Closing Schools Solves Nothing
Last week, the New York City Department of Education pushed through a decision to close 19 high schools. With the encouragement of the "Race to the Top," we will surely see similar closings across the nation, hundreds or perhaps thousands of them. Entrepreneurs cheer when public schools close, as new space opens up for their ventures in philanthropy and profits.
It is odd that school leaders feel triumphant when they close schools, as though they were not responsible for them. They enjoy the role of executioner, shirking any responsibility for the schools in their care. Every time a school is closed, those at the top should hang their heads in shame for their inability or refusal to offer timely assistance. Instead they exult in the failure of schools that are entrusted to their stewardship.
The decision in NYC was probably made long ago, but the law required a public hearing by the city's school board (named the Panel for Educational Policy by Mayor Bloomberg). An overflow crowd of 2,000-3,000 parents, teachers, and students turned out for the hearing to protest the closing of their schools; some 350 people signed up to speak against the closings.
But to no avail. The panel—whose majority is appointed by the mayor and serves at his pleasure—sat impassively and listened without being moved by what they heard. The vote was taken at 3 a.m., when most of the audience had given up and gone home. As expected, the panel voted to close the schools; representatives of four of the city's five borough presidents voted against, but in vain because the mayor controls the panel. This is what mayoral control means. The mayor does whatever he wishes, regardless of the views of parents, students, and teachers. The schools belong to him, not them. Democracy at work.
The mayor claims that he could not let students remain even one more day in a failing school, so he never wavered in his determination to close schools with low test scores and poor graduation rates. His Department of Education felt no obligation to provide the resources to change those numbers.
But let's look at those numbers. For the past several years, with the support of the Gates Foundation, the city closed nearly 100 schools and opened more than 350 small ones. As large schools closed, the new small schools (and charter schools) that replaced them did not take a fair share of high-needs students, which enabled them to have better results. So the remaining large schools have disproportionate numbers of children with high needs—those who are homeless, low-performing, immigrants, non-English-speaking, or with extreme disabilities. With each new round of closures, other large schools are set up to fail.
Among the schools closed were Columbus High School in the Bronx and Jamaica High School in Queens. These are schools that had been pillars of their communities for many years. Yet in both cases, the Department of Education had overloaded them with the most challenging students, stigmatized them as "failures" (which encouraged the flight of many students), and never supplied the support and resources they needed. The more they struggled, the more the DOE abandoned them and readied them for closure. In reality, they were victims of the DOE's own policies. Now their valuable space can be turned into small schools and handed over to charter operators.
Jamaica High School, once the jewel of its community, was labeled "persistently dangerous" after a cautious principal reported every disciplinary incident. Many students fled once the label was posted. As enrollment dropped, the DOE installed a spiffy small school inside Jamaica High, whose students had smaller classes, more technology, freshly painted classrooms, and the resources denied to the larger enrollment. Jamaica High was not too dangerous for them! Marc Epstein, a teacher at Jamaica for many years, refers to the situation as "academic apartheid": excellent facilities for the few, disdain and decay for the many.
Christine Rowland, a teacher at Columbus High School, described how the school received disproportionate numbers of poorly prepared students and how it struggled to educate them. Last year, only about 5 percent of the students who entered Columbus in 9th grade were on grade level in reading, and less than 15 percent in math, a dramatic decrease over the past decade. Similarly, the proportion of special education students grew from 7 percent in 2001 to nearly 25 percent. As it was overburdened with the high-needs students from other large schools that closed, Columbus was set up for failure, as Jamaica was.
This is a great and terrible charade. It is not about improving education or helping kids. It is about producing data to demonstrate that small schools are better than large ones and that charters are better than regular public schools. The destruction of neighborhood public schools is merely collateral damage, though it may also be a goal of free-market zealots. The neediest kids will continue to be pushed out and bounced around until they give up. And the data will get better and better until the day comes when the DOE runs out of large high schools to close.
I know you are a major supporter of small schools, but this is a terrible corruption of your ideas. These new small schools are produced not by an educator with a vision, but by a bureaucracy with a business plan.
Over the course of the mayor's third term, we can expect to see more privatization, continued closings of schools (including his own small schools, six of which were closed last week), and continued disruption of the lives of students, teachers, and communities. Schools will be treated like chain stores, opened and closed in response to market forces. New York City is repeating the pattern established in Chicago, where many schools were closed, but displaced students, on average, did no better or worse, and nearly half the displaced students ended up in other low-performing schools.
Race to the Top encourages the shell games that are being played to the applause of politicians and foundations, but to the detriment of students and communities. What matters most are the data. How anyone can confuse the data with better education is beyond my understanding.