11/09/2011 12:21 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2012

Education Should Be About Kids, Not Adults

Over the past decade, the notion that some children "can't learn" or "aren't worth teaching" has fundamentally (and thankfully) been put to rest.

We know that when given an opportunity with a great teacher, students from all backgrounds -- including high-poverty homes -- can achieve at high levels.

But again and again, we encounter resistance to making that fact a widespread reality because it involves a fundamental shift -- from education systems designed to protect adults, to systems that put the needs of students above all else.

Case in point: a recent blog in The Washington Post by a teacher who was at Jamaica High School for 15 years until we closed it last year for poor performance. The teacher's argument boils down to this: even though new small schools are graduating more students than the large high schools they replaced, many of those students aren't college-ready -- so it's better to leave students in a school where one out of every two students does NOT graduate at all.

Strange point to make, right?

But his argument isn't actually about students -- it's about his anger at losing his teaching position at Jamaica High School and the fact that we did not "place" (i.e. force place) him into a permanent position teaching at another school.

Closing failing schools is not easy on anyone. It starts with admitting that there are ways in which we, collectively, have not served our children well. It means removing teachers -- the majority of which are well-intentioned -- from their positions in those schools. And it involves convincing communities that some schools, even those with storied legacies and strong roots in the neighborhood, are failing beyond the point of turning around.

For the 2009-2010 school year, Jamaica High School's four-year graduation rate was 50% -- well below the citywide average of 65% -- putting Jamaica in the bottom 2% of all high schools in Queens. It earned a D grade on its 2009-2010 Progress Report, with an F grade for Student Performance. The school had low student attendance and low course passing rates for first year students -- a key predictor of student success and likelihood of graduation.

But this teacher argues it's better to keep open a dropout-factory than to continue our new, small schools strategy because our new schools, while graduating students at much higher rates, still struggle to graduate students college-ready.

Progress does not happen overnight. But surely it is better to graduate students with a diploma -- even if it means they need remediation in college -- than to have students drop out and have virtually no chance at a successful career.

Before Mayor Bloomberg came to office, New York City's graduation rate was flat for more than a decade. Since 2005, the city's graduation rate has increased by 40% (18.6 points), with the graduation rate reaching an all time high of 65.1%. During that same time period we saw the drop out rate reduced by 10 points -- from 22% in 2005 to 12.1% in 2010. And, the number of City students enrolled as first-time freshmen at CUNY colleges alone has increased by nearly 9,000 students -- from 16,000 in 2002 to 25,000 in 2010.

This is in large part because of our strategy of replacing large, failing schools with new small schools -- a strategy which MDRC, one of the most-respected educational research organizations, found has "markedly improved graduation prospects" for disadvantaged students.

We know it's not enough -- that is why for the past two years we have placed a huge emphasis on the common core curriculum, infusing our schools with more non-fiction texts, and getting students to do more advanced critical thinking and writing in their classes.

Since 2007, we have seen both a 30% increase in the number of students taking AP tests and a 30 percent increase in passing rates.

And, if you look back to 2005, the percent of New York City high school students who graduated college-ready (i.e. met the standard for passing out of remedial coursework at the City University of New York) has gone from 32% in 2005 to a projected 37% in 2011. While we won't have final data until the state verifies graduation data in a few months, a 5 point gain in the right direction is nothing to dismiss, especially when you consider the decades of failure that came before.

We still have a long way to go, no doubt. And we need better State tests for graduation that truly align to college readiness. But you have to have an extremely short memory and a distorted point of view to argue that new schools that graduate 66% of students on average or more, even with low college-ready numbers, are somehow no better than schools where just one out of every two kids graduated.

That is one history lesson that needs some work.