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New Middle Schools, Same Old Challenges

New schools find themselves more likely to be identified as Focus schools on the state's new Focus list

New schools find themselves more likely to be identified as Focus schools on the state’s new Focus list.

A lot of middle schools have closed these past ten years in New York City and a whole lot more have opened up. In fact, nearly a third of our middle schools are new, and when we look at the higher need schools, the proportion jumps to 43%. These new schools opened as part of a reform agenda whose ideas are simple and familiar to all of us: empower principals to pick their staff and then focus “like a laser” on achievement. Hold the staff accountable; threaten schools with closure if they fail. And if you do that, the theory goes, they will be far more likely to succeed.

So how’s that working out?

Apparently not very well. The state has designated 100 middle schools in NYC as Focus schools. New schools are over-represented:

  • One third of the middle schools are new schools, but they represent 40% of the Focus list.
  • 43% of the higher need middle schools are new, but they represent 58% of the higher-need schools on the Focus list

Details follow, but what this means is that, at least according to the state, once new schools reach high concentrations of high-need kids, they are overwhelmed by the same challenges as the old schools down the block.

Here are the charts and explanations.

Just before Labor Day, the state announced its list of schools that would be the center of improvement plans under the provisions of New York’s NCLB waiver. Details about the waiver and the new identification system can be found here, but basically, the new system replaces the old one where schools were labeled as strugglers (SURR, SINI, etc.) based on test-score performance. The new system incorporates some progress measures (growth on state tests) and replaces the old designations with two new ones: Priority and Focus. Priority schools are the ‘first tier’ of struggling schools (the state’s bottom 5%), and Focus schools are the second (the next 10%, with some flexibility).

Now, if reforms are working, then we would expect few new middle schools to wind up cited by the state. Yet one third of the city’s middle schools are new schools and — lo and behold — so are one third of the schools on each list. Or to be accurate, 34 and 39.7 percent.

All middle schools

Troubling as that is, an even more troubling picture emerges when we zero in on the Focus list, and then zero in again on the schools with the higher needs. The Focus list is a more current barometer of struggles in new schools than the Priority list because the latter contains what one might call “historical” schools (old PLA schools and schools already closing). When these schools were first cited, fewer of the new schools had been around for more than a year or two. That’s not to say that there are no new schools on the Priority list (as above, 16 altogether), but one doesn’t generally close or label schools that are brand new.

So, if we want to see how new schools fare as they mature, we need to look at the Focus schools. And once we look at Focus schools with higher needs (schools in the bottom half of the DOE Peer Index1), we see that new schools are over-represented. They account for 58% of those Focus schools even though they represent only 43% of higher-need schools over all.

Bottom half of peer group

And if we go to the schools with the very highest need — the bottom quartile, instead of the bottom half — the gap is even wider: they represent 40% of all schools and 66% of those on Focus list.

But why, you may be wondering, am I including only schools in the bottom half of the DOE’s peer index? It’s simple: that’s the only place I can get a legitimate comparison between older and newer schools. The peer index gives us a good starting approximation of the level of challenge each school faces (i.e., the concentration of high need students). When we look at Focus schools that come from the bottom half of the peer index, we see that they have similar concentrations of needs whether they are new or old. That matters. After all, if the new schools had a lot more need, then that might explain why so many are listed. But when we look at the bottom half of the index, we see that this is not the case. First, overall, new and old schools in the bottom half of the index had about the same level of need. But even more important, as the chart below makes clear, the 58% (23) of the higher need Focus schools that are new schools are no more needy than the 42% (17) of the schools that are older. If anything, when it comes to new schools, their concentration of need is a little less. Here is a chart comparing the two groups of Focus schools, the same schools listed in the chart above 2:

Bottom half of peer group

Since the challenges the two groups of schools face are so similar, we can’t attribute their greater presence on the Focus list to greater levels of challenge from the kids.

When we look at the top half of the peer list, on the other hand, the picture changes. Here, we discover that the new schools (only one of which wound up on the Focus list) have much lower needs than the old schools that do get listed. Of course overall these schools, old or new, have lower concentrations of challenged kids than the schools in the bottom half of the index. But compared to 21 older schools from the top half that are now Focus schools, the new schools still have less poverty, higher incoming scores, and lower rates of self contained special education. Here are the average demographics of 39 of the 40 new schools in the upper half, compared with the demographics of old schools that landed on the list.

Top half of peer group

There were a total of 40 new middle schools in the top half of the peer index. Only one wound up on the Focus list. The other 39 are averaged here.3

The fact that so many high-need new schools found themselves on a state list does not mean that these schools are terrible. What it does mean is that a good many high-need students are facing challenges that are much larger than almost anyone from this decade of reformers seem prepared to admit. It is convenient to believe that changing the name on the schoolhouse door will change the outcome, but it won’t. Nor will changing teachers (after all, at new schools, principals choose their staff).

Schools and their teachers can, of course, dramatically change children’s lives, but not systemically, not sustainably, and not alone — at least not if they are under the current trajectory of reform. Kids can’t be just trained up into math and reading as if those skills were somehow isolated from the conditions around them. Poverty matters. And while schools can’t address all the ills of poverty, the problem of the past ten years has been that we have been operating as if those ills can simply be erased by teachers in their class.

So what should be the new focus for the Focus schools? First, alleviate the concentrations of high-need students in some schools by intelligently evolving the laissez-faire choice systems currently in at work in the city. Second, focus on conditions, school cultures, and the skills that children need to do well across academic disciplines (math and reading, yes, but much more than that: focus, perseverance, a reluctance to be distracted from the challenging work at hand). Teachers have been saying this for years.

And, third, use schools as a place to redress some of the stresses that children and their families face beyond the schoolhouse door. Some people call the schools that do that community schools, and some use words like “collective impact.” But, either way, if it takes a village, then let’s call on the village, and let’s invite into our schools the very best the village has to offer, whether it be health and dental services, student mentors and supports, or classes for the parents of our kids.

Perhaps what the state’s new school lists tell us is that the reform models of the past ten years are largely failed reforms. It’s time to turn the page.

1 To determine level of need, I used the Department of Education’s peer index, which incorporates student scores, special education status and other indicators of student challenge. The peer Index can be found in the 2011 Progress Report files at schools.nyc.gov.

2 Some demographic data (poverty, ELL, and self-contained special education) come from the CEP demographic snapshot file also at schools.nyc.gov

3 For those following the ins and outs of the data, we can narrow that comparison even further, and the results remain virtually unchanged. We can look at only those 31 new schools in the top half that actually fall into the range of the old schools that made the Focus list. This eliminates any very low-challenge new schools that would skew the data to the disadvantage of the new schools. But even when we compare only the new schools that fall within the range of the old schools on the Focus list, we see that the new schools do not have a similar intensity of need to those older Focus schools. True, their overall peer index number is virtually the same (2.6), but these 31 new schools have 62% poverty, 5.3% ELL students, 3.3% self-contained students, and incoming scores of 3.05. Compare that to the needs in the older schools on the Focus list : 75.7% poverty, 12% ELL students, 5.8% self contained students, and scores of 2.95 (documented on the final chart of the main post, as well).



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    · Sep 20, 2012 at 8:38 pm

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  • 2 Gisella Civale
    · Sep 25, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    How long will it take for the system to change? The children and teachers donot need any more statistics. The system needs smaller class size, more guidance counselors, more outreach programs to the communities. I was a teacher for 32 years. I think you should listen to some of the old seasoned salt as we were forced out. Look at we achieved with less statistics and more compassion caring and giving the students an ear when it was needed. Remember the students are human beings not machines. Teachers are burning out because the paperwork is enourmous. When do they have time to teach?