School & District Management

New York City’s Struggling Schools’ Program Under Fire

By Denisa R. Superville — December 04, 2015 4 min read
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New York City’s “Renewal Schools” program, a $400 million initiative aimed at boosting academic achievement at some of its lowest-performing schools, has come under criticism from the chancellor of the state’s Board of Regents.

Merryl Tisch, who is leaving her post in March, told Chalkbeat New York that the city was allowing “failure” at some of those schools.

The administration of Mayor Bill De Blasio announced the Renewal Schools program last year, following intense criticism that it was dragging its feet in laying out concrete plans to turn around the city’s struggling schools. The initial $150 million pledge was intended to go to 94 of the city’s lowest-performing schools. That plan also included intensive support for teachers, principals, and students, and extended days at the targeted schools. Students were also to receive extra tutoring and have access to social workers and health services.

But the plan did not placate critics, who said it did not go far enough.

In his speech unveiling the Renewal Schools program in November 2014, De Blasio said that schools that did not make improvements in three years could face closure.

Chalkbeat New York reported this week that the schools in the program have been given three years to make gains that other schools are expected to make in one year. A Queens, N.Y., middle school, for example, was expected to increase its students’ average reading scores from 2.14 to 2.15.

“At some point, everyone has to stop being ridiculous,” Tisch told Chalkbeat New York. “2.14 to 2.15? I mean, give me a break.”

And she expressed frustration with the pace of progress. “If you sit with persistent failure and you tolerate it, then by definition you are destroying the educational pathways for some kids,” she said. “At some point, you’ve got to pull the plug.”

A city spokeswoman defended the program, saying that the standards for the Renewal schools were much more rigorous than for schools in state receivership—the state program that places outside operators in charge of turning around persistently low-performing schools in an effort to boost student performance.

Closures are on the table.

“We will make the difficult decision about where that is necessary for the coming school year,” the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye, told the news site. “We are demanding sustained progress, and will hold schools accountable if it’s not made.”

[UPDATE: Representatives from the city’s Education Department said Friday that one of the measures reported from the Queens middle school—that the school was expected to increase its students’ average reading scores from 2.14 to 2.15—was not a DOE selected benchmark.

They stressed that the program’s goals were designed to be realistic and rigorous, and included very strong targets for improvement. Officials expect graduation rates, for example, to improve by 17 percentage points on average for schools in the program, and more than 30, in some cases, depending on where the school started.

Schools that meet their benchmarks early will have those targets strengthened, they said. And they highlighted research that a number of factors, including leadership, staffing, school climate, and instructional improvement strategies, all play a role in school turnaround.

“Meaningful school improvement is not something that happens overnight, sustained and long-term intensive supports and interventions are necessary to see real change,” Kaye said. “These goals are rigorous and realistic, and we are demanding sustained progress, and will hold schools accountable if it’s not made.”

Part of the problem may be that the goals and targets are hard to find. Kaye said the department was working on making the goals and targets clearer and easier to find. ]

Tisch isn’t the only one disappointed in the reported benchmarks.

Jenny Sedlis, of StudentsFirst New York, told the Daily News that the city was “lowering the bar and claiming progress.”

“Lowering the bar and claiming success has sadly become a recurring theme of Mayor de Blasio’s administration,” Sedlis told the New York Daily News. “If the Mayor thinks parents will be fooled by false claims of success, he’s sorely mistaken.”

In late November, city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña testified before the City Council that the program was having an impact.

She told the legislative body that schools across the city were experiencing a “renewal,” and those in the program have seen higher attendance, a drop in disciplinary infractions, and, in some cases, higher test scores, according to the Daily News

But critics, including Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter advocacy group, were unimpressed. Families for Excellent Schools has been a consistent critic of the DeBlasio administration’s education policies, particularly those centered on low-performing schools and charter schools. The group has called for an audit of the program.

After Fariña testified to the City Council, the group’s CEO, Jeremiah Kittredge, said in a statement that more than a year after the program’s announcement, the chancellor “was clearly unable to prove any academic progress in failing schools.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.