04/05/2013 03:59 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2013

The School Closure Movement

For the past ten years Mayor Bloomberg has been telling us that New York City is at the forefront of education reform -- but what do we have to show for it? One-hundred forty schools closed, communities in disarray and test scores flatlined.

At the same time politicians across the spectrum have decided that education is the foremost long-term challenge facing our country, and is one of the few areas where right and left can sometimes find common ground.

In New York City, as we prepare for a new mayor, we need to take another look at what works and what doesn't -- and why.

Mayor Bloomberg has attempted to improve NYC schools by identifying failing schools and targeting them for closure. The scope of his initiative has been dramatic: His administration has shut down more than 140 schools in the last 10 years throughout the city. Significantly, Bloomberg has not targeted schools with equal frequency in all of our city's neighborhoods. Of the 63 high schools that were forced to shutter their doors since 2002, 40 percent have been in the Bronx, in some of the poorest neighborhoods in our nation.

Bloomberg's extreme approach to school reform has unleashed a flood of unintended consequences. In the last 10 years, tens of thousands of children and families have been caught up in cycles of tumultuous change as their schools have been shuttered and their teachers have been replaced. Communities have been traumatized without consultation. Sometimes in the middle of the academic year a school gets a pink slip from the Department of Education. For students and families this is akin to an educational limbo. Students often must endure three years of displacement as their school phases out, not enrolling any new students from year to year but still educating those that have been left behind- as their school size shrinks, their teachers depart and the mood turns hopeless until finally the doors are closed.

The outright ruthlessness that accompanies the school closure movement is at odds with what we should be teaching our children. We often identify ourselves as a culture of redemption and rehabilitation. Wouldn't it be more logical to enact real reform -- especially if there is not very compelling evidence for what the school closure movement is accomplishing? Results have been mixed, at best. Test scores have been flatlined since Bloomberg began locking the doors on failing schools. In New York City, since 2002, SAT scores have actually dropped between 3 and 8 points in reading and in math. The only substantive change has been graduation rates, which have gone up significantly but have not been balanced by a college-ready population. Regents degrees have hardly budged during the past 12 years, and in 2011 only 23 percent of our city's students were prepared to graduate high school and take on the challenges of college.

Bloomberg's policies have succeeded in creating a wide spread fear in the hearts of educators, a dislocation amongst students, and a sense of failure in our communities. As communities are pulled apart, corporations step in to fill the void. More often than not, the defunct public school is replaced by a charter school -- a charter school that does not have to play by the same rules as traditional public schools. Charter schools, for instance, do not have to accept special education children or English language learners, can hire and fire teachers at will, and can expel difficult children at a whim. Still, even with these massive differences, according to Stanford University's research, charter schools do no better nationally than other community public schools. Only 17 percent of charter schools provided a better education than traditional schools, and 37 percent actually offered children a worse education. In New York City, the numbers are not as bleak, especially in math; in reading, however, only 22 percent of the charter schools outpaced their public school counterparts, while 25 percent lagged behind their peer district schools. Remarkably, despite their mediocre performance, charter schools are not shut down with the same frequency as public schools.

Former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein was famous for saying that he was fighting the culture of low expectations. Klein was the mayor's man for the job: a steely heart, a sharp scalpel and high expectations. Yet Klein never demonstrated that he understood that the problems were deeper and more complex than test scores. The problems have to do with equal opportunity to resources and access to power that poor non-white communities simply have never had when compared to affluent white communities. In our city, the playing field is not equal outside the school building -- whites receive higher wages, have better health care, are less likely to be imprisoned, and live longer lives than non-whites. So why would one imagine there is equal opportunity inside the classroom?

In 2012, the Annenberg Institute at Brown University conducted a comprehensive study in education and found that the schools on the New York City closure list served a higher percentage of black, Latino, special education, English language learners and students receiving free lunch than higher performing schools. Schools that are shut down are far more likely to exist in a non-white, high-poverty community.

The one constant for determining how students will perform on their math or English SAT test is their family income. Students born to families making less than $50,000 a year score as much as 130 points less on their SATs than students whose families make more than $150,000 a year. With such a strong positive correlation between income and test scores we should spend less time closing schools in economically disadvantaged communities and more time creating economic opportunities for all our citizens so that they could help prepare their children to succeed.

With Mayor Bloomberg's upcoming departure, it is time to slow down and resist the urge to throw our public education into the jaws of school start-up corporations who do not necessarily have the community's best interests at heart or a demonstrated track record of success.

The interventions that are needed are commonsense interventions that most parents of school aged children would immediately recognize: time, resources and training.

  1. Provide adequate resources for the unique needs of every school population, including money, space, and personnel;
  2. Allow each school to hire the teachers they need and to have high quality professional development available for both administrators and teachers;
  3. Develop student assessments that are geared toward supporting a high quality learning process over our current punitive system of high stakes testing;
  4. Support peer to peer collaboration to encourage schools to share both successful and unsuccessful practices with one another;
  5. Allow all schools the ability to remove poor performing teachers and/or principals if it is demonstrated that professional development cannot assist in their growth; and
  6. Encourage the involvement of community based groups and parents in the discussion of the education of their children.

For too long politicians have waged ideological battles in our children's classrooms. It is time to push out the politicians and the corporate interests and rely on the educators and the teachers to help our nation create a system that prepares our children for the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century. Instead of inducing the trauma of closing down school after school, let's invest our efforts in working with schools, improving them through resource allocation and professional development. Lets elevate the status of teachers and educators so that we can continue to attract the brightest adults to the deeply important job of educating our children. It is time for our leaders to stop worrying about the outcome of the next election and to focus instead on the health of our communities.