The New York Times published a page one story about the closing of the Jonathan M. Levin High School in the Bronx. The school was opened ten years ago to commemorate the life and tragic death of a young teacher who happened to be the son of the CEO of AOL Time Warner. He was murdered by some of his students, who came to his apartment (he let them know that they were always welcome), murdered him, stole his credit cards, and his ATM card.

After a promising start, the school went into decline. As in most other closing schools, most of its students are black, Hispanic, poor, English language learners, and/or in need of special education. Where will these students go? If a school closes because it serves so many needy students, who will take them?

I received an interesting analysis from an educator in NYC.

He writes:

A story published on Thursday in the New York Times profiled the Jonathan M. Levin High School, a school in the Bronx that is about to be shuttered after being deemed failing. As is becoming more and more common in New York City, replacement schools are themselves being replaced. This school was established only ten years ago to replace a large comprehensive high school that was deemed failing. New York City education bureaucrats defended the decision by claiming that other new schools in the very same building supposedly have comparable student populations while “getting dramatically different outcomes.” They somehow forgot to mention that the school in the very same building with the most similar student population, The Academy for History and Citizenship for Young Men, is also being shuttered. That school has the lowest incoming students test scores (in other words the test scores of the students before they even entered high school were well-below grade level) of all the six schools in the building. Want to hazard a guess as to which school has the second lowest? Would it surprise you that the answer is “Jonathan M. Levin High School?” New York City also publishes a “peer index” for each high school, which is supposed to account for student demographic factors. Which schools do you think have the lowest and next to lowest “peer indexes” in the building? Would it surprise you to find out that it is the same two schools in the same order?

The New York Times kindly included some graphs that were supposed to show that the closing Jonathan Levin High School was failing while another high school in the building, Bronx Collegiate Academy, was succeeding with very similar students. But they somehow forgot to include a table showing student attrition at the “dramatically different outcomes” school. I will give those numbers (the underlying data can be found here): 134 students entered as freshmen in 2006, but there were only 84 seniors in 2010. Over 37% of the students were lost. 122 freshmen entered in 2007, but in 2011 only 85 seniors were left. Over 30% missing. 117 freshman entered in 2008, but in 2011 there were only 86 juniors.   Over 26% of the students disappeared in only 3 years. Another way to look at this is to realize that in 2009-10 the school should have had 496 students if they had actually held on to them, but instead had only 391. 105 students gone missing. You would be right to wonder who these students are and what happened to them, Want to bet that these were students who weren’t doing well? And that they were encouraged to go elsewhere. So instead of serving as evidence of a school doing better, the New York Times should have realized this is evidence of the con-games and deceptions schools feel forced to pull in this high-stakes accountability era to make their numbers look good. But there is no underlying educational improvement, just lots of data-driven gaming of the system. In fact, students from the failing school attend college at a 7% higher rate than do students from the “dramatically different outcomes” school.

Let’s look at the bigger picture. In 2003 Taft High School, a large comprehensive school in the Bronx was closed. 10 years later, out of the 6 schools that replaced the failing school: 1 is phasing out, 1 should have been closed already based on the official criteria after having received a “D” on 2 school progress reports in a row (officially a single D or F opens a school to closure), 1“is seen as being on its last legs” according to the New York Times story after having received 3 C’s in a row on its progress reports (3 C’s in a row being the other official criterion for closing a school), 1 school is a screened school and therefore only admits students that have performed at or above grade level in middle school, 1 school, as we have just seen, somehow manages to disappear huge chunks of their students, and the Jonathan M. Levin school is about to be shut down. Nonetheless, Mayor Bloomberg still plans on continuing this charade and his appointees in the New York City Department of Education pretend that closing and opening schools really improves education for students.

Let’s look at one more set of numbers to see how widespread such charades and games are in New York City. The high schools that New York City is in the middle of closing have, on average, about 25% special education students, 13% special education students with the most challenging disabilities, 2.40 Math/English incoming test scores (a “3” represents grade level), and a 1.46 “peer index” (to give some context, Stuyvesant High School has the highest “peer index” in the city of 4.01). Non-selective high schools in New York City as a whole have, on average, roughly 19% special education students, 8.1% special education students with the most challenging disabilities, 2.65 Math/English incoming test scores, and a 2.00 peer index. It is clear that, as has been pointed out again and again, failing schools are not really failing. They are, however, taking on challenges that other schools, supposedly more successful ones, are not. And what about the new schools that are replacing the failing schools? Are they as a whole working with the same challenges? The data suggests that the new schools have managed to employ and numbers dodge and are educating a relatively privileged group of students. They educate, on average, approximately 17.5% special education students, 6.7% special education students with the most challenging disabilities, 2.75 Math/English incoming test scores, and a 2.15 “peer index.” So the new schools as a whole have managed to avoid educating the students with the heaviest needs that the failing schools educate (approaching 10% fewer high needs students in every conceivable category). On top of that they have managed to select students who come in with less challenges than all other non-selective city schools as a whole. Yet the education reformers want us to believe that a charade like this represents genuine progress!

That the education reformers are willing to gloss over the truth is somewhat understandable. They are driven by ideology and not facts. By dogma and not by empirical evidence of what works best for kids. But citizens have the right to expect that the Federal Government would serve as an objective check and look behind the smokescreen. Unfortunately, in the current political climate that is not happening.  The U.S. Department of Education is encouraging these sorts of tricks. Hopefully, in the near future, before much more harm is done to students, we will be able to focus on truly improving education for all children through genuine reform and not mere chicanery.