How’s Hizzoner’s School Improvement Plan Doing? An Interim Report

In January 2013, just before Bill de Blasio was sworn in for his first term as New York City’s mayor, a reporter asked him what he wanted his legacy to be. He replied that he wanted to be known as “the education mayor.” Three years into his first term he might ask, as Ed Koch did with regularity, “how’m I doing?”

New Yorkers have one way to judge Mayor de Blasio’s educational performance: the success of his signature improvement project called the Renewal Schools program. The DOE trumpets the plan as “a call to action” for 86 (down from the original 94) lowest-performing schools that sets “clear goals” and holds “each school community accountable for rapid improvement.” While the Mayor’s most recent predecessor Mike Bloomberg, with Chancellor Joel Klein, used a two-pronged strategy, approaching reform both from within the system (doubling down on accountability and giving principals more autonomy) and from without (rapidly expanding school choice through charter schools), de Blasio and his Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who share what Alexander Nazaryan calls an “out-sized antipathy” towards charters, are betting the whole ball of wax on an inside job.

And, in all fairness, that’s a tough slog. Almost four out of ten NYC public high school students don’t earn a diploma in four years and students of color score several grade levels below their peers on standardized tests. The DOE bureaucracy, diminished after Klein’s swift dismantling of its most egregious excesses,  is once again accumulating bulk.  A Freedom of Information request filed by the NY Post revealed that the DOE “employs at least 114 bureaucrats and ‘coaches’ — making a combined $12.7 million a year and rising — to run Mayor de Blasio’s stumbling Renewal program to fix failing schools.” 

Mayors who control school districts, as Bloomberg did and de Blasio does, are accountable for public education and, by his own design, de Blasio’s school improvement grade comes down to “how’s the Renewal  program doing?” We can look at his performance through three metrics: student growth, student enrollment, and student attendance.

Student Academic Growth:

This past summer the New York Times reported that “two years in, at these and others of the lowest-performing high schools in the program, academic progress is hard to see. At many of them, dwindling enrollment and internal conflicts make the prospect that they will succeed seem remote.” Others complain that the goals set for these schools are absurdly low. As Merryl Tisch,  former chair of the Board of Regents, told Chalkbeat, “at some point, everyone has to stop being ridiculous,”

A recent  Daily News analysis found that 33 Renewal schools showed gains in student proficiency, 29 schools  remained stable, and 32 schools showed decreases in student achievement. Not much to write home about.  Eva Moskowitz, founder of Success Academy charter schools,  tweeted (tartly but accurately), “progress at Renewal schools is hard to see because there has been none. NYC schools crisis continues.”

Student Enrollment:

In response to the academic lethargy at NYC’s worst schools, parents are making informed decisions about their children’s academic trajectories and many of these Renewal high schools are hemorrhaging students. According to the Wall Street Journal, enrollment at the 86 schools plunged from 44,000 students to 38,000 students and seventeen “shrunk by at least 25% over the last two years.” Overall, enrollment at Renewal schools is dropping by 10% per year. At Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, long an emblem of educational dysfunction,  enrollment dropped by a whopping 47%,  from 648 students in 2014-2015 to to 343 students in 2015-2016. Leslie Brody writes,

One of the steepest drops came at the school where the mayor announced his turnaround plan with great fanfare. Coalition School for Social Change in East Harlem had 283 teenagers when the mayor called it a model for reform in November 2014. Last month it had 174.

“Families are pulling their children out of these schools,” contends Jenny Sedlis, Executive Director of StudentsFirstNY, “because the mayor’s misguided approach isn’t working. City Hall has poured millions of taxpayer dollars into his Renewal School program and designated them “community schools” — meaning, in part, they’ll qualify for washing machines and dryers. That’s great, but chronically struggling schools need a real turnaround plan that focuses on actually boosting academic achievement.

She continues,

The stark reality is that district schools are failing their students, and parents want better options. And while performance at Renewal Schools continues to lag, charter schools serving the same communities are far outperforming traditional district schools.

Student Attendance:

In addition to falling enrollment, many of the renewal schools suffer from chronic absenteeism. Jeremiah Kittredge recently described Chancellor Fariña’s testimony a year ago before the NYS Assembly Education Committee in which she pleaded the case for the continuation of the Renewal schools program. One of her arguments was a drop in absenteeism from 25.3% to 23.9% between 2014 and 2015.  However, writes Kittredge,

[An analysis by] The Post revealed that chronic absenteeism rates were much higher than Fariña had claimed, and the city now says the actual absentee rate is just under 40 percent.The city scrambled to write off this huge discrepancy as a clerical error. In reality, it’s just another example of the de Blasio administration cooking the books on the progress, integrity and safety of city district schools. Unless the comptroller, public advocate or state Education Department quickly decides to conduct a thorough audit of the Department of Education, students, parents and teachers are at risk of losing an entire school year to this kind of deception.

So, Mayor de Blasio, how are you doing? A generous grader would give you an “incomplete”: after all,  you are only 3 years into your first term. But here’s a word of advice: when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem must be approached as if it’s a nail. But the NYC school systems is complex and requires multiple tools if you’re to accomplish more than what David Bloomfield calls “organizational tinkering.”  By rejecting the second prong used to great effect by Mike Bloomberg and Joel Klein — improvement from outside the system through the expansion of public charter schools — you cripple yourself. More importantly, you cripple needy city families’ access to high-performing schools. You might want to study the approach taken by Chris Cerf in Newark, who explained to Richard Lee Colvin that it’s less important “how schools are governed” and more important that “there are good schools in every neighborhood.” 

The point,” says Cerf, is that there is a “coherent change theory,” adding, “it’s not that we’re going to support charter schools and not traditional schools, we’re not ‘all in’ on charters, like in New Orleans. But, rather, we want to holistically manage a system of all different types of schools.”

Recently the Mayor remarked that  “we do not accept the notion of the ‘good school’ and the ‘bad school.'” Parent Sharita Moore-Willis shot back, 

If he doesn’t see a difference between the schools in our richest areas and the schools in our poorest areas, then Mayor de Blasio is living in a Gracie Mansion fantasy land. Maybe it’s true for your neighborhood, Mr. Mayor, that all the schools are good, but it’s not true for kids in the Bronx.

There are bad schools. Cerf owns that in Newark. You need to own it in NYC: after all, that’s the justification for the Renewal schools program. But a one-pronged strategy can’t begin to address the concerns of parents like Ms. Moore-Willis, who are tired of  pablum and desperate for bold and coherent change.  Are you up to the task? Can you up your game? Can you augment your toolbox?

Your final grade depends on you.

What do you think?

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