February 26, 2019; New York Times
School improvement is not easy. If more proof is needed, we can turn to New York City, where earlier this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the Renewal Program, his approach to improving the educational results in 100 targeted schools, had not met expectations and would not go forward as planned. This should not be surprising since, like many other improvement efforts tried over the last two decades, it promised unrealistic results and avoided taking on the difficult core issues that are tied children’s educational success.
Underscoring how hard it has been to improve urban school systems, the New York Times began its coverage of the change in NYC’s educational strategy by observing that “no large school system has cracked the code, despite decades of often costly attempts. As education fads have come and gone, politicians have flipped between school improvement models based on punitive measures like closure and teacher firing and softer approaches that rely on pouring resources into schools.”
Like many efforts at educational reform, the Renewal Program sought to radically change direction. Rather than the harsher efforts that marked the approach of former mayor Michael Bloomberg, one that relied on test results, school closures, and teacher bashing as the secrets to success, the Renewal Program was based on the belief that schools “would improve if children were given a wide array of social services and teachers were better trained. The city paid for an extension of the school day, professional coaches for teachers, and a suite of social supports such as mental health clinics, dentists and food pantries on site.”
The Renewal Program set about implementing a program that would provide these supports to its targeted schools, but politics and the pressure for faster results made it impossible to invest the needed time and money. Complex human problems can take years of slow, steady work to address, and that reality is a hard message to deliver in our instant-gratification world.
While New York’s educational leaders told the mayor these difficult truths about school improvement, he was not ready to share this message as the program launched: “In order for these schools to reach their targets for 2017, the interventions would need to produce truly exceptional improvements…historically, it has been quite rare for schools to improve that much in two years.”
Changes to a complex bureaucracy require time to be managed effectively, and new initiatives need time to be field-tested. Yet, the mayor sold this effort with a promise to deliver dramatic improvement in just four years.
Even if the approach had been given more time, the program did not directly address the societal issues that many experts believe are key factors in student success. NPQ reported in February on a NYC School Task Force that underscored the strong connection between racial/economic diversity and student performance, an issue the Renewal strategy ignored:
All students benefit when they can learn from classmates who have different life experiences to share, evidenced by higher academic outcomes, stronger critical thinking skills, and increased creativity…all students benefit from reductions in prejudices and implicit biases and improved social-emotional well-being…students benefit from experiences that prepare them for an increasingly diverse society.
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Even in liberal New York City, taking steps to address segregation are difficult; the Renewal strategy sought to improve outcomes without doing the difficult work integration requires.
Class size matters, too, but adding teachers is expensive. Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, recently told a N.Y. City Council committee that “according to our analysis, in nearly half (or 42 percent) of Renewal Schools, there was no reduction in average class size from November 2014 to November 2017.”
Of the schools that did not reduce class size, the average increase in class size was more than two students per class, with some schools increasing class sizes by significantly more than that. Even among those schools which did lower class sizes, 18 percent did so by less than one student per class on average. Not one of the Renewal schools this fall capped class size at the levels in the city’s original [Contract for Excellence] plan.
Worse yet, in 73 percent of the Renewal schools, there were maximum class sizes of 30 or more. Bringing it to levels that experts believe would actually matter would have doubled the program’s cost to $1.5 billion.”
Teachers were not popular in an environment that had them held up as the cause of failure, and school funding is hard to find, so this investment wasn’t made, either.
Gillian Williams, president of the Rensselaerville Institute, which trains principals, remarks, “Let’s get through to the other side of having screwed this up and learn from it. We know enough now that we shouldn’t set up ourselves up for more of these failures.”
To its credit, the city is trying to do that. A report released this week by the City reviews the data. Designated Renewal schools saw graduation rates rise from 52.4 percent to 71.9 percent in four years, far outpacing the district as a whole, but in basic subjects like math and English, Renewal school students improved less than the district average. With a price tag of $773 million, New Yorkers have the right to expect better.
There was also considerable variation. The report notes that, “Of the original 94 Renewal Schools, 21 showed sufficient progress to graduate in 2018 from the Renewal program and became designated as Rise schools requiring less support. Nine of the original 94 merged with another school, and 14 closed. Those cases were largely attributable to enrollment levels that continued to decline to unsustainable levels.” One challenge, the report indicates, is that the label “Renewal school” often was read by parents as “problem school”—and drove them away.
Another finding is that context matters. It will surprise no one that who the principal is matters a lot. A more significant lesson is to avoid broad reform programs altogether and instead “provide a spectrum of support structures tailored to each school’s particular needs.” Community schools with wrap-around supports, which NPQ has profiled before, were highlighted as one positive approach to adopt.—Martin Levine