Closing a school can be devastating. Not only are jobs lost — teachers, principals and other staff displaced or downsized — but so are memories. Communities lose the social capital of having a school as a gathering place, a town hall, a venue for sports, theater and music.
But what if the school isn’t performing its main mission — teaching school children? What if the drop-out rate is high and grades are low? What if, year after year, that school is simply a factory for failure? Wouldn’t those students be helped if the school were closed and they could attend a better one?
Well, yes, they would. And, given that truth, political and educational leaders should focus on what’s best for the kids instead of placating the adults.
Are you listening, Mayor de Blasio?
Studies now confirm what common sense suggests: students gain academically when their low-performing school is shuttered and they are allowed to attend a good school. A new report released last month by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, a non-partisan think tank based at New York University, shows that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy of closing low-performing schools in New York City benefitted the middle-school kids who didn’t have to attend them. (Be sure to read Matt Barnum’s thorough assessment of the report’s five most important findings)
“Meaningful benefits accrued to the post-closure cohort,” the report states. “These students attended higher-performing high schools…this shift in their enrollment options led to improvement in students’ attendance, progress toward graduation, and ultimately, their graduation rates — with large increases in the share of students earning a Regents diploma.”
This all makes sense. Kids were diverted to good schools before poor attendance and low grades closed off the route to a diploma. (A key to Bloomberg’s reforms was the practice of replacing big failing schools with smaller, high-performing ones.) More findings from the research:
The findings in New York City echo a study from Ohio, which showed similar results when failing schools were closed there. Research from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education-focused think tank, found that students who shifted from failing to higher-achieving schools gained, on average, 49 extra days of learning in reading and 34 days in math by their third year in the new school.
That’s reason to stay the course on shuttering failing schools, right? Well, it should be. Particularly in New York City. But de Blasio and his schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, have signaled they are willing to waste precious years and millions of dollars on turnaround efforts before they will consider closing low-performing schools.
That could be disastrous for some students since data show that turnarounds don’t work. Hollywood loves those up-from-the-wasteland school stories, as memorialized in films such as “Stand and Deliver” and “Lean on Me.” The reality, unfortunately, shows few such happy endings.
As Tom Torkelson, CEO of the IDEA charter schools network, told EducationNext: “I don’t do turnarounds because a turnaround usually means operating within a school system that couldn’t stomach the radical steps we’d take to get the school back on track. We fix what’s wrong with schools by changing the practices of the adults, and I believe there are few examples where this is currently possible without meddling from teacher unions, the school board, or the central office.”
De Blasio’s approach means that thousands of students will be left in failing schools that are unlikely to improve, and those lost years will sap their potential for academic achievement and keep them firmly tethered to a path to nowhere. Those kids will never get those precious years back.
Before he was elected mayor, de Blasio was among those who fought hard against school closings. As public advocate, he joined the teachers’ unions and community activists who bitterly opposed the loss of a school. Given the emotional stakes, their resistance was understandable.
But that was before research calculated and confirmed that students are better off when bad schools are closed. Surely the mayor won’t now push aside children who desperately need a better educational option in order to please politically-sophisticated (and frequently self-serving) adults.
De Blasio has long viewed himself as an advocate for the weak and vulnerable, for those who cannot speak for themselves. Since we now know that Mayor Bloomberg’s strategy in tackling the problems of failing city schools worked, giving the most vulnerable students a better shot at a diploma, it would be a shame if the mayor were to turn his back on both his predecessor’s victories and his most powerless constituents — kids stuck in failure factories.They need a way out, right now.