Education is…about people

From the New York Times today:

The New York City Department of Education said Thursday that up to 47 schools could be closed for poor performance, a huge increase from previous years if all remain on the chopping block.

In the eight years since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has used school closings as a cornerstone of his school reform strategy, 91 schools have been shuttered and replaced with new schools.

And from the New York Post, also today:

SUNY officials are mulling a new move that would try to turn around failing charter schools rather than just shuttering them — an initiative that could get its first trial at a struggling Harlem center.

While officials wouldn’t name the troubled facility under consideration for the less punitive measure, sources identified it as Harlem Day Charter School, which has a five-year charter up for renewal this winter.

The school’s test scores hit rock bottom in the spring, with just 20 percent of students scoring at grade level in reading and fewer than 25 percent doing so in math.

SUNY board members indicated that rather than simply close down the school, they might consider overhauling the administration and staff so that the kids could have continuity by remaining in the same school.

Maybe there’s a disconnect between the city DoE and the charter board at SUNY.  It’s important to note that these are two different bodies making these totally contradictory decisions.  But from the view of regular folks who will be affected by the changes, both decisions come “from the top,” without significant input from the school communities.  To their credit, this year the DoE is planning to hold hearings and meetings before making any final decisions–this was necessary after last year’s lawsuit and injunction against closing 19 under-performing schools.

Of course, “under-performing” is a mantle with different meanings to different groups.  To the city of New York, it seems like charter schools don’t underperform, while district schools seem to do so pretty often.  Even though some of the district schools slated to close are less than 5 years old, the clock apparently has run out on them.  At the same time, there are charters out there doing worse than these district schools, but they are expected to receive assistance to improve.  What a novel idea, offer help to schools that are struggling; I think this would be the proverbial carrot in the “carrot and stick” approach.  So far, all New York City has shown its public schools are sticks, and the only thing on the radar of charter schools is more carrots, more money and more love from all sectors of the media.

Some charter schools definitely deserve the love they’re getting, and all schools that are struggling deserve any help that the city or state can provide.  The problem is the double-standard that public school parents, teachers and students find so offensive when it comes to public and charter schools.  If Education is truly about fairness, then these schools need to be treated the same, end of story.  If we care about public education equality, all struggling schools either need to get the help charters are slated to get, or they all need to be threatened with closure, a la NYC public schools.

This second approach is advocated by James Merriman in a recent article on the Huffington Post.  He astutely notes that SUNY has proven its willingness to close charter schools in the past for low performance.  His argument is essentially that bad schools are doing badly by kids, therefore they should be closed down.  This brings us to the “backbench” idea, which comes up more often with teachers than with schools (explained in greater detail here).  It is the argument that, though there are many bad teachers who should be fired, if we raise the bar too high, we could run short of qualified teachers pretty quickly.  Likewise, running a school is tough business.  If fixing a school and making it work better is possible, that should always be the first effort.  Closing schools not only disrupts life for students and families, it disrupts communities.  And even schools that bomb standardized tests provide a safe space for lots of kids who don’t have any other safe spaces available.  Schools are anchors of communities and neighborhoods, and when they are shuttered so rapidly, it can leave a community reeling.

Education is about kids, and it’s about always, always doing whatever’s in the best interests of kids.  There are kids in this city who don’t have a safe place to express themselves outside of their school, and to shutter schools suddenly can really destabilize a kids life.  Education is about safety, too, and schools can provide both physical and mental-emotional safety for kids in need.  That’s something of value, perhaps of greater import than scores on an (obviously flawed) standardized test.

I guess the biggest problem I have with the mass closings of public schools is the mechanism.  Schools are closed based on scores from tests we now know, conclusively, to have been of extremely low quality and questionable validity.  Merril Tisch and the Board of Regents made wholesale changes after testing experts came in and pointed out the myriad flaws of these exams.  Yet, these tests remain very, very high-stakes.  The change I would advocate for most vehemently would be a cumulative review of schools which are up for potential closing.  That means more than looking at the A-F grade, their test scores, and any other numbers we can come up with.  Because, this is the clincher, Education is not about numbers, it’s about people.  And until SUNY and the DoE realize that–they sure haven’t yet–we’ll continue to see protests and lawsuits, because people need to have their value recognized in this kind of official process.  Numbers in a spreadsheet will never give the full picture, never, and for me, that’s all there is to it.