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In Defense of Closing Failing Schools

The facts clearly show that closing failing high schools in New York City is working.

The one policy that has arguably done more to improve education outcomes for kids in New York City over the past decade has been the systematic effort to close the City’s giant failing high schools (i.e. drop out factories) and replace them with new, smaller high schools.

Controversial and at times painful, yes. But as a result, thousands more students across the city are now graduating from high school and achieving future success. That’s because these new schools (more than 575 created in the last 10 years) dramatically outperform the schools they replaced across every indicator: graduation, college readiness, State test results and stakeholder satisfaction. In 2006, all phasing-out high schools had a combined graduation rate of 38%. In 2011, all new high schools had nearly doubled that combined graduation rate to 70%.

In 2010, the nonprofit, nonpartisan education organization MRDC issued a report entitled “Transforming the High School Experience: How New York City’s New Small Schools Are Boosting Student Achievement and Graduation Rates.” The report concluded that in New York City “small schools of choice are markedly improving academic progress and graduation prospects [for students], particularly for disadvantaged students.”

Opponents try to undermine this documented progress. They question the students these new schools serve. In reality, however, new schools serve similarly high-need populations as the ones they replace. For example, new schools have a higher percent of students eligible for free lunch (68% versus 61% at schools proposed for phase out) and a similar percent of English Language Learners (15% versus 13%), students with disabilities (18% versus 21%), and overage students (11% versus 12%). Not surprising when you consider that nine in ten of these new schools are unscreened, meaning students are randomly assigned to these schools based on their preferences.

Those same opponents claim that schools serving high need students necessarily have poor outcomes. But there is too much evidence to contrary – schools producing significantly better results.

Not every new school succeeds. You need look no further than the experience at Taft High School in the Bronx. In 2002, when Taft was closed, fewer than a quarter of the students were graduating. Last year, the new schools that replaced Taft graduated more than half of their students. The student population on the campus remained similar –the same percentage of English Language Learners and Black and Hispanic students and nearly 10% more students with disabilities.

Overall, fair to say that the closing of Taft is succeeding. But that’s not the whole picture. Some of the new schools on the old Taft campus are not making progress quick enough.

One example is Levin High School, which is slated for closure. Its 31% graduation rate is the fifth lowest in the City – lower than the 51% graduation rate of the 25 schools serving a population most similar to Levin and lower than the 55% graduation rate of the five other schools on the Taft campus (including another school that is being closed). In addition, Levin sent just a quarter of its students to college in 2011 -- the lowest rate of any school on the Taft Campus. There is no reason to keep this school open when others are doing better.

Some will say (and have said) that a school serving these students can only perform better by transferring and discharging low performing students out of the school. But Bronx Collegiate, also on the Taft campus, discredits that dubious notion. Collegiate sends more than a third of its students to college (significantly better than Levin, but not where it needs to be) and has a transfer and discharge rate that is very similar to that of its peers and lower than the failing Levin’s.

So what does all this say? Well at least two things. To the status quo crowd, I quote Sen, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” And in this case the facts clearly show that closing failing high schools in New York City is working. And to the crowd of mayoral candidates: I hope you are listening to these facts and not the political rhetoric.

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