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Closing Public Schools: A Truly Bad Idea

Dear Deborah,

Last week, the New York City Department of Education received permission from the city's Panel on Educational Policy, or PEP, to close an additional two dozen public schools because their scores are too low. The city has now closed more than 100 schools and opened hundreds of new ones. The consent of the PEP was never in doubt. New York City has a governance system for its public schools in which Mayor Michael Bloomberg has complete, unlimited power over every decision. He not only appoints the chancellor of schools, but appoints eight of the 13 members of the PEP, who serve at his pleasure. The mayor has made clear that he will fire any member of the PEP who defies his orders. Thus, when the department of education, which the mayor controls, makes a recommendation to the PEP, which the mayor controls, the outcome is predetermined.

Our mayor is now in his ninth year, in his third term, and his education policies are grounded completely in the idea of numbers, data, and accountability. Every school gets a letter grade, and schools that get a D or F more than once are on track to be closed. The letter grades themselves are based mainly on state test scores, which are unreliable. Only last June, the state education department acknowledged that its tests were too easy, and it deflated scores across the state, wiping out almost all of New York City's allegedly historic gains. Even though it is obvious that the state scores have no scientific validity, they determine which schools will live and which will die.

Since the mayor took control, the school system has been reorganized three or four times. At first, the schools were centrally controlled, with lockstep expectations for every minute of every class; now all supervision and middle management have been abolished; each school is on its own (this is called "empowerment") and is judged almost entirely by those dubious test scores.

Some years back, the mayor decided to stake everything on small schools and charter schools, and his department of education has been conscientiously undermining and killing off big high schools. Small schools and charter schools are permitted in their first few years to limit the enrollment of students with disabilities and students who are English-language learners. Thus the most challenging students are shuffled from school to school, the favored schools thrive, and the larger schools—which get disproportionate numbers of low-scoring students—are set up to fail by the department of education. The very process of identifying a school as "failing" is enough to frighten away many parents, thus hastening the school's certain death.

A study of the closing schools by the city's independent budget office found that these schools have disproportionate numbers of the city's neediest students. One begins to get the sense that students who are homeless, who don't speak English, who receive special education, or who have other high needs, are bounced around from school to school.

As the small and charter schools proliferate, the idea of choice takes root. The concept of the neighborhood school becomes obsolete. Parents and students are supposed to become smart shoppers, although quite honestly it must be hard for them to know how to choose between the High School for Leadership, the High School for Integrated Studies, the High School for Peace and Justice, the High School for Academic Success, the High School for Excellence, and hundreds of similarly named schools (these are made-up names, but not so different from the real ones).

Today, almost nine years into this era of business-style management, some of the new small schools are failing and being closed. The mayor's press people say this shows that he takes accountability seriously and is prepared to shut down every low-performing school, including those authorized on his watch. But to many parents, it just shows a high tolerance for chaos and a complete indifference to students' need for stability and the role of the school as an anchor in the community.

When the PEP held hearings on school closings, thousands of students, parents, and teachers turned out to protest the closing of their schools. Large numbers of students and parents from charter schools also turned out; they had been bused in by charter sponsors to urge the panel to close the schools so that charters could get their space. (I have trouble understanding why the children and parents from charters came to seek additional charters since they were already enrolled in them.) At these meetings, which were akin to show trials, it was clear that the panel intended to endorse the mayor's wish. Although technically the event was a "hearing," the audience understood that the majority of the panel was not listening, and nothing they might say would change the outcome. This parody of democracy enraged the audience, which became rowdy. As we have seen recently in Egypt, people who are denied a legitimate role in the democratic process get angry and make noise. As the closings continue, it seems likely they will make even more noise. How else will they be heard? Who is affected more by the closings than the students and their parents and teachers?

I oppose the closing of public schools (except for under-enrollment) for a simple reason. Public schools are not chain stores. They are not shoe stores that can be closed when they don't turn a profit and be relocated elsewhere. They are a public service, a public good. It is the obligation of public officials to provide good public schools in every neighborhood, not to privatize them or to act as an umpire whose role is to judge them defective and shut them down. If those who are in charge can't help struggling schools, shame on them. (Charter schools are a different matter, as they sign a contract and agree to meet certain goals or close.)

Every time a public school is closed, it should be considered a failure of the central administration. The leaders who close the most public schools are the biggest failures. They should be held accountable for their incompetence. Good leadership in education means taking responsibility for making things better, rather than sitting back and monitoring how schools perform. Good leaders should be recognized for the schools they improve. Bad leaders close schools because they are incapable of helping them.

Schools with low test scores are mostly schools that enroll large numbers of students who are struggling to keep up. Closing the school does nothing to help the students. District leaders should do whatever is necessary to help the school improve. Those who can't, or won't, should be replaced by better leaders. Educational euthanasia is unethical.

Diane

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