to reinvent its own wheel, mostly through a blend of guesswork, political and budget considerations, and historical allegiances. What a ridiculously inefficient use of talent that ought to be directed at implementing proven ideas in thoughtful ways. Schools are not Goolge, they are not Apple, they are not Starbucks. The go-go entrepreneurial philosophy that experiments with groundbreaking products, discards some and sells others — this does not work for most schools, and it certainly cannot work for these.
Focus on school-wide issues. Politically, at least, it is much easier to imply that the fate of schools rests entirely on its classrooms where teachers can be bashed and teacher evaluation can be fetishized to kingdom come. But it is a lot smarter to put some of that energy into improving the things that lift all boats. These include intelligent programming; thoughtful attendance protocols; appropriate student academic and emotional support; and a school-wide shared understanding about what to do when students in crisis disrupt the education of other students. Schools that focus on these things do better academically, but very little of the DOE’s talent goes to figuring this out and scaling it up. All minds are bent only on how to leverage the results of Progress Reports and find someone to blame.
Or someone to incentivize. Because in response to the lack of improvement for high need students, the DOE ‘s only solution so far is giving schools extra credit if they move self-contained students out of their small (expensive) classes. Shutting their schools didn’t work; it’s hard to see how it will help to shut their classes.
Academic diversity, a single network, and a focus on school-wide conditions — those are just three suggestions, and I know they are suggestions that are likely to be ignored. But as we head into the closure season, let’s not be fooled into thinking that we are somehow improving schools. When new schools close at the same rate as the old ones, we know that it’s a bankrupt strategy, and it’s time for DOE to know that too.
1 The new high schools included in this post are those opened in 2003 or later, and established long enough to receive a Progress Report grade. Data can be found in the Progress Report data sets here.