Thought leadership

The potential for real renewal

By Steven F. Wilson March 12, 2019

Vowing to “shake the foundations of New York City education,” Mayor de Blasio announced in 2014 his signature K-12 education initiative: Renewal.

Rather than close chronically failing schools and free their students to attend newly created small schools and high-performing charters, as had his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, Renewal would invest in improving the city’s worst schools. Over three years, the mayor directed an extraordinary three-quarters of a billion dollars—nearly as much as the entire school budget of the city of San Francisco—to 94 of the city’s lowest-performing schools. We may question the mayor’s choices, but his commitment to addressing the system’s failures was plain to see.

Now the mayor is pulling the plug on the program. Broken schools remain broken. Thousands of children remain trapped in failed schools.

In her investigative reporting this fall, Eliza Shapiro of The New York Times uncovered a confidential memo to the mayor from Department of Education staff. In many schools, the memo warned, the Renewal program was likely doomed from the start: there was no credible plan for their improvement. Yet, as under so many previous administrations, the city continued to send thousands of children into schools that were manifestly failing to educate them.

At P.S. 111 in Queens, only eight percent of students had passing scores in math in 2018, less than when the Renewal program began.

Within three blocks of the school are two charter schools; their average English language arts and math proficiencies are five times that of P.S. 111.

P.S. 111 was not an outlier. A study by Aaron Pallas of Columbia’s Teachers College found that, two years into the program, achievement in Renewal elementary schools had grown by eight percentage points of proficiency in English language arts (ELA) and 10 points in math. Comparison schools not part of the Renewal program with similar demographics and initial achievement made essentially the same gains. And the ELA gains can largely be attributed to changes in state testing that lifted all schools’ scores. Middle schools also fared no better than comparison schools not enrolled in the program.

A comprehensive report from the RAND Corporation, presented to the city in July and also not made available to the public, Shapiro reported, also found few discernable effects from Renewal on student achievement. In response, the city considered moving the goalposts—revising the program’s academic goals so that more schools could be deemed successful, Shapiro found.

I couldn’t help but think of another suppressed RAND report leaked to The Times: the Pentagon papers. They revealed that the federal government knew the Vietnam War, as prosecuted, could likely not be won, yet continued to send thousands of Americans to their death.

No, I stopped myself. The comparison was lurid, ridiculous. No students lost their lives in Renewal. No one was physically harmed. Bad schools simply failed to improve.

And yet I wondered: Have we become inured to the human toll, year after year, of big city schools systems? Some students succeed there, despite the odds. Millions of others, denied an adequate education, are locked into poverty. Their schools did not open the doors to opportunity; they slammed them shut. Every few years superintendents rotate from one system to the next, hailed in their new cities as reformers despite having left no trace in their last. The kabuki continues. As a balm to our conscience, we cry out for more funding for the schools—and hence, Renewal. But increasingly this is evasion. Few countries spend more per student on K-12 than the United States, and New York City now spends nearly double the national average, some $28,000 per student—in fact, far more, if we add capital and pension costs.

Just as three years in a row of strong teaching transforms a student’s prospects, three years of weak teaching destroys them. Year after year, Renewal schools posted achievement levels so low that, at schools like P.S. 111, only one in ten students in grades 3-8 remained on the track to college—this when college has become a virtual necessity to secure a middle-class job. Renewal’s students remained consigned, as a statistical matter, to poverty.

I admire the mayor’s intentions with the program. I believe his commitment to social justice is sincere and profoundly felt. I also believe the program’s designers were blinkered by ideology and constrained by the teachers union.

Shapiro’s reporting invites us to ask long overdue questions. What is a reasonable standard of care for public officials in the provision of K-12 education? Can they preside without consequence over a system that fails generation after generation of children? At what point does inaction become a moral failure?

Since the “effective schools” research of the 1970s, we have known that academically effective urban schools—schools strong enough to overcome the force field of poverty—are not fueled by a few program additions like those of Renewal: An additional hour a day of instruction. Teacher training. An infusion of social services.

No, effective schools—whether progressive in design or traditional—result from a tight assembly of many elements working in concert: yes, a longer school day, but also a willful, skilled principal; a compelling vision for the school that is widely understood and embraced by teachers, students, and parents alike; a faculty that is there by choice, not assignment; a rigorous curriculum; a deep engagement with assessments and academic data; and far more.

For this reason, school reformers refer to the “100 one-percent solutions” that drive strong schools: the many individual components, each by itself insufficient and often unremarkable (like an effective routine for student arrival, or a well-built daily schedule) that staff must tend to assiduously if serious about student achievement. (Notably, many are not costly.)

Why then, in Renewal, only a smattering of teacher coaching, an additional hour, and various social supports?

Likely because these were among the very few actions palatable to the teachers union. Engaging nearly any true lever of change, including engaging in weeks of summer training for staff, providing live coaching of teachers, creating new job roles, holding staff accountable for performance, setting aside time for teachers to together engage in deep intellectual preparation of the coming content, and replacing weak teachers—all now standard practice in high-performing charter networks—would run afoul of the city’s collective bargaining agreements, clotted with work rules, or the Department of Education’s thicket of administrative rules. To the union, many of these levers are apostasy, a threat to solidarity.

And if the mayor had sought essential waivers from the union of these constraints, it would have been to concede that the present operating system of the Department of Education—the contractual and administrative rules by which schools operate—was inimical to the creation of strong schools.

Yet this is not to fault the union. Within the grim confines of the adversarial structure of “management” and “labor,” the union is performing according to design: protecting the interests (albeit narrowly conceived) of its members. Rather, it is management that long ago abdicated its responsibilities to students in the face of the union’s political might. School district leaders’ powers are now so severely eroded from decades of bargaining that reform-minded superintendents find their ability to deliver a quality education hopelessly compromised.

What could the mayor have done—and still do today? In these fractious times, embrace a new ecumenicalism. What might that look like?

Recognize that the city’s charter sector, itself not wholly without flaws, shares his commitment to social justice—and is making good on it. Charters create an alternative operating system where the many interdependent elements of effective schools can be instituted, often with remarkable results. New York, unlike many states, is fortunate to benefit from strong charter authorizing and accountability for performance. There are weak charters in the city, and teacher turnover in the sector, while improving, remains too high. But as a whole the city’s charters have reversed the achievement gap in both math and ELA, with black and Hispanic charter students posting higher levels of proficiency than their white peers statewide—a remarkable achievement.

Call for the charter cap in the city to be raised, and turn over half of the Renewal schools to charter management organizations with a record of academic success.

Retain the remaining Renewal schools and, after insisting on essential waivers from labor agreements and administrative rules, charge the Department of Education with their comprehensive reform.

The resulting spirit of competitive innovation would benefit all students—and fuel a true renewal of the city’s worst schools.

I would love to hear your questions or comments: email me at steven.wilson@ascendlearning.org.