New York City

Will the DOE’s Plan to Diversify Upper West Side Schools Reverse Segregation or Merely Hide Student Achievement Gaps?

As I predicted last week, NYC’s controversial Upper West Side rezoning plan passed. Its supporters claimed the Department of Education’s plan would decrease overcrowding and increase economic and racial diversity. Its detractors argued that the Community Education Council acted without heeding parents’ wishes.

I continue to see this rezoning as a way for the Department of Education to muddy the waters of services  that it was — and wasn’t — providing for all learners.

Let’s drill down and ask what makes a school successful.

Is It the Physical Space or the School Name?

A Jewish superstition suggests the Angel of Death can be fooled by changing a sick person’s name. To give the oft-repeated “fresh start” to PS 191, a school with below average test scores and a one-time “persistently dangerous” designation, the DOE is moving it into a new building, and renaming it The Riverside School. The facility will have a gym, a science lab and a rooftop playground. Principal Lauren Keville gushes that it “[w]ill empower our students with incredible resources… and encourage learning on a new level.” No word yet on exactly how it will achieve these things but who said the Angel of Death was interested in details?

Is It the Principal?

If the principal is the designee responsible for a school’s quality, including student academic growth, then wouldn’t it make more sense to simply move school leadership teams around, instead of forcibly relocating entire student bodies, resulting in commuting and logistical issues for multiple families?

Is It the Teachers?

If we presume that teachers are responsible for high test scores and improved student proficiency, then that would mean the teachers at PS 199 are “good,” while the teachers are PS 191 are “bad.” The DOE’s plan to  shift student populations merely, then, exposes a different set of children to “good”  and “bad” teachers. However, in the aggregate, the same number of children are still going to schools with “bad” and “good” ones and so the same number should end up with respectively low and high test scores. But that’s not really how it works, is it?

Is It the Students?

Is it possible that, due to a variety of factors, including parents’ level of education, economic status, resources and/or knowledge about how to work the public school system to a child’s advantage, some students are better equipped to overcome the limitations of a weak teacher, an inefficient administration, and/or an uninspiring facility? Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: private tutoring is rampant for high-income students but not everyone can afford to buy the necessary services unfulfilled by the school.

Families who can afford tutoring tend to be the same families who can afford condos and brownstones zoned for high-performing schools filled with high-performing children. The schools then go on to earn high marks on the state tests, and the DOE takes credit. Everyone is happy!

But there is a fly in the ointment. Why, at the epicenter of high-achieving PS 199, PS 87 and PS 452, is PS 191 falling behind? According to the DOE, all of its principals, teachers and schools are equally good, a point disputed by numerous studies like this one.

Here’s a solution! In the name of diversity, let’s split the students zoned for PS 191 between PS 199, PS 87 and PS 452. Now everyone is a high-achiever! Problem solved!

Except it isn’t. When you look deeper into the data, you see that underserved students in high-performing schools still suffer from an achievement gap. They are still being failed.

Once, PS 191 stuck out and made it easier for parents to demand that the DOE do its job and educate these children the way they (ostensibly) were educating the kids at the school nine blocks away. With the lower-performing population mixed in among high-achievers (but without the tutors and other resources wealthier children have access to), the DOE’s continued failure becomes much easier to hide. Does it really matter if a school has a 98% passing rate, or an 83% passing rate? It’s still all good, right? Twice the city average!

Except it still matters to the 17% of kids who didn’t pass. And these children are now rendered invisible by the DOE’s superstitious game of musical chairs under the auspices of students’ best interests.

What do you think?

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