What Works

The Urgent Moral Case for Replacing Persistently Failing Schools

When year after year schools try to improve but do not, dramatic intervention is urgently needed.

At a time when social mobility, income inequality and joblessness for the under-educated dominate the national discussion, it is notable that our Presidential candidates have largely avoided talking about elementary and secondary education. In America today, a child raised in a family with earnings in the bottom quartile nationally is six times less likely to graduate from college than is a child whose family earns in the top quartile. Important as it is that candidates address the effect of college debt on low-income students, the odds for poor kids will not improve without change in the elementary and secondary schools that equip students for college in the first place.

No issue in school reform has proven more contentious than the nationwide push to improve persistently struggling schools in low-income communities. In cities across the country, attempts to transform hulking high schools into clusters of more nurturing small schools, or to create innovative public charter schools in low-income neighborhoods, have yielded debate and protest.

Last year, heeding calls for “local control” of education decisions and less invasive interventions in underperforming schools, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, granting states and local school boards, rather than the federal government, broad latitude in determining how to rate the performance of schools and how to intervene when performance lags.

Amidst the search for local solutions and less caustic debates, however, an important question persists: what should be done when year after year schools try to improve but do not?

New research on work done by the Bloomberg administration to improve New York City schools indicates that abandoning calls for dramatic intervention in persistently struggling schools would be a stain on the education legacy of any President and would do unjustifiable harm to millions of American youth growing up in poverty.

The research indicates that, in spite of the controversy they generated in New York at the time, replacing large failing high schools, developing smaller schools in their place, and providing quality charter school options for families, have proved to be greatly beneficial strategies for hundreds of thousands of New York students, with implications for the nation.

One study, conducted by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools at New York University and released in July by the journal Education Next, examined the effort to replace the management and staff of large, underperforming high schools with clusters of smaller schools led by new principals.

The large schools in question were unusually poor performers. Sometimes as few as 30 percent of their students graduated from high school. The overwhelming majority of those students were African-American or Latino, and nearly all were from low-income households.

The study found that replacing these failed large schools with clusters of smaller, innovative schools within the same facility worked exceptionally well. Among 11,000 ninth grade students who would have enrolled in the large schools but enrolled elsewhere because the schools had been replaced, the graduation rate was 15 percentage points higher than it would have been had the large, failing schools remained in operation.

Skeptics may be concerned that in spite of these benefits for freshmen entering high schools, the costs of such interventions for students already enrolled in schools that are being phased out is too great. But the researchers “found that for students already enrolled in a school that was later closed, the phase-out process did not have a systematic impact, positive or negative, on their attendance or academic performance.”

This research adds to evidence that the strategy to replace large high schools with smaller ones increased student achievement significantly and at great scale. A 2013 study by MDRC found that students attending new small schools in New York graduated at a rate nearly 10 percentage points higher than did citywide peers with comparable backgrounds and learning needs.

Public charter schools, expanded significantly by the Bloomberg administration, also show unambiguous benefits years later. On recent New York State tests, students in city charter schools, serving a population of more than 90 percent African-American and Latino students, exceeded district-wide proficiency rates in math by 13 percentage points and by 5 percent in English. The percentage of African-American students in charters meeting state benchmarks in math more than doubled the rate of African-American students in other schools meeting the mark.

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None of this is to say that any parent wants to look far and wide for a quality school or wants neighborhood schools to be replaced. These were not comfortable or convenient strategies, and they had costs.

But amidst the search for a kinder and gentler education politics, research demonstrating the positive effect of these New York City strategies makes the moral case clear for an incoming President and for states and districts rethinking education policies: The American education system presents intolerably long odds to low-income children attending persistently struggling schools, and sometimes the most appropriate response to dramatic failure is dramatic intervention.