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NYC Working Group on School Transformation

July 20, 2012
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by Norm Fruchter

Last April, the New York City Working Group on School Transformation issued a report examining the impact of the school closing policy of the city’s Department of Education (DOE). The Working Group’s report argued that by closing schools instead of helping them to improve, the DOE was abdicating its responsibility to support struggling schools. The Working Group’s report called on the DOE to develop a Success Zone to help struggling schools improve, and to build instructional capacity across all the city’s schools so that many fewer would need to be closed.

The Working Group presented the following evidence that specific DOE policies  exacerbated the problems of struggling schools:

  • The schools the DOE has closed since 2002 had significantly higher percentages of incoming 9th graders with below-level 8th grade math and reading scores, as well as significantly higher percentages of English Language Learners and students with disabilities, than the school system’s averages.
  • In the five years before many of the system’s struggling schools were targeted for closure, the DOE significantly increased the percentages of students with low-level 8th grade math and reading scores at those schools, and also increased the percentages of English Language Learners and students with disabilities.
  • In the five years before many of the system’s struggling schools were targeted for closure, the DOE significantly increased the assignment of over-the-counter students in many of those schools.
  • This increased concentration of high-risk, high needs students at schools the DOE targeted for closure runs counter to the advice of the Parthenon Group, whose study advised the DOE to decrease concentrations of high-needs students in specific schools because that concentration would lower school-level graduation rates.

When the Working Group’s released its report in mid-April, the DOE dismissed the report’s arguments and questioned the accuracy of its data. But in early July, a Gotham Gazette article reported that the DOE had promised the NY State Education Department (SED) that it would reduce the concentration of high-risk, high-needs students at schools it targets for closure.  The DOE also pledged not to concentrate over-the- counter students at such schools.  Those DOE acknowledgements of how its policies have intensified the burdens of struggling schools were included in the city’s request to approve federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds for 24 schools the city was trying to place in the federal school turnaround program.  (An arbitrator and a state Supreme Court judge have put that effort on hold.)

According to the Gotham Gazette article, the city’s letter disclosed that,, “over the past 18 months, NYC has been working with the New York State Education Department to address its concerns about situations where our choice-based system may be leading to an over-concentration of students with disabilities, English language learners, and/or students that are performing below proficiency in certain schools.”  According to the Gazettethe city’s letter “also provides data to show that students at most of the SIG high schools entered ninth grade performing below the average of other students in their boroughs on state tests. Many of the SIG middle and high schools also enrolled a higher percentage of special education students and English language learners than the average for their districts.”

So in spite of its initial denials, the DOE has ultimately vindicated the Working Group’s report about how the DOE policies exacerbate the challenges struggling schools face,  and ultimately close the schools thus targeted. Such policies must end because they punish schools rather than help them improve. What struggling schools need are interventions and support that build their staff’s capacity for improvement.

(Full disclosure – the author was a member of the NYC Working Group on School Transformation.)

Norm Fruchter is a senior policy analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform

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