"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, October 28, 2013

Education Funders Sponsor a Great Study of NYC Small School Reforms but Will They Read It?

The Education Funders Research Initiative’s “New York City Schools: Following the Learning Trajectories of a Cohort," by Douglas Ready, Thomas Hatch, Miya Warner, and Elizabeth Chu, is excellent. It has the scholarly integrity of the research of the Consortium on Chicago School Research or Johns Hopkins’ Everyone Graduates. It also reads like a diplomatic call for New York City reformers to heed social science when taking the next steps towards improving the city’s schools.

The results of “New York City Schools” suggest positive outcomes associated with New York City’s small high schools initiative. It studies 77,501 students who entered ninth grade in 2005 and found that 67% graduated in four years. It adds to the evidence base that explains why all students benefit from a challenging curriculum and further documents the need to invest in socio-emotional supports.

The study was refreshingly open about the characteristics of the students who were more likely to benefit from recent reforms. In 2005, 75% of New York City students received free or reduced-price lunches. But, shockingly, only ½ of these incoming freshmen were low-income.

How is that possible?

Ready et. al were studying a sample that did not include students who were no longer enrolled in a NYC DOE school in ninth grade, or who were enrolled in specialized programs serving students in the criminal justice system, drug/alcohol rehabilitation centers, teen pregnancy centers, mental health facilities, etc. In other words, large numbers of harder-to-educate students were no longer being served by either traditional high schools or the new small schools.

Ready et. al also explain:

Only 2.7% of students who failed to meet the third-grade English Language Arts (ELA) standard went on to meet or exceed the ELA benchmark in eighth grade, and only one in three of the students who failed to meet the third-grade ELA standard graduated from high school.” Conversely, 91.3% of students who exceeded the ELA standard in third grade would meet or exceed the standard in eighth grade, and almost 90% of these students graduated within four years.

This bifurcation increased during high school, “the odds of graduation for a student who completed fewer than 10 ninth-grade course credits (five year-long courses) were 85% lower, while students who missed more than 15 days of school in ninth grade had odds of graduating that were over 60% lower.” Those students were less likely to attend a small school.

At this point, Ready et. al could have spun the data and claimed it was the higher expectations of small schools that caused more students to succeed and blamed educators in bigger high schools, and their higher suspension rates. At times, they seemed ready to proclaim more choice and Common Core as the solution.

Instead, “New York City Schools” acknowledged that these results “reflect relational rather than causal associations,” and they are similar to findings in other cities like Chicago. Ready et. al thus echo the findings of the Chicago Consortium of School Research, which documented the extreme difficulty of overcoming intense concentrations of generational poverty and trauma.

Ready et. al also sound like Robert Balfanz’s team at Johns Hopkins when recalling that “students do not experience the system all at once; students experience the system over thirteen years or more … That suggests that a generation of interventions might be needed to address systemic issues like the extent of stratification between and within the schools.”

The researchers asked questions which too many reformers say that educators are not supposed to ask. They asked whether it was segregation within neighborhoods and schools that caused the disparate outcomes. Ready et. al ask whether kindergarteners from similar income levels but from more diverse neighborhoods more likely to experience success in their schools than their peers in segregated neighborhoods. They conclude that interventions such as early education must begin before children have gone too far down the “dead end track.” “It is difficult to conceive of truly substantial improvements in the ‘whole system,’" they conclude, "if children do not enter the system until they are five or six years.”

Then, Ready et. al even questioned some reformers’ blind faith in Common Core as the answer for poor children’s educational problems:

This report highlights the problems that can come with inequitable and inconsistent expectations and reinforces the need to maintain clear, high standards for all. However, there is a complicated relationship between holding all students to high common standards and ensuring that students at all levels of development and performance experience appropriate support. For struggling students, repeatedly confronting demands for performance they cannot reach can undermine the motivation and confidence they must have to persist in school.

Education funders love individual success stories and Ready et. al agree that they need to be documented. The quick and easy answer would be to assume, against evidence and common sense, that small schools would have had equally good results if they had the “same students,” and they would have won a fair competition with the big traditional high schools. Certainly, the Bloomberg administration would like to proclaim a victory for small schools and keep up the high-stakes competition with traditional schools. But, the authors caution, “it is the rare occasion when these local solutions apply across all students and contexts. More than focusing on what it takes for small numbers of schools and students to beat the odds, we need a systemic approach to policy and practice that changes the odds so success is the expectation for all rather than an exception to the norm.”

They politely advance the case that “many in education who have attempted to develop new schools and programs often describe their challenge as one of trying to build a plane while flying it.” To tackle the problems of extreme poverty, however, reformers must address “dual demands” that may be even more complex. “We have to learn how to fly the plane while we take it apart.”

I have concerns regarding some of the study’s proposed solutions. Yes, we need to reduce suspensions, but I worry systems will respond by simply cutting the number of consequences that are assessed, and not address the root causes and the behaviors that lead to those suspensions. I also question their otherwise sensible suggestion “Rethink the focus on time and ‘credit.’” (Emphasis in the original) Given New York City’s flagrant abuses of “credit recovery,” that could open the door to a new generation of gamesmanship to “pass on” students to make graduation metrics look better.

Ready et. al recommend that the city “explore different possibilities for choice procedures in middle and high school; ways to make the choice procedure and the consequences of those choices clearer.” If I am correct in reading between the lines, they may be open to choice that encourages socio-economic integration. If so, I wish they had been more explicit. On the other hand, these scholars chose their words carefully. They are better qualified than I to know how to articulate suggestions to the billionaires who have funded New York City’s reforms.

The bottom line, as far as I’m concerned, is that reformers prejudged that competition was the only way to transform New York City schools. They granted small schools the autonomy to provide personalized instruction. They gave numerous other advantages to small schools, but they were not satisfied with that. NYC reformers actively damaged traditional schools in order to make sure that their vision of reform would win. They dumped large numbers of “Over the Counter” kids and other at-risk students on the most challenged schools, as they micromanaged instruction in ways that further assured the defeat of traditional schools. Reformers damaged kids in the righteous faith that once their old under-performing schools were destroyed that small schools could be further scaled up.

I read “New York City Schools” as a scientific call to move beyond such wishful thinking. It graciously praises the policies that worked for small schools, as it astutely analyzed what it would take to improve outcomes for more difficult-to-educate students. If reformers read the study with an open mind, we might see a new generation of win-win, science-based policies to help all children.

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