The New York City Department of Education has embarked on a perilous new path in its efforts to raise test scores. Just a few weeks ago, the Department released letter grades for the city's schools, from A to F. In recent days, the Department announced the closure of 14 schools that received a D or an F.
Is the grading system accurate and reliable? Did the grading system identify the worst schools? Is the closure of the lowest-performing schools likely to improve public education? Could the Department have taken other actions that might have been more effective than closing schools? The grading system itself is questionable because it awarded high grades to many schools on the state's and federal government's failing lists while stigmatizing some highly regarded schools with grades of D or F. More than half of the nearly 400 schools that the state or federal government has identified as academically weak received an A or a B. At the same time, 99 schools that are in good standing with the state and the federal government received a D or an F from the city.
The city's grading system produced some other odd results. For example, I.S. 289 in Tribeca, the only middle school in the city that was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education for its superior performance, received a D. And P.S. 35 in Staten Island, a school where more than 85% of students regularly pass the state tests, was labeled an F.
The reason for these strange outcomes is that the city gives greater weight to improvement than to performance. High-scoring schools are handicapped by what is known as the "ceiling effect." If their students score consistently well on the state tests, a one-year dip in the scores can get them branded with a D or an F.
When a grading system produces such bizarre results, it lacks face validity. That is, on the face of it, the evaluation system is suspect. Of what value is it to anyone when excellent schools, highly regarded by parents, students, and their community, are officially stigmatized as failures? Conversely, of what value is it to anyone when academically distressed schools win an A or a B?
This dubious evaluation system is now being employed to decide which schools will be shuttered forever. Fourteen schools have been picked out for closure, based on their having received a D or an F. Six of these 14 schools are in good standing with both the state and the federal government.
Will the closing of these 14 schools improve public education in New York City? It is hard to say. No one knows if the replacement schools will be better. What will be different about them? Will they enroll the same pupils? Will they have new principals and a new staff? Will the staff of the closed schools be reassigned elsewhere? Where will the new staff come from? Are there scores of stellar teachers waiting for a new assignment? None of this is clear.
Was there an alternative to closing the 14 schools? When Rudy Crew was chancellor, he created a Chancellor's District, where he clustered the lowest performing schools under his immediate care and redesigned them. These schools had a longer school day, highly-structured reading and math programs, classes in kindergarten through third grade of not more than 20 children and classes in fourth through eighth grades of not more than 25 children, and additional teacher training.
Independent evaluations showed that the Chancellor's District worked; it helped turn around struggling schools. The D.C.-based Council for Great City Schools cited New York City's Chancellor's District as one of the most successful programs in the nation.
New York City currently has nearly 400 schools that have been identified by the State Education Department or the federal government as "in need of improvement," a euphemism for a school in academic trouble. The city Department of Education needs an educational strategy to help these schools, not just a plan to close them.
It is not enough to hand out dire letter grades. Schools should get report cards that evaluate their different strengths and weaknesses.
Nor is it enough to turn out the lights. Schools are not a franchise operation. They are deeply embedded community institutions. They should be improved with additional resources, smaller classes, and additional training for educators. The starting point in reforming schools is to have a valid evaluation system that correctly identifies the schools that need extra help. It may not be easy to transform the schools that are in trouble, but if we want a good public education system, there really is no alternative.
Dr. Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Brookings Institution.