New York City offers some unpleasant truths about school improvement

New York City offers some unpleasant truths about school improvement

New York City Mayor Bill the Blasio walks up Fifth Avenue during the Veterans Day Parade on Nov. 11, 2017, in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) In 2014, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he was starting the Renewal Program at the city's lowest-performing schools. He promised to plow millions or dollars into these schools to provide a variety of students in the schools, as the previous administration of Michael Bloomberg had done. At a cost of $ 600 million to $ 750 million, the results were not what the Blasio had hoped. Fourteen of the original 94 schools in the program have closed, some 70 are still participating, and Chalkbeat reports that more closings are expected. The future of the program is unclear; de Blasio recently spoke about the programs "natural conclusion" without talking about what that might be. To think that seriously low-performing schools can be turned around in a few years with an infusion of money – even a big one – is wishful thinking. It's not that money does not matter – it does. But real change takes time, and how the money is spent is as important as the amount. This post looks at the Renewal Program and what happens when good school improvement meets unrealistic expectations. It was co-written by Kevin Welner and Julia Daniel. Welner is director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, specializing in educational policy and law. Daniel is a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado at Boulder who is studying New York City's community school reform as part of her dissertation research. By Kevin Welner and Julia Daniel In our busy and overloaded lives, shortcuts are awfully tempting. But they are often dead ends. Nowhere is that more true in the case of school improvement. New York mayor Bill de Blasio may have had these lessons in mind when he announced that his administration would invest in the Renewal Schools program. While former mayor Michael Bloomberg had enthusiastically embraced the fad of closing schools and opening charter schools, the Blasio has eschewed such shortcuts. The Renewal schools instead of greater investment in those schools suffer the worst outcomes. The money is used in ways that increase opportunities for learning, including learning time after school and in the summer. Renewal schools also offer resources such as social and emotional support for students that need immediate and vital needs and that improve learning outcomes. The Renewal program – which also supports schools in the city 's larger Community Schools Initiative (CSI) – assists schools by increasing supports, training, and resources for students and teachers. The CSI increases family and community engagement and creates collaborative structures and practices, bringing people together and implementing improvement strategies based on local needs. These approaches – extended learning time, family and community engagement, collaborative leadership, and integrated student support – are fundamental to community school models and research that shows that out-of-school factors have an influence on student outcomes. In turning to this evidence-based approach, the mayor should be applauded. But like many politicians before him, the Blasio underestimated the time needed to test outcomes such as increases in test scores. When he announced the program in late 2014, he said that schools had not noticeably improved at the end of three years. Fortunately, with the initial (three-year) results now, we do see encouraging improvements. The New York Times reports that, "Since 2014, the high school graduation rate for Renewal schools has increased to 66 percent from 52 percent; the high school dropout rate fell to 16 percent from 18 percent; and overall attendance increased to 89 per cent from 84 per cent. "Yet, there are also challenges that need to be addressed – complications that are undermining the Renewal program. For example, these schools have been hampered by high levels of principal turnover. Further, a quarter of the initial Renewal schools have a closed schedule for ambitious goals. Here, we need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement. A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities. Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty. While schools are important – and can be crucial in the lives of some students – policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism. Even if educators and leaders in New York were perfect for the Renewal reform, it would be 20 or 30 yards down the field. To be sure, the Blasio and the Renewal reform are on the right path. These schools address in-school and out-of-school factors that affect learning, and their students and families. Undoubtedly benefit from schools and schools. But students in many of these communities are still living insecurity, food insecurity, their parents' employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that are a low-income person of color in today's United States. We need to acknowledge these two realities – seemingly in tension: (1) that education reforms can be very helpful if we are patient and committed; but (2) we as a society are deceiving ourselves if we think we will transform educational outcomes without addressing economic inequality. When we ignore inequality and systemic disinvestment from low-income communities, we can still improve outcomes, but we can not transform them. Large achievement gaps will remain. Do not be fooled by "miracle schools" that claim proof of success by rapidly rising test scores. These schools often take shortcuts via one of two strategies. The first is to change students with higher-scoring students, an approach we sometimes see in school-choice reform. The second: shift instruction from the important, deeper learning or 21st-century skills to intense preparation for high-stakes tests. Unfortunately, when this approach generates higher scores, it does not tell us much about meaningful learning at these schools. [Another ‘miracle’ school exposed. Sigh.] In contrast, the Renewal school approach is not a shortcut. We are seeing some progress in attendance and graduation rates, but test scores are a lagging indicator. This means that test score improvements will continue to follow the road, once children have benefited from extended, high-quality opportunities to learn. The path to real school improvement is long and arduous, and nobody – The Blasio included – should suggest otherwise. Nor should anyone suggest that this path will single-handedly overcome the ravages of poverty and racism that affect students' well-being and ability to learn. We share the urgency to improve schools now – never sacrificing the futures of students to the reform du jour. That is exactly why New York City and The Blasio should remain committed to the Renewal program – a program based on decades of rigorous research and already showing meaningful benefits for underserved students. When we look for silver bullets, or ignoring educational inequity altogether, we should rejoice that New York and its mayor are engaged in the demanding yet essential work or partnering with communities to address learn for all of the city's children.