Accountability · School Choice

Renewal Schools? Not a Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal School Program is about to hit its three year anniversary. In a speech in November 2014 he vowed to “demand fast and intense improvement” for the 78 schools in the program, just as earlier that year in Riverside Church he made a commitment to “shake the foundations” of the school system. Since then the City has spent more than $383 million on extra resources for these schools, like longer school days and wrap-around services. The trade-off? He will “hold our schools and educational professionals responsible for failure, and we will use our power under the teachers’ contract, and other means, to do it.” 

The concept of Renewal Schools is the opposite of former Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s approach. While de Blasio has poured in resources, Bloomberg and his chancellor Joel Klein closed down failing schools and replaced them with hundreds of smaller academies. With antithetical strategies, the three-year mark is an opportunity to compare what really matters for parents: outcomes for kids.

An article in this week’s New York Times tells the story of Raymond Andrews, a fourth-grader at a Renewal School, P.S. 154, in Mott Haven. His mom, Amanda Martinez, says that “he was falling behind, and every time I raised concerns with the school, there was no communication.” Ms. Martinez wasn’t willing to wait — Raymond had already been held back a year — and so she transferred him to a charter school, Success Academy Bronx 1. From the Times:

At Success, his performance on the state test scores has shot up. Last year at his school, 85 percent of students passed the reading test and 97 percent of them passed in math.

P.S. 154 has improved; in fact, the NYC Department of Education calls it one of the highest-performing Renewal Schools: “Last year, 26 percent of its students passed the math test and 32 percent passed in reading — more than double the percentage of students who passed in each subject in 2014, the year before Renewal began.”

However, not all Renewal Schools show such promise. From Chalkbeat:

Using three years of test score data (including the results released last month), the Manhattan Institute’s Marcus Winters found that the program is generally boosting math and English scores in elementary and middle schools.

But using a different statistical method that compares Renewal schools to similar ones that didn’t receive extra resources, Teachers College’s Pallas found the program appeared to have no effect on test scores or graduation rates.

How did Bloomberg’s approach work? I reported last year on a study that showed that most of the middle school students who ended up in small high schools showed higher achievement and better attendance. Graduation rates rose from 40% at the closed schools to 55% at the new ones. The chief researcher, Dr. James Kemple, said that “our results offer support for the strategic use of school closures as part of a multi-dimensional high school reform strategy.”

As far as de Basio’s approach, three years is too short a time frame to expect “vast and intense improvement” in a huge bureaucracy.  That’s why Amanda Martinez couldn’t wait. It’s why many families can’t wait, and why demand for alternatives — like Success Academy Bronx 1 — is so high.  This doesn’t mean that de Blasio’s program has failed (although school leaders cited in Chalkbeat and the NY Times say they can’t manage without the extra money). It means that failing schools will continue to fail our kids while we wait for change that will, under the best circumstances, be slow and incremental.

If it were my kid, I’d transfer him too.

What do you think?

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