At I.S. 339 in the Bronx in a science class for English Language Learners, says New York City’s 2017 “Quality Review Report,” during a vocabulary review the teacher gave an answer key to students that included two mistakes. On the most recent state tests, 3.8 percent of 6th-graders reached proficiency in math.
At Martin Van Buren High School in Queens [full disclosure: my zoned school forty years ago], evaluators for the Quality Review found that “across classrooms, student work products and thinking are inconsistently supported by efforts to engage students in discussions and differentiated tasks” and “ students’ opportunities to clearly demonstrate higher-order thinking” were “limited.” Fewer than 7 percent of graduates are considered “college-ready.”
At P.S. 298 in Brooklyn, “students’ lack of understanding of their work and effort reflects the limitations of the feedback being provided to them.” In a kindergarten class, students worked on a word identification worksheet that required them to color in, trace, and spell the word “said.” Evaluators noted that “most of the students engaged in this task had no idea what ‘said’ meant or how to use it in a sentence…This activity occupied students’ time with doing but involved very little thinking.”
Yet that’s good enough for New York City’s accountability-lite low-bar school improvement plan.
The schools above are three of 25 New York State schools under state “receivership,” which means that without meaningful progress they can be turned over to an independent operator. The three are also on the list of Mayor BIll de Blasio’s Renewal Schools Program, which channels cash ( $383 million so far, with another $372 million budgeted over the next two years) and wrap-around services on the premise that these interventions will salvage long-struggling schools.
That’s great for job preservation. But for kids and families zoned to these schools, it stinks.
Last month a group of researchers at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University analyzed the impact of school closures in a smaller urban district right across the Hudson: Newark Public Schools in New Jersey. After a fifteen years of a largely ineffective state takeover, Gov. Chris Christie (I won’t give him much but I’ll give him this) brought in Superintendent Cami Anderson, a temperamental change-agent who, in exchange for citywide enmity, immediately closed down the worst schools, raised standards for both students and teachers, and expanded school choice. Two years ago former N.J. Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf took over, calmed turbulent waters, and strengthened those reforms. During Anderson and Cerf’s combined tenure, 11 under-performing traditional schools have been closed, as well as 3 under-performing charter schools.
What was the impact of these school closures on Newark students?
The Harvard researchers’ conclude, “upon leaving the closed schools, students and their parents moved to higher-growth district and charter schools. We find that the rate of growth for these students… improved on average after they moved to their new schools.”
In other words, children benefit academically by moving from a lower-performing school to a higher-performing school. Duh, right? That was Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein’s strategy. But that approach takes fortitude to execute — long-time residents may resent withdrawal of a local resource, teacher union leaders bridle at potential job losses — and Mayor de Blasio has chosen a less contentious course. After all, in a city with an annual operating school budget of $29.2 billion, a few hundred million is practically an accounting error.
Lowering rancor is laudable, but not at the price of New York City students’ academic growth, particularly the children of color and economic-disadvantage who attend these schools. Yet news broke yesterday that NYC would not have to close any of the 25 schools under receivership because they all have made what the state deemed “demonstrable improvement.” But how can that be? Less than 4 percent of students proficient in math? Activities that involve “little thinking”? Seven out of one hundred high school graduates college-ready?
In New York City, feeble accountability and a metrocard will get you a ride on the subway.
Dr. Aaron Pallas mused, “one easy way to[avoid aggressive reforms] is to declare victory and say schools have met the targets we set even if they’re not actually meeting those targets.”
Dr. Pallas nails it. Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Fariña rake in accolades while schools that have failed children for decades remain open to fail yet another generation of children. I give this whole exercise an “F.”