Can We Really Give a High School a 'Fair' Grade If Only 5% of Students Are Ready for College?

Jul 1, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Laura Waters

Many New York City parents are familiar with the “renewal school” program which, according to the Department of Education, represents a “call to action” to fix the city’s 94 lowest-performing schools by supplementing them with extra support services and about half a billion dollars. Less well known to families is that a sprawling list of schools—many of them not on the city’s renewal list—are actually “diploma mills,” awarding certification of high school completion while leaving graduates without skills to progress to college and careers. That’s the gist of the new report from StudentsFirstNY, which hones in on the discrepancies between public perceptions of student readiness for life after high school and actual readiness. The mayor recently “hailed a two-point increase in New York City’s high school graduation rate to approximately 70 percent” and said that the city was on its way to achieving an 80 percent graduation in the next 10 years. However this goal, according to the report, is “being used as a facade” to cover up systemic failure. “College remediation rates”—the percentage of students who require non-credit-bearing college courses that cover material they should have learned in high school—are “off the charts” in New York City. In fact, among the city’s 428 high schools with graduation statistics, only 34 are giving students “a decent shot to make it through college successfully.” StudentsFirstNY's report includes two lists.
  1. Compiles 45 high schools “with above average graduation rates and shockingly low college readiness rates."
  2. Identifies 72 high schools where less than 10 percent of students graduated college ready and met the city college system’s standards for avoiding remedial classes.
Cue the facade: Of the 10 lowest-performing schools in the five boroughs, only two are in the city’s “renewal school” program. One school on the second list is the High School for Violin and Dance, located in the Bronx. This 294-student school (65 percent Hispanic and 34 percent Black) is not on the renewal list and, therefore, not subject to turnaround efforts, extra resources, or increased oversight. Any parent might assume it’s just fine.

Let’s Take a Look

The New York City Board of Education rates schools on a six-element rubric: Rigorous Instruction, Collaborative Teachers, Supportive Environment, Effective School Leadership, Strong Family-Community Ties, and Trust. These elements, research has shown, drive student achievement. According to the High School of Violin and Dance’s 2014-2015 Quality School Snapshot, the school earned a “fair” rating in each category based on the judgement of “an experienced educator” who visited and evaluated the school. Seventy percent of the school’s teachers have three or more years of experience and the principal has been there for almost five years. Seventy-seven percent of 10th graders earned enough credits to be on track for graduation, which is just about average for New York City high schools, and the graduation rate is 66 percent compared to the city average of 70 percent. For the Bronx, those numbers are actually on the high side. Sounding pretty good, right? Ah, but that’s the facade. Let’s look more closely. Sixty-one percent of students are chronically absent. Eight percent of high school graduates successfully completed approved college- or career-preparatory courses and assessments. And a scant 5 percent graduated college ready by meeting standards for avoiding remedial classes. And yet this is a school that the de Blasio administration regards as functioning effectively. Former New York City Education Commissioner Joel Klein begins his book,  Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools , with a quote from Albert Shanker, who was president of the NYC teachers union from 1964 to 1986.
It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everyone’s role is spelled out in advance, and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. There’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve. It more resembles the communist economy than our market economy.
StudentsFirstNY wants to disrupt the soporific bureaucracy by creating a new incentive for Mayor de Blasio to improve his innovation and productivity: “StudentsFirstNY will widely disseminate this list to parents. This kind of transparency is key to empowering parents to make good decisions.” Diploma mills that masquerade as authentic schools disenfranchise families and cheat students. But information, in this case, may truly be power.
An original version of this post appeared on Head in the Sand.

Laura Waters

Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for all. She is based in New Jersey, where she and her husband have raised four children. She recently finished serving 12 years on her local school board in Lawrence, New Jersey, where she was president for nine of those years. Early in her career, she taught writing to low-income students of color at SUNY Binghamton through an Educational Opportunity Program.

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