Last week, the NYC Department of Education (DOE) identified 25 “failing schools” that are slated for closure or truncation.
According to the DOE, low attendance, test scores and graduation rates indicate that these schools have failed to adequately educate our children and therefore should be held fully accountable for their failure by being closed. At first glance, this seems like a very reasonable position.
After all why should schools with low test scores and graduation rates remain open? If we close schools and replace them, we should get better results right? Wrong.
It turns out that almost half of the schools that are being phased out or truncated this year are new schools that were opened under Mayor Bloomberg to replace schools that were previously identified as failing. So what is it the common thread that runs between the old schools that failed and the new schools that failed?
All of these schools were charged with serving students and communities with the highest level of needs-- needs that were more than academic deficits in reading and math.
Academic deficits can almost always be traced to some more immediate need not being fully addressed. For example, it has been well documented that chronic absenteeism is one of the greatest contributors to student failure.
Obviously if a student does not attend school on a regular basis, they have no chance of acquiring the skills and knowledge needed to perform well on the standardized tests that are at the heart of measuring school performance.
The data indicates that regular school attendance is particularly problematic in poor urban communities of color. Many who consider themselves to be “no excuses” education reformers fault the schools entirely for poor attendance levels.
They would say that the schools do not provide offerings that engage students or they have not done enough outreach to the families. But if one were to look at the reasons for chronic absence, you would find that they are linked to things outside of the ability of the school to control.
Things like asthma, teen pregnancy, homelessness, lack of adequate childcare, vision problems, family violence and sexual abuse, crime and community violence, poor nutrition, lack of parental involvement and mental health problems are just a few of the problems that stand in the way of regular school attendance for many of our students.
Additionally, NYC schools remain responsible for the test, attendance and graduation data of students whose families move out of the city or out of the country and fail to enroll their children in school. Schools are also held responsible for the students who choose to enroll in and graduate from DOE approved GED programs. These students show up in the data as non-graduates.
And this is just attendance.
If you unpacked the other data points that measure school effectiveness, you will find equally daunting socio –economic issues attached to those data sets. If you asked the teachers, administrators, and parents of the schools that have been identified for closure if they were provided with adequate resources to meet these extraordinary types of needs that reach way beyond the walls of the schoolhouse, you can bet that the answer would be a unanimous no.
But even mentioning the reality of these problems in today’s climate of tough talk, bottom lines and no excuses is an act of heresy.
When crime goes up in a neighborhood, no one ever talks about closing the precinct. When a public health epidemic sweeps a community, it would be ludicrous to talk about the failure of the local hospital or community health centers and then close them down. We immediately work to identify the underlying causes of the problem and support the agencies responsible for addressing the problem with increased resources.
We have decided as a society that the schools will be held accountable to correct every societal shortcoming, but we have failed to muster the courage and political will necessary to provide schools with the adequate supports, expertise and funding needed to really tackle the complex and mult-ilayered circumstances that pose barriers to student academic success.
All of our children can learn and all of our schools can be successful if we are honest about what they are really up against. Every time we close a school, we must mourn for our own failure as a society.