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Why Some Failing Schools Can't Improve

Every large district has persistently failing schools.  Whether they should be closed, merged or given additional support is the question ("More Than Half of Renewal High Schools Fall Short on Graduation Rates," The New York Times, Nov. 16). What's happening in New York City is a case in point.

More than half of the 28 high schools in the Renewal program failed to raise their graduation rates after three years, despite the $582 million invested to support them. At two such high schools, all teachers will be required to reapply for their jobs next year. The only bright note is that a few high schools significantly improved their graduation rates.

The question is why some of these schools have succeeded and others have not.  The facile answer is that replacing the principals of persistently failing schools is the answer.  But I doubt it's that simple.  Yes, sometimes new leadership can have a positive effect.  But most of the time it does not deliver the desired results. I say that because the student body tends to remain the same regardless of who the principal is. 

What about replacing teachers?  It's easy to scapegoat teachers when students don't perform.  There's no question that some teachers should no longer be in the classroom for a variety of reasons.  But overall, I believe that as long as the student population remains virtually unchanged, bringing in new teachers will have little effect on student outcomes.  When Jaime Escalante of "Stand and Deliver Fame" transferred from Garfield High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District to Hiram Walker High School in the Sacramento Unified School District, he was unable to duplicate his magic.  He was the same outstanding teacher, but the students were different.

In the final analysis, it will take the coordinated efforts of all stakeholders to turn around failing schools.  There are no quick fixes.

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