Closing big schools and replacing them with ‘smaller schools of choice’ has been successful in New York City

Oct 17, 2013 by

NEW YORK – A war is raging in America between teachers unions and their allies, who want to preserve all public schools, and education reformers and parents, who want to close failing schools and provide more effective education options.

In recent years, as the save-our-schools crowd railed against school closures in Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and other cities, researchers with MDRC, a nonprofit nonpartisan research firm, were examining how the close-and-reopen method was working out for numerous New York City schools.

What they found shouldn’t surprise anyone.

“Smaller Schools of Choice” – the 200 small public high schools New York City officials opened to replace dozens of large failing high schools – are producing substantial increases in student graduation rates, especially among disadvantaged students of color, according to the MDRC report.

The most recent findings, taken with two previous MDRC reports in 2010 and 2012, show the close-and- reopen model for urban schools not only creates a lasting impact, it’s benefiting the current students who need help the most.

“School closures – the great bugaboo of the United Federation of Teachers and New York’s political establishment – have been a historic benefit to tens of thousands of the city’s high school students,” the New York Daily News opined in a recent editorial on the MDRC report. “The city must continue to shutter failure factories.”

The lesson in New York City is a relevant one for nearly every large urban school district in the nation.

NY Daily News: ‘Shut and open case’

Just over a decade ago New York City education officials, at the behest of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, implemented three key education reforms for the city’s high schools: district-wide school choice for students entering high school, the closure of 31 large high schools with an average graduation rate of 40 percent, and the opening of 200 smaller high schools to take their place, according to the MDRC report.

“Over half of the new small schools created between 2002 and the fall of 2008 were intended to serve students in some of the district’s most disadvantaged communities and are located mainly in neighborhoods where large, failing high schools had been closed,” the report explains.

MDRC researchers tracked student progress at the new schools, comparing their progress with their peers in the rest of the city’s high schools, and issued reports in 2010 and 2012 that showed marked increases in graduation rates for students who entered the new schools in 2005 and 2006.

MDRC’s new report, released in August, builds on the previous research with results of students who entered the new schools in 2007. The study shows the trend toward higher graduation rates has continued.

“Small high schools in New York City continue to markedly increase high school graduation rates for large numbers of disadvantaged students of color, even as graduation rates are rising at the schools with which SSCs (Small Schools of Choice) are compared,” according to the MDRC report. “For the full sample, students at small high schools have a graduation rate of 70.4 percent, compared with 60.9 percent for comparable students at other New York City high schools.”

“The best evidence that exists indicates that small high schools may increase graduation rates for two new subgroups for which findings were not previously available: special education students and English language learners,” MDRC researchers wrote, adding that further research is needed on those students before the results can be considered definitive.

MDRC researchers are not comparing the performance of students at the Small Schools of Choice with student achievement at the large failing schools they replaced. They’re comparing them with students at other city high schools that continue to exist.

The New York Daily News points out that the graduation rates at the now shuttered city high schools were roughly half of what the new SSCs produce.

“Here are a few of the long-accepted graduation rates: Morris High School in the Bronx, 31%; Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, 32%; Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn, 43%,” the Daily News wrote.

“All were beset by disorder and violence.”

Teachers at the new schools, interviewed for the MDRC report, said the more intimate relationships they form with students in the smaller schools are a major key to success.

“If it wasn’t for the interpersonal relationships that we develop with our students, I don’t think that teachers, or students, or families would have the same sort of buy-in that we’re able to cultivate,” one teacher told MDRC.

“It’s very difficult to tell a teacher you have been working with for four years, ‘I’m not going to be able to graduate because of this reason.’ There’s always something that that teacher knows … about the student or family … that brings out the best of her ability to make students want to earn their diploma.”

Politics of school closures

The MDRC study supports New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s assertion in August that “There is going to have to be a death penalty for failing schools.”

But teachers unions and their allies, who want to pump an ever-increasing amount of tax money into the large failure factories, aren’t easily swayed by evidence. The “more-money” union mentality is fueled by self-interest.

The unions want to preserve an education system that guarantees employment for their members, regardless of the miserable academic results it produces. And they will do or say anything to preserve that system, including making emotional pleas to parents, many of whom attended the same large schools.

So it’s no surprise New York City’s United Federation of Teachers union is championing mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, who plans to call for a moratorium on further school closures, if elected.

Candidates for elected office in other cities are also under pressure by politically powerful teachers unions to make the same promise.

The issue is critically important for parents and taxpayers in New York City, as well as other large city school districts across the nation, because, as the Daily News puts it, “to halt closures is to halt one of the most effective tools of raising student achievement.”

Closing big schools and replacing them with ‘smaller schools of choice’ has been successful in New York City – powered by Education Action Group Foundation, Inc..

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