How does the DOE decide which high schools to close? For the third straight year, and all claims to a nuanced review of quality aside, the schools the DOE chooses to shut are simply those that dare to teach the students with the city’s highest needs. There’s nothing terribly nuanced about it at all. (For previous years, see here and here).
Even though DOE claims that the Progress Report grades are demographically neutral, DOE did not fail a single high school with lowest concentrations of high-need students (that top 1/3 in dark green).1 And, though the D’s and F’s are spread across the bottom 2/3 (in blue and red), it was overwhelmingly the D’s and F’s with the highest needs that made the “pre-engagement” list — the short list from which DOE would ultimately choose the final closures. 65% of the highest-need D’s and F’s were put on the short list, but only 15% of the schools in the middle where the students on average had fewer challenges to overcome.
And it gets worse.
Because to be on the short list only means that you might or might not close. Once they create the short list, the DOE claims it “reviews the school data, consults with the superintendents and other experienced educators who have worked closely with the school, and gathers community feedback.”
That’s what they say, and it is certainly true that they make a good show of it, running from school to school and having all sorts of sympathetic meetings. But in the end? Take a look at which ones land on the final list.
So then: half the D’s and F’s fall into the middle of the needs spectrum, but only 15% of them made the short list — and none of those will close. Not so the schools with the highest need students, where 40% of the D’s and F’s are slated to shut down.
But even within that bottom third there are variations in need. Here are all the schools that made the short list, school by school, arranged by the level of need. The higher the bar, the better prepared students are when they arrive in high school. Red schools on the final list for closing. Blue schools are not.
Keep in mind, these schools are arranged by need level, not performance level. So, for example, Gateway (third from the right), got a higher Progress Report score than every school on the short list except for one.2 But Gateway ranks among the neediest in the city. It is also one of the few new schools to take high-need special education students in comparable numbers to the older city schools. So, it’s closing.
All five of the neediest schools are closing, but six of the seven least needy are staying opened.
And here is one more comparison. This time let’s take a look at the three schools on the far ends of the spectrum — the schools that are will not close on the left, and the schools that will on the right. Here are different challenges the schools face.
|Concentrations of…||Cypress Law/Gov, Graphic||Gompers, Legacy, Gateway|
The closing schools have higher levels of poverty, special education students, high-need special education students, overage students, and boys. Concentrations of special education and overage students are factored into the DOE Progress Reports. Poverty and gender are not.
The difference in the number of boys is especially worth noting. Most schools on the short list have about as many girls as boys, but Gompers is 77% boys, virtually all of whom are black and Hispanic. Graduation rates for black and Hispanic boys citywide is over 10 percentage points lower than the graduation rates for black and Hispanic girls. Gompers also has the highest citywide concentration of self-contained students, other than two schools already closing. Legacy and Gateway are not far behind. I cannot find the city’s graduation rate for self-contained students, though I have heard it is in the single digits. Special education rates in general, are at 30%, city wide.
Why do I bring this up? Because it shows how differences in the levels of school challenge can be presented as differences in school quality. DOE doesn’t factor the rates of boys and girls into its Progress Reports, but even worse, it justifies shutting schools like Gompers by citing those rates out of context. Graduation rates at Gompers are “in the bottom 1% of high schools” says DOE, failing to mention, however, that the school it is also in the bottom 1% of all schools when it comes to need, the only other schools joining it there being a handful of schools already shutting down. And it’s in that bottom 1% even before you factor in the extraordinarily high numbers of boys, and the extraordinary number of boys that are high-need special education boys. Last year, the DOE shut down a school that was 100% boys, citing low graduation rates. Maybe the rates were low compared to a citywide average. But for the population, which was 10% self-contained and 100% boys? For all we know, it was doing about as well as Stuyvesant, given the obstacles confronting so many of the students in that school.
And this is the biggest bone I have to pick with DOE. Should the city do better by its most disadvantaged students? Of course it should. But will it ever do better by them if it continues to harp on the politically convenient claims about “school quality” while failing to speak openly about the overwhelming needs. A few years ago, DOE commissioned a report that basically said that if you concentrate very high need students in very large numbers in schools, the schools would be overwhelmed. At the end the report listed several suggestions going forward, including “constraints on the HS admissions process” that take the needs of students into account — and avoid high concentrations.
But DOE buried that report, and continues to blame the school instead of evolving its school choice model into one that does not disenfranchise students and cause concentrations.
Are there differences in school quality? Maybe there are, but we are not going to find them if we keep measuring — and the punishing — the wrong thing.
1 School need in all of these charts is based upon the DOE’s calculation of school need, the peer index. For high schools, this includes the average student’s entering score, the percent of students with IEPs and high-need IEP’s, and the percent of student who enter the school overage.
2 The Progress Report Letter Grades are based upon number scores. Gateway’s score was 46.