I have never heard of the MDRC until few days ago. It is a think tank with the motto “Building Knowledge to Improve Social Policy.” However, it is tough to see what type of knowledge it is building by publishing a mindlessly laudatory study of New York City’s small high schools entitled “Sustained Positive Effects on Graduation Rates Produced by New York City’s Small Public High Schools of Choice”. The single most important sentence in the 12-page study can be found towards the bottom of page 11: “This policy brief and the study upon which it is based are funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.”
There you go. The fix was in from the start.
Closing New York City’s large comprehensive public high schools in order to replace them with several small schools has been a cornerstone of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s brand of education reform. It states in the introductory paragraph of the study: “Between fall 2002 and fall 2008, the school district closed 23 large failing high schools (with graduation rates below 45 percent), [and] opened 216 new small high schools (with different missions, structures, and student selection criteria)…” Rather than just stating facts, the authors use language (like “large failing high schools”) to soften up the reader to accept the study’s ultimate conclusion: “In summary, the present findings provide highly credible evidence that in a relatively short period of time, with sufficient organization and resources, an existing school district can implement a complex high school reform that markedly improves graduation rates for a large population of low-income, disadvantaged students of color.”
Of course, we did not need a 12-page study printed on glossy paper to tell us that graduation rates in New York City have increased under Bloomberg. What the study does do, amazingly, is attribute these rising rates to the great education provided by the small high schools: “In a large sample, like that used for the MDRC study, lottery winners and lottery losers are the same, on average, in all ways before they enter high school. Consequently, it is valid to attribute any differences in their future academic outcomes to their access to an SSC (“Small Schools of Choice”). Because students who lose an SSC lottery attend over 200 high schools that vary widely in their size, age, structure, academic programs, and effectiveness, the MDRC report judged SSCs against the overall effectiveness of a diverse group of other high schools. The results released in 2010 indicated that, on average, the 105 SSCs studied increased student progress toward graduation during their first three years of high school and increased students’ four-year graduation rates.”
Only a bunch of policy wonks, isolated from any reality of what goes on in New York City schools, would say something like all students who apply to the small schools of choice “are the same, on average, in all ways before they enter high school.” I am sure this is news to the parents of these students, who remember giving birth to their children instead of buying them off an assembly line.
But if you can contend that all students are the same, then you can pretend that you have controlled for the human elements of different learning styles, socioeconomic background and home life. If you can pretend in good conscience that you have controlled for these factors, then you can give your flimsy findings an air of scientific respectability.
So what does it do to the validity of this study when Bloomberg’s own sock puppet school Chancellor Dennis Walcott admits that these small schools have not taken in their fair share of students with learning problems and English Language Learners? What does it do to the validity of the study when a man like Walcott, who faithfully toes Bloomberg’s corporate line, pretty much admits that the non-small high schools (i.e. the type that this study would consider “failing”) against which these small schools were compared have been weighed down by a disproportionate number of the most difficult students to educate?
I would have gladly taken the filthy money of the Gates Foundation to conduct my own study on the issue. Since they have not yet offered to avail themselves of my services, I will be the bigger man and publish my study for free. I do not even need 12 pages of glossy paper on which to write it. All I need is this little black space and white font that I pay for out of my own pocket.
Graduation rates are up because standards are down. When you chop one large high school into 5 smaller schools, you must hire 4 new principals. That means a much higher principal-to-teacher ratio than ever before. In short, they are better able to lean on their teachers. Since the careers of these principals depend on the school’s yearly report card, and that report card is heavily contingent upon graduation rates, principals around the city have made it very clear to their teachers that students better pass no matter what. A student did not show up for class all year? No problem. Give them online credit recovery, where they can take basket-weaving 101 and pretend it is a science credit. It does not matter if kids learn anything. All that matters is that the data looks good. If the MDRC was really serious about measuring student success, they would have mentioned that most NYC public high school graduates that go on to college do not make it past their sophomore year. If this is what success looks like, I would hate to see abject failure.
But are not more and more public high school students passing the state Regents exams? Sure they are. That is because of the rampant growth of grade inflation. The biggest blow to Bloomberg’s legacy as the “education mayor” has been the statement of this obvious truth by the people who administer the Regents exams statewide.
To top it all off, as I have pointed out on this blog millions of times, the small high schools are too small to provide art, music, sports, debate, clubs and whole host of enrichment activities only made possible by pooling the resources of a large number of diverse people working cooperatively under the same roof. Instead of bringing the community together, the small schools tear it asunder. Bloomberg has replaced cooperation with competition and the children have suffered because of it.
This MDRC study is just more proof that ideas are up for sale in our day and age. Instead of “Building Knowledge to Improve Social Policy”, their motto should be “Selling Social Policy to the Highest Bidder”.