Closing failing schools

The brouhaha surrounding the closing of high schools after years of appalling underperformance and fiscal irresponsibility is hard to understand.  I have specific reference now to Benton Harbor High School in Michigan, but the situation exists in other places across the nation as well (“The End for a Michigan City’s High School? ‘It Would Kill the Whole Community,’“The New York Times, Jun. 16).

According to the state, only three percent of third graders read at grade level and fewer than three high school juniors have been identified college-ready in each of the last five years.  Moreover, the system is $18.4 million in debt.  In light of this dismal data, why is there resistance?  You’d think that stakeholders would welcome the opportunity to give students a better education at other schools.

Similar reactions have been seen elsewhere. For example, Jamaica High School in the New York City system was once the largest high school in the country.  But persistent violence and a graduation rate of about 50 percent finally led the New York City Department of Education to decide to close it.  The news angered students, parents, the community, and alumni. But because all high schools to date have been overwhelmingly black, racism has been raised as the real reason.

Yet so many black parents are on the wait list to enroll their children in charter schools.  Why wouldn’t they keep their own children in the same failing schools if racism were indeed the reason?

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

6 Replies to “Closing failing schools”

  1. It’s the students, not the schools, that are “failing”. If we close School A and send A’s failing students to Schools B and C, those students will still be failing students. A’s failing students will not suddenly become successful students when they sit in classes at B and C instead of A.

    If A has a very high percentage of failing students while B and C have a lower percentage of failing students, closing A while sending A’s failing students to B and C might make the overall numbers look superficially a little better — no school with horrible numbers and two schools with only slightly worse numbers. But, on close examination, we’ll see that the total number of failing students will not change. To the contrary, if — as is usually the case — B and C are struggling, relatively low-SES schools but just not quite as bad as A, it’s more likely that the addition of the A failing students to the struggling B and C will push the overall environment in B and C over the edge into the complete chaos that existed at A — endemic minor misbehavior and overwhelming anti-academic-achievement peer pressure. In that — more likely scenario — the more concerned/functional parents at Schools B and C will pull their kids out, increasing the percentage of children at Schools B and C who are children of unconcerned/dysfunctional parents and, in a few years, Schools B and C will have the same dismal stats as School A had.

    If it were the “school” — that is, the teachers, the administrators, the curriculum, the facilities, the support services — that was causing the low test scores at a “failing” school, then we would not see the almost exact correlation between test scores and school SES that exists all over the country among neighborhood public schools. All the low-SES schools have low test scores; all the high-SES schools have high test scores. If it was the “school” rather than the students that was driving the test scores, surely we would see at least a few low-SES schools with high test scores and a few high-SES schools with low test scores. Out of the thousands (hundreds of thousands?} of neighborhood public schools, there must be at least a few low-SES schools with good teachers, administrators, curriculum, facilities, and support services and at least a few high-SES schools with bad teachers, administrators, curriculum, facilities, and support services. But, there are no low-SES schools with high test scores and no high-SES schools with low test scores. It’s the student characteristics, not the school characteristics, that are driving the test scores.


  2. Labor Lawyer: Schools are not Lourdes and teachers are not miracle workers, which is why it’s unlikely that most students will do significantly better at a different school. Yes. there are always exceptions that the media play up. But so much of student performance is the result of what students bring to the classroom from their homes and neighborhoods. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to improve the situation, but it is a reality check.


  3. From what I’ve seen, virtually all the “exceptions” — that is, low-SES schools with relatively good test scores — there is some screening device at work that results in the low-SES students who attend the school not being a representative cross-section of low-SES students in the area. The most common screening device, of course, is requiring that parents apply to send their kids to the school. In low-SES areas, the requirement that parents apply to send their children to the school will operate to screen out the children of the extremely unconcerned/dysfunctional parents who are — by definition — to uncaring/dysfunctional to learn about the school and/or to complete the application. When these screening devices are used, the school will offer the students in the school a better educational experience than that being offered at the local neighborhood public school. But, the better educational experience is the result of the school’s students having better characteristics — on average — than the students at the local neighborhood public school. It is not the result of the school itself — the teachers, curriculum, facilities, or support services — being better than the neighborhood public school itself.


  4. Labor Lawyer: Absolutely correct! When parents actively choose a school for their children, that is evidence they are involved in their education. As a result, comparing such charter schools with traditional schools, where no parental involvement is required for enrollment, is absurd. Of course, Success Academy and its ilk post impressive results with disadvantaged children. I’d like to see how Success Academy would do operating traditional neighborhood schools.


  5. The most important experiment — in my opinion — relevant to the national debate re charter schools is what happened when KIPP took over a low-SES low-test-score Denver middle school, enrolled all the same students who had attended the school pre-takeover and enrolled only those students, and operated the school using the KIPP approaches for several years. The test scores stayed low. KIPP gave up after a few years and pulled out. To my knowledge, KIPP has never tried to rerun the experiment anywhere else. Anyone who argues that charter school “successes” are due to characteristics of the charter school — as opposed to characteristics of the students enrolled in the charter school — must provide a compelling explanation for the failure of that KIPP Denver experiment. To my knowledge, the charter proponents uniformly ignore the KIPP Denver experiment. They have no explanation for the failure.


  6. Labor Lawyer: I remember that too. Yet charter supporters prefer to point to other comparisons where they outperform traditional schools with same SES students. So far, the charter argument prevails because they get far more media coverage.


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