The message from the DOE to its schools is loud and clear: educate our city’s most vulnerable students, and we will come after you. This May, it looks like they did it again.
But to understand what happened in May, we have to travel back to last spring.
In spring 2010, the DOE made choices about high schools that had landed on a federal watch list for persistently low achieving (PLA) schools. For each school, the DOE had to choose a so-called reform model. Not all schools needed to be placed in a model immediately, however, and though phase-out (closing) was one option, the feds did not require it.
Ultimately, the DOE divided the schools into three groups, purportedly basing its decisions on the potential of each school to improve. One group would be given support through “transformation,” a federal reform model. Another group would be slated for closure. In the third group were schools for which DOE made no immediate decision.
So which high schools did the DOE choose for closure? The ones with horrible, terrible, teachers and rotten programs, and miserable principals? That’s what the DOE would have the public think. These are “failing” schools, the DOE says. These schools are “failing our kids.”
But the reality is something different. Almost without exception, the schools DOE has moved to close over the past few years were those that serve the highest concentrations of at-risk students. Now, all the PLA schools serve large numbers of these students, but some serve more than others, and those are the schools DOE moved to close. The schools DOE selected to support, meanwhile, were the ones that had the lowest relative needs overall. The rest — the undecided schools — fell in the middle.
The charts below illustrate last year’s situation. They are arranged so that needs increase as you read from left to right. As the charts illustrate, students entering the closing (red) schools  were more likely to enter overage…
…had the lowest average incoming scores…
…and, according by the DOE’s own indicator (the peer index), were the least ready for high school.
Because averages can only tell part of the story, I am including the following charts that show each school selected for transformation (the support model) and closing. Six of the nine closing schools (again in red) have the highest concentration of students entering overage. Six of the eleven transformation schools had the lowest.
And these charts show the same pattern for incoming scores and overall levels of readiness:
So, what about the schools for which DOE made no decisions last year? Well, this month the DOE decided. Again, the schools were divided up. And, again schools with lower concentrations of at-risk students would be given support through a different federal reform model (called restart).The other group, unassigned as of this writing, has higher needs. If the DOE stays its course, I am worried DOE will want to close these too. Here are the averages for the two groups:
And, here is the school-by-school. Blue schools are schools that will be offered support and you can see they are almost exclusively the schools with fewer needs. For red schools, no announcement has been made:
I cannot emphasize enough that all of the PLA schools serve large numbers of high need students. The truly alarming disparities are between the at-risk schools in this post and the new schools that the DOE has created all around them. Still, even among schools that serve large numbers of high-need students, some concentrations are greater than others. And over and over, rather than grapple with that problem, a problem deeply exacerbated by DOE student assignment policies, DOE buries it by closing down the school.
And always, it’s the bury part that bothers me. Grappling with the challenges of highly concentrated high-need students is overwhelming for even the best educators, let alone the non-educators of DOE. But if DOE would just admit to the mess it has created, that would be a start. Instead, DOE insists that it proposes a school for closing only after a deep thought, a holistic look at school quality, and much-prized feedback from the school community. In fact, to listen to the DOE talk about school closure, you’d think we had Lincoln and his team of rivals in the decision room. But all that’s nonsense. The higher the concentration of at-risk students, the more likely the DOE will want to close it. By all these demographic indicators, the truth is as simple as that.
1 I have used “closing” as shorthand throughout this post, but the UFT, NAACP and others are in court trying to stop the DOE from phasing out these schools.