I did not write the following post. It was written by a high-level official at the New York City Department of Education who–for obvious reasons–requires anonymity. The story he tells is instructive. It is about how “reformers” claim victory by manipulating statistics. This is not an accusation directed at the de Blasio administration, but at their predecessors who regularly boasted that the new small high schools got better graduation rates that the large schools they replaced. The Gates Foundation bought this lie and has lauded its “success” in New York City.
Reformers Caught Lying. Again. This Time About Graduation Stats.
High school graduations are upon us. This is the time of year when parents, students, families, educators and communities celebrate the accomplishments of our high school seniors. It is a time to honor the work the graduates have done and to collectively share their hopes and dreams for the future.
At the same time, certain players in the world of education attempt to co-opt this time of year to propagandize for their favored reform policies. The latest example of this is a story about Frank McCourt High School, a small high school in New York City that “will send 97 percent of its first graduating class to college.” The story goes on to note that this school, along with 3 others, replaced a larger high school “which suffered from dismal academic and attendance records.” The reader is asked to believe one little and one big lie.
Let’s first take a look at the little lie. Does this school, in fact, have a 97% graduation/college going rate? The truth is that, on any reasonable calculation, it does not. According to the New York State data the cohort started with 100 freshmen. By sophomore year only 88 students remained. By junior year only 80. And by senior year only 69. Of these 69 survivors 67 are graduating. Seems more like a twisted version of the Hunger Games than a school for all students. One wonders: Where did the other 33 students go? Why does the media publicize such meaningless numbers without giving the full story? By now this trick should be well-known. A school that removes large numbers of students from its cohort should not be celebrated for its test scores or graduation rate. It is an artifact of arithmetic. If a school kicks out students with low test scores, it will have high test scores among the surviving students. If a school culls the students not on track to graduate it will have a high graduation rate among the surviving students.
Let’s move on to the big lie. Does this school, in fact, show that the reform strategy of closing large schools and replacing them with other smaller schools works? The full range of data show that it does not, as a number of facts pop-out.
There are 4 high schools co-located in the building that used to house Brandeis High School. One school, Innovation Diploma Plus (a “second-chance” school), had a 50.8% graduation rate last year. Another school, the Global Learning Collaborative, had a 52.7% graduation rate last year. Yet another school, the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers had a 39.8% graduation rate last year. We have already examined the claimed 97% graduation rate of the Frank McCourt High School, which also happens to screen its students before admissions.
The schools with the lower graduation rates retain almost all of their students. Unlike the school that boasts of its 97% graduation rate, the other three schools stay committed to all their students. Why do reformers refuse to evaluate schools based on their sticking with all their students? We know the answer. It is because charter schools and “miracle” schools will then be publicly exposed as largely frauds. So the metrics used to evaluate schools are deliberately constructed in ways that do not capture cohort retention in order to keep the myth alive. And the media agrees to overlook the tremendously high attrition rates at charter schools and other so-called “miracle” schools.
It may come as little surprise that the school with the lowest graduation rate has over 22% more English Language Learners, over 14% more students entering high school already overage, and over 40% more Black/Hispanic students than the school with the highest graduation rate.[i] This sheds some light on another reformer strategy. They like to tout free-market principles as they destroy community schools and create choice systems where students end up sorted into schools based on demographic characteristics and prior academic performance. This is not a solution. It does not improve education for all students. All it does is stick students in different containers, isolated from one another, thereby perpetuating a system of haves and have-nots. It is shocking that the reformers, who proclaim education the civil rights issue of our time, would support such an inequitable approach.
The total enrollment of all the high schools in the Brandeis High School building is 1,350 students. The shuttered school, Brandeis High School, had over 2,000 students. Where did the missing 600 students go? We know the answer. The missing 600 students were the more challenging students and students who did not get accepted to one of the small choice-in high schools. These students were deliberately sent to a specific group of, usually large, high schools that were then labeled “failures” too and shuttered. The Gates Foundation, an organization that has yet to meet a free-market education reform strategy it doesn’t like, has admitted that the national small school initiative was largely a failure. Despite this, MDRC, a research group in New York City, continues to publish Gates Foundation funded reports claiming that the small schools in New York City work.[ii]
It is now clear what New York City was doing during the Bloomberg era. Given the humungous size of the district they were able to play a shell game with students by passing the buck. Instead of figuring out how to reach the most challenging students and helping them succeed, the students were passed from school to school. This inevitably led to a domino effect of school closures. A shell game like this can be played in a district with almost 500 high schools, over two and half times as many as the next largest school district. Since there is a very long chain of dominos the “bad apple” students can be isolated into a specific group of schools making the remaining schools, which don’t accept those students, look good. But, as smaller districts have found out, it is not a workable long-term strategy when there is not an endless supply of schools to be used as sacrificial lambs.
Sooner or later the lies about numbers that reformers tell will catch up to them. Educators need to continue to advocate for approaches that are equitable and genuinely seek to improve the educational experience of all students. This includes developing curricula personalized for different students and improving wraparound services that extend beyond school walls. Ultimately, when the accounting fraud that is behind so many education reform initiatives collapses upon itself
[i] Frank McCourt has 55% Black/Hispanic students, 1% ELL students, 20.4% IEP students and .7% overage students. Global Learning has 90.3% Black/Hispanic students, 14.7% ELL students, 23% IEP students and 8.5% overage students. Green Careers has 95.6% Black/Hispanic students, 23.6% ELL students, 23.8 IEP students, and 15.15% overage students.
[ii] It is worth noting that the combined graduation rate of the 4 schools in the Brandies Building is 58.5% which is lower than the city-wide average of 72%.