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David Bloomfield, professor of educational leadership, law, and policy at CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College, examines what he calls “the myth of failing schools.” Schools with low test scores usually reflect a concentration of students who enter the school far behind, who have disabilities that interfere with learning, who are English language learners, or who have other obstacles to overcome. The “failing schools” tend to have more of these students than other schools. Bloomfield writes that it was the policy of Mayor Bloomberg to close schools with low scores, as if this were a solution to the problems of the students. The students from the closed schools were sent to other schools that then became “failing schools.”
Bloomfield says that Mayor de Blasio has fallen for the same myth, but instead of closing schools, he has promised to turn them around with extra services within three years. He faults the Mayor for not recognizing that schools “fail” not because of their teachers or their practices but because of systemic policies. He sums up the myth as the belief that:
failure is the fault of individual schools, not the school system. His proposed solutions — community services, extra instructional time, and increased professional development, timed to a three year deadline prior to closure — treat these schools as isolated problems rather than the natural result of insidious central policies.
Now, the city needs to take ownership of solutions, instead of blaming the students, teachers, and principals triaged to benefit others. If de Blasio only tries to staunch the bleeding by creating a series of temporary fixes for select schools, instead of repairing the system’s inequities, his plan will fail.
One place to start would be to diminish the number of latecomer students, who are known as “over-the-counter” students and who often have more severe academic and social needs, enrolling at struggling schools. The city has already put those limits in place at Boys and Girls and Automotive high schools, but the other struggling schools need that benefit as well so that those students are spread more equally throughout the system.
Another goal should be to develop a system of choice that avoids concentrations of haves and have-nots in city schools. As stated by Baruch College Professor Judith Kafka, “Our school system already concentrates poverty. Does choice interrupt this process? It can when the school system makes integration a priority and enacts what is often called ‘controlled choice’ as described in the work of the Century Fund’s Richard Kahlenberg.” Those policies focus on admissions rules that emphasize choice and also aim to create stable, economically diverse student populations.
Real solutions will require politically difficult changes to budgeting and enrollment policies, as well as a concerted effort to help schools improve their reputations. Such solutions would involve trade-offs, and some schools would likely benefit more than others. But the varied recommendations for solving our struggling schools crisis put forth so far by Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, the New York City Charter Schools Center, and even Mayor de Blasio, fail to adequately address the systemic causes of school failure.