By Anindya Kundu and Pedro Noguera
Apparently shutting down failing schools is beneficial for students.
So suggests new evidence being widely cited from a multi-year research study conducted by MDRC, a nonprofit education and social policy research firm. For those not acquainted with the work, the findings are simple. Here’s a gist.
Graduation rates were found highest in New York’s newer and smaller high schools, averaging 70.4%, a figure nearly 10 percentage points more than the rest of New York City public schools. Now this is great and it might truly mean that smaller schools are in fact beneficial for public school students. But for anyone taking an extra leap to say that these improvements come from shutting down failing schools — a process that benefits all students — they attempt too dangerous of a landing.
The problem isn’t necessarily with the research. But the premise it’s built upon isn’t structurally sound enough to support such sweeping, and incorrect claims. Let’s see what the story can say.
Since 2002, the New York Department of Education had 31 large high schools in its sights upon which to enact the “death penalty” for failing schools, a phrase coined by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in August. Some of these schools had graduation rates as bad as around 30%.
Since then, those 31 schools have been “executed,” 200 new, smaller high schools have been “birthed,” and the city has instituted a choice or lottery process by which rising 9th graders now prioritize their high school picks.
When a school is killed, all of its former students need to find a new place to go. They will not simply be admitted to whatever new institution opens its doors in place of the old.
When a lottery system exists, it stands to reason that students who have an ability to navigate the selection process will fare better than those who do not. In New York City, the book of high schools to choose from is hundreds of pages long. Picking a school to go to probably feels like schoolwork.
With a school that has a 30-something percent graduation rate, how many students will be crafty lottery contestants? How many will abstain from entering, seeing the shutting of school doors as the final push in giving up on an educational ideal that simply did not work for them?
Closing failing schools and then boasting about increased graduation rates is like dropping Shaquille O’Neal from your basketball team and then celebrating your team’s increased free throw percentage. You’re not lying, but what are you proud of exactly?
In his push to be remembered as an “education mayor,” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has brought about changes that rightfully deserve praise. Graduation rates are nearly at 65% for New York City, which is almost a 39% increase since 2005. Undoubtedly, this is a solid improvement.
But in the efforts to leave behind a favorable legacy, Bloomberg has dropped players along the way in his run at a championship. The problem is, this isn’t basketball. The players are kids who may not necessarily find another team.
The MDRC study also found that the successful new schools served mostly disadvantaged students of color. This is great, but the matter again is one of having a broader perspective. While these schools are serving needy populations, there are greater portions of similar children whose needs are going unmet.
Last year, Brown University’s Annenberg Institute published an article titled, “Is Demography Still Destiny?” Their findings affirmed the question. In New York City’s neighborhoods with 100% black and Latino residents, only 10% graduate ready for college. On the flip side, of Manhattan neighborhoods with the highest college readiness rates, fewer than 10% of the residents were black and Latino.
Last year, a New York City panel voted to close 47 schools, the highest total in history. In their place, no doubt some successful schools will be built. And hopefully again, graduation rates will increase.
Still, it stands to reason that policies that improve all of our schools, instead of just shutting down the worst ones and hoping for the best, would have more humanitarian outcomes.
Rather than continuing to hastily pull out the electric chair, we should be deliberate and pause to consider everyone who is affected by a school’s death. And when that answer includes some of our neediest students, we begin to realize that the metaphor is truly as bleak as it sounds.