Closing versus Transformation/Redesign: Is There a “Right Path” for Dealing with Low Performing Schools? Why Does the Department Allow Schools to Falter? and, Who Should Be Held Accountable?

The Department, and the predecessor Board of Education have been closing schools since the late 80’s. Beginning with Andrew Jackson and Erasmus, whose iterations have also been closed, the State Ed Department (SED), using a dense metric, designated lowest performing schools as Schools Under Registration Review (SURR). A team appointed by the SED consisting of SED field staff, principal(s), teacher(s) and parent(s) spent four intense days in the school and wrote a report, “findings” and “recommendations,” a guide to school improvement .
In spite of the findings of the report the Department increasingly closed SURR designated schools. In some instances closing was the only option. Jefferson, Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, Canarsie and others had simply become dangerous schools; inept leadership at the school and district level, high student absenteeism and abymal graduation rates.
The culprit is the Board/Department who allowed schools to deteriorate for years.
The tradeoff of accepting billions in stimulus dollars (America Recovery and Reinvestment Act ) has a requirement: states must either close, convert to charter, redesign/transformation with 50% new staff, the lowest performing 5% of the schools in the state.
Until 2005 teachers in closing schools were excessed into other schools, under an agreement between the Board/Department and the Union excess teachers selected six schools in the geographic district for “priority excessing.”
In 2005 the Department stopped placing excessed teachers into schools and utilized the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) pool, a long established mechanism, excess teachers were placed in the pool and absorbed in positions unusually within the first few weeks of any term. Currently teachers are hired exclusively through the Open Market System, all positions are hired by principals (in new schools Article 18 of the Union contract requires priority hiring for 50% of qualified applicants from the closing schools). The ATR pool currently contains 1200 teachers, most of whom are teaching in temporary assignments.  The ATR pool system is a major bone of contention in current contract negotiations.
The SED, within the  last few weeks, has identified 57 schools that fall in the 5% of “persistently lowest achieving,” and the state and LEA will determine whether the school will be closed or redesigned/transformed.
Is there evidence that the mandated “remedies” (conversion to charter, close, redesign/transform) improved achievement for students?
We know that the replacement schools have higher achievement rates, but, are we simply “spreading” the lowest achieving students over hundreds of small schools? 
Why is the small school data better than the predecessor schools?  Is it more credit recovery, better data management (manipulation of data), lower numbers of handicapped and ELL students, intensive test prep or higher levels of instruction and leadership?  Is the better data a Hawthorne Effect that will ebb as the school grows, or, have we embedded sustainable practices?
Why do we ignore schools in the lowest 6-10%, schools that are approaching the dreaded “persistently lowest achieving” category?
Who is “accountable” beyond the school?  Why should the same Network Leader and the same Support Organization (SSO)/Partnership Support Organization (PSO) continue to support schools that have continued to falter?
Exemplar schools, SSO, PSO and Networks: Why are some schools and organizations succeeding more than others with similar kids?
The current NYC Department of Education is totally outcome-based, they appear to be uninterested in why some schools succeed and others do not.  We know from the NYU Study that Leadership Academy principals do slightly better than others. Is the “answer” Inquiry Team work? The Department would like to think so, where is the evidence?
Is it the use of ARIS? Do “high-click” schools do better than others?
The debate over closing schools versus transforming schools is on-going (read a pro closing argument here and also read the comments, and the recent Chicago Consortium Study, casting doubt on school closings here), the Department of Education a foot in the “school closing” camp and the State Ed folks in the transform/redesign camp.
For the sake of the subject of this “experiment,” kids, we had better resolve it as soon as possible.



4 responses to “Closing versus Transformation/Redesign: Is There a “Right Path” for Dealing with Low Performing Schools? Why Does the Department Allow Schools to Falter? and, Who Should Be Held Accountable?

  1. I have rarely observed black males accompanying small children at the supermarket or in the streets. I have observed hispanic males and white men. hand in hand with youngsters. The culture developed with the welfare system which says you can screw all you want and have the larger society take care of your offspring..This tragic situation leads to children who represent an almost impossible burden for any school system anywhere. Perhaps assigning one teacher to one child (like musical lessons middle income children receive) will overcome the horrendous situation in which so many children grow under.It will cost billions but Bloomberg so far has increased the budget exponentially anyway.


  2. We have resolved the matter, Peter. Large low-performing organizations cannot reinvent themselves; not in business, and not in the public sector.

    New small schools, which have improved graduation rates by as much as 50 percentage points, are a breakthrough reform for the reasons you articulate above: being able to attract better leadership, more effective use of data, and higher levels of instruction customized to the needs of each student.

    The pathology of the NYC Public Schools was never that we didn’t know what to do with our failures; but rather, that we weren’t even prepared to acknowledge our successes.


  3. Christine Rowland

    Peter, you say, “We know that the replacement schools have higher achievement rates, but, are we simply “spreading” the lowest achieving students over hundreds of small schools?”
    I suggest that the heart of the matter is that the lowest achieving students are not being spread around evenly over hundreds of small schools. The DoE has data that shows that there is a very clear relationship between 8th grade reading and math scores and the ability to get a Regents diploma in 4 years. Basically – students who test at level 1 in the 8th grade virtually never make it – and the odds are even longer if the students are also designated as requiring special education services. Things aren’t much better for the low 2s. At greatest issue are the students who require special classes.

    These are students who rarely make it into small schools – in fact few schools even offer such classes. Most are steered by the selection process to a zoned high school. And as zoned schools are not able to rank their applicant pool during the admissions process they take those who are not picked up by other schools first. Since schools are able to see a vast amount of data on students during the application process they are not likely to select students with level 1 proficiency at all. Neither are they going to select students whose attendance is particularly poor or whose class grades are questionable.

    Even within zoned schools there are differences – some have screened programs allowing them to rank at least some of their students. The schools that replace the large high schools do not have the same or even similar populations. I recently looked at the Bronx large high schools versus the educational campuses that replaced them. In District 11 Columbus and Truman (the 2 zoned schools) both have high needs special ed populations over 13% of their total population, while the schools on the former Evander Campus as a whole serve only 3.5%. In District 7 it is even more striking with the South Bronx Educational Campus serving only .7% high needs special education students (only 7 students total for the entire campus) while Gompers is at 14% and Smith at 12%.

    I also take issue with the ‘low-performing’ label. If a school takes in 50% of students on grade level in reading and math and 80% receive a diploma in 4 years is this success? They have made a 60% improvement in terms of achievement over the 4 years. It is unlikely that they would receive a ‘low-performing’ label from anyone. On the other hand only 12 of our 454 cohort 2009 students arrived in the 9th grade on grade level in both reading and math – a mere 2.6% of our cohort. To go from 2.6% to 40.3% in 4 years represents a far greater achievement, and yet it gets the ‘low performing’ label. We should really be asking, as council member James Vacca did at our public hearing, how this degree of need could exist in one school. The answer would appear to lie with the Office of Student Enrollment, Planning and Operations.

    I also found it interesting that Eric phrased his response, “large low performing organizations cannot reinvent themselves” since it would appear to show a bias against larger schools. And yet small schools fared no better in the closing process. To my knowledge the DoE did not engage in conversations around teaching, learning, data and progress with any school they targeted. They moved in the face of massive evidence including their own independently produced School Quality Reviews (in many ways the most in-depth examination of school performance) to close all schools with no discussion.

    Personally, I believe that each school should be looked at individually when these decisions are being weighed. There needs to be in-depth dialogue with the school community and the community at large. Decisions about the future of schools should be made with great care involving all stakeholders as true participants, respecting their input and voice. Questions need answers. I sincerely hope that the State approaches the issues at hand in a more sensitive and reasonable manner.


  4. Eric’s comment reminds me that program heads at the DOE have always declared their particular initiative a success. Somehow, despite all of this success, the system itself is a failure.

    In the interests of full disclosure, you should mention Eric’s job at the DOE in helping to create small schools.

    Also, Christine’s comments are excellent. I would add another devious screening mechanism of some small schools: requiring parents to attend a series of pre-admission meetings. Motivated, involved parents do often produce successful students. Surprise.


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