Education Opinion

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished in Public Schools

By Walt Gardner — April 18, 2011 3 min read
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Taxpayers are entitled to know if underperforming schools are making a comeback. But even when evidence shows they are turning around, they continue to be penalized. Two public schools recently in the news serve as cases in point.

M.S. 223, a middle school in the South Bronx, has received three straight A’s on the report card issued by New York City’s Department of Education since Ramon Gonzalez became principal in Sept. 2003 (“The Fragile Success of School Reform in the Bronx,” The New York Times Magazine, Apr 10). According to the latest progress report, which judges a school based on its growth against other schools with similar demographics, M.S. 223 is the 10th-best middle school in the city.

What makes the story remarkable is that M.S. 223, which is located in the poorest Congressional district in the country, is a traditional public school - not a charter school. As a result, it is required to enroll all students who show up at the door, regardless of need or motivation.

In spite of the daunting challenges facing him, Gonzalez has posted an enviable record of achievement. Yet in February he was informed that a charter school was coming to his building. The decision meant that he would lost the space he needed for teacher training and student counseling, and would be stymied in his his plan to expand M.S. 223 into a high school.

Apparently, his argument that there are four middle schools that are better candidates for the placement of a charter school because of their failure to improve was persuasive because in March, the Department of Education granted him a one-year reprieve.

Audenried High School, once known as the Prison on the Hill, is located in Philadelphia (“Comeback School Misses Mark,” The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 11). Despite a long record of underperformance and discipline problems, the school has posted sharply rising test scores as well as progress in addressing other issues. Nevertheless, David Weiner, associate superintendent of academics, said the scores are still below the city’s average. As a result, Audenried is scheduled to reopen in the fall under Universal Cos., a non-profit charter school operator.

When the plan was announced in February, more than 50 of the school’s 417 students left classes to protest the decision at district headquarters. Two days later, Hope Moffett, a 25-year-old English teacher who came to the school from Teach for America, was notified that she would be fired. Her crime was publicly questioning the conversion decision and providing students with transit tokens for the rally, which the district said placed them in danger.

There are several lessons to be learned from M.S. 223 and Audenried High School. Despite hard data showing improvement, both schools are being punished. It’s understandable why taxpayers are frustrated when efforts have not yielded the kind of results they were promised after the U.S. has invested billions of dollars over the past two decades to help failing schools improve.

But what is lost in the debate is that schools serving disadvantaged students are doing the best they can under incredibly difficult conditions. Research has shown that the differences in the quality of schools explain about one-third of the variation in student achievement, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The other two-thirds is attributable to out-of-school factors.

Given this reality, the question is whether reformers genuinely want traditional public schools to succeed. That’s because they leave taxpayers with the distinct impression that only alternative schools with little or no educational experience can deliver on their promises.

Can it be that the $700 billion spent annually on K-12 public education is too tempting to pass up?

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.