New York: Stop Trying to Fix Schools With One Hand Tied Behind Your Back


June 30, 2016

Earlier this year, New York State Commissioner of Education, MaryEllen Elia, upgraded the ratings of almost half of New York State public schools previously identified as “failing” or “persistently failing.” Of 145 such schools – now diplomatically described as “struggling” or “persistently struggling” – that serve more than 60,000 disproportionately low-income and minority students, 70 were assigned higher-quality designations, such as being a school in “good standing.”

Education Reform Now issued a policy brief yesterday examining student outcomes in these 70 schools. In the elementary schools and middle schools removed from the list, just 8% of students were proficient in English/language Arts and math. The high schools removed from the list had an average 54% graduation rate (see our full infographic here).

If these schools don’t qualify as “struggling” or “persistently struggling,” then Commissioner Elia has, by her actions, rendered the terms meaningless. This isn’t, however, only about honest grading. Schools that remain on the persistently struggling and struggling lists, unlike other low-performing schools in the state, are eligible for “receivership”, a process through which an independent entity can enact sweeping changes in school policies to improve student outcomes. By taking them out of the receivership queue, the state is, for all intents and purposes, saying that it will not do all that it can to help students stuck in these 70 schools.

New York’s struggling schools average 80% economically disadvantaged students. We realize poverty is a stubborn obstacle to student success in school. But there are high-poverty schools in New York with a large proportion of disadvantaged kids that show what’s possible. The Title I Blue Ribbon Award-winning Active Learning Elementary School in Flushing, Queens has 98% minority and 82% economically disadvantaged students. The Success Academies average 85% minority students yet rank in the top 1% of all schools in the state for math, and top 3% in English. Newsweek’s “Beating the Odds” lists thirty high-poverty New York High Schools, such as Williamsburg Prep in Brooklyn where low-income and minority students are performing at or above state averages.

Research shows that receivership, something Commissioner Elia took pains to have 70 abysmally performing schools avoid, can work to dramatically improve student outcomes when other methods have not been successful. In 2010, the Lawrence Public School District of Massachusetts had proficiency and graduation rates that were 30 percentage points lower than state averages, and 40% of students dropped out. Then the state appointed Jeffrey C. Riley, who was Chief Innovation Officer for the Boston Public Schools, as receiver for the school district.

Riley partnered with Empower Schools to centralize accountability, but gave local schools autonomy over budget, staffing, curriculum, and other decisions. Significant changes to collective bargaining agreements allowed the removal of ineffective staff and the awarding of bonuses to keep strong teachers. These are similar to the kinds of flexibilities that would have been available to those 70 struggling and persistently struggling New York State schools under its receivership law had Commissioner Elia not upgraded them.

In a review of the research on the Lawrence school receivership effort, Carey Borkoski of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy concluded that “the results are, by any account, remarkable.” Borkoski found:

  • Increases in students’ absolute test scores, up 9 percentage points in English and 17 points in math;
  • Historic levels in math proficiency, with a 13 percentage point increase since 2012;
  • Increases in graduation rates from 52% in 2011, to 67% in 2015; and
  • A decline in dropout rates, from 9% in 2011 to 4.5% in 2014.

We know there is no silver bullet for improving schools. Stakeholders need to come at the problem comprehensively, from multiple angles. However, there’s a good deal of evidence to provide a roadmap for schools and states willing to make substantive changes. New York has a responsibility to its students and their families to ensure that the widest array of policy options are on the table for improving schools that have been failing for years and for which other school improvement strategies have not been effective.

By acting to block big reforms in schools where more than 90% of students are not achieving proficiency or from which only five in ten students graduate, the New York State Education Department has committed educational negligence of the highest order. It’s time for advocates, policymakers, and stakeholders to come together and chart a new course for students who have the potential to achieve and succeed — if only the state would give them the opportunity to do so.