Tag Archives: Small Schools

Mind the Achievement Gap

The New York Times picked up on the MDRC report I had written about here. This was the report that credited Bloomberg’s small schools with higher graduation rates in New York City. Despite the fatal flaws in the report, the NY Times (as is the case with the media in general), parroted its pro-Bloomberg findings.

And yet, in the same issue, the NY Times also ran a story about the achievement gap. The studies they cite find that the racial achievement gap has been narrowing while the income achievement gap has been expanding. As it says in the article: “One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources.”

Interesting, since the small schools that the Times so highly touts have fewer of these activities than the large schools they replaced. Does this mean the small schools only serve to perpetuate the achievement gap between rich and poor? I suppose this contradiction is lost on the editorial board of the NY Times.

It is high time that the media stops equating improved graduation rates with success. All they are doing is worshipping at the altar of data that has defined the Bloomberg regime from the start.

Graduation rates are up because standards are down. Replacing one large school with four small ones requires a massive shake up of the staff. The veteran teachers are fired or reassigned, then replaced with pliable youngsters from Teach for America and the Teaching Fellows. At the same time, four new schools mean four new principals and a boatload more assistant principals. There is a higher administrator-to-teacher ratio, allowing administrators more time to meddle in the affairs of the teachers in their charge.

Anybody who has worked in a small school knows what all of this adds up to. The reduced teacher load for administrators means they can have one-on-one conferences with their teachers to question them about the grades of their students. Each teacher’s passing rates are compared to the passing rates of every other teacher in the school, and then the passing rates of the system at large. The message is clear: this percentage of students must pass, no matter what. If not, expect more meetings, more observations, more nitpicking and more harassment.

So teachers pass kids who really have not learned anything. They find nonsense extra credit assignments so their struggling students can make up the points required to pass. The only students who end up failing are the truants that make their appearance a couple of times a month. For the select few that actually fail, they now are able to take online credit recovery classes, many times on subjects that have no relation to those that they failed.

Then these students get turned loose into the real world. Whether they go to college or into the workforce, they have been trained to believe that they are entitled to rewards for shoddy work. If they struggle, they have been trained to expect second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth chances. This is a major reason why those graduates that the NY Times and the MDRC so mindlessly applaud end up dropping out of college by their second year.

But our graduates have little to fear. President Obama is on a mission to ensure that what standards are left in college go right out the window. He wants more online classes, lower-salaried professors and, ultimately, a college teaching staff with no autonomy at all. That way, professors will be too scared to fail anybody and our illustrious high school graduates can continue to get unlimited chances for another four years.

This is all as it should be in the corporate takeover of our schools and our country. The truth is that the reformers do want our graduates to have any capacity for independent thought at all. It is not as if the jobs that they intend to provide in the future will require any skill outside of punching a few buttons or reading from a script. Giving the gift of critical thinking to the low-wage functionaries of the future would just put ideas in their head that are too big for their station in life. We saw what happened when the slaves of the American south got a taste of book learning: revolts, uprisings and a rejection of subservience.

Publications of record like the NY Times are complicit in the destruction of the American mind. Do not be fooled with their apparent concern for the socioeconomic achievement gap. The policies they laud are only designed to perpetuate and widen that gap.

The Propaganda of Small Schools

Don't go beyond that blue wall. That's not your school.

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”.