The Story Behind the Parthenon Report
By Norm Fruchter
In the last few weeks, much media attention has focused on the reportedly “secret” report done by the Parthenon Group that predicted graduation rates at NYC high schools. The Parthenon report documented how tightly low 8th grade scores, being overage for grade, and low rates of credit accumulation were linked to high school graduation rates. It also found that in high schools that combined large student enrollments with more than 45% of their students scoring Level 1 or low Level 2 in 8th grade, the odds of ANY student becoming overage and under-credited were quite high, and the odds of ANY student graduating were quite low.
Critics have attacked the DOE for using Parthenon’s models to predict high schools’ graduation rates, and then closing those low-performing schools whose actual graduation rates fell below their predicted rate, rather than intervening to improve them. As Shael Polakow-Suransky told NEW YORK POST’s Yoav Gonen, “What the whole Parthenon thing was about was that schools with similar incoming populations – and therefore similar predictions on how they do – end up getting very different results.” None of the media reports, however, have focused on the other significant part of the Parthenon’s work – recommendations for how these high schools with low graduation rates could be improved.
The Parthenon report recommended three major ways the DOE should intervene to improve high school outcomes and produce higher graduation rates. The report called for the DOE to 1) expand and strengthen multiple pathways to graduation, 2) increase the number of new small high schools, and 3) transform existing high schools through both structural and instructional initiatives.
The DOE had already heavily invested in the Bloomberg/Klein small school strategy, and it acted on Parthenon’s recommendation to expand its multiple pathways initiative by increasing the number of transfer high schools and Young Adult Borough Centers (YABCs). In terms of transforming existing high schools, Parthenon recommended structural initiatives such as school closure, but also called for preventing school failure by reducing the concentrations of low-skills students in large schools, changing school admissions policies and introducing enrollment targets. The Bloomberg/Klein regime had already launched its school closure strategy, but to my knowledge did not change its admissions and enrollment policies to reduce huge concentrations of low-skills students in large high schools.
Parthenon also recommended several instructional initiatives to transform existing high schools: strengthening literacy and math curricula, providing more AP and college-readiness interventions, developing recuperative literacy and math programs. Again, to my knowledge, the regime did not significantly invest in these initiatives.
The original Parthenon report (2006) produced a graph identifying 14 “beat the odds” high schools that had high concentrations of low-skills students but still graduated more students than Parthenon’s predictions suggested.
Parthenon recommended studying those “beat the odds” high schools, identifying the components of their success, and then developing intervention programs to improve the performance of similar high schools. A follow-up report (2008) also recommended pairing effective high schools with low-performing schools that had similar student demographics, so that they could provide collaboration and support. To my knowledge, neither of these recommendations was ever implemented.
In 2006, my colleagues at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform did a similar study of thirteen NYC high schools that “beat the odds” in terms of students’ high school graduation and subsequent college success. The study identified several effective policies and practices those schools implemented, but their principals told us that their schools were severely challenged by the DOE’s autonomy policy. That policy increased administrative freedom but reduced, if not eliminated, the supports those schools needed to maintain their effectiveness. Additionally, these “beat the odds” principals indicated that they faced severe pressure to increase their enrollments, which under Parthenon’s model would reduce their graduation rates. Given these pressures, as well as “over the counter” increases resulting from the DOE’s closure of nearby large high schools, the credit accumulation and graduation rates of one of these original “beat the odds” schools — Banana Kelly High School — deteriorated so steeply that this year they were identified as a persistently low-achieving school by the New York State Education Department, and tabbed for either closure or restructuring by the DOE. At Banana Kelly, enrollment increased 65% between 2006 and 2009 as the percentages of high-needs students increased, and the school fell from a “beat the odds” schools to a “failing” school.
So what’s the actual Parthenon story? Parthenon’s work not only predicted high school failure, but recommended strategies to reduce that failure. The DOE followed the recommendations that validated its existing strategies (closing low-performing schools and starting new ones), and invested in recuperative interventions such as transfer schools and YABCs. But the DOE did little to implement a key component of Parthenon’s instructional recommendations – develop interventions to improve the quality of instruction in poorly performing schools.
If the DOE continues to invest in structural interventions while minimizing instructional initiatives, it will exacerbate the toxic cycle that closes struggling high schools instead of improving them, and sends their students to other vulnerable high schools which then become additional targets for closure. As the current list of school closings indicates, new small high schools are also becoming vulnerable to this destructive strategy of musical chairs in which the losers are always the students who most need intervention and support to succeed.
Norm Fruchter is a senior policy analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.