When he came into office, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature educational initiative, called Renewal Schools, was perhaps the clearest example of his break from the previous administration’s aggressive approach to dealing with the city’s broken schools.
Under Mike Bloomberg, the city focused on identifying and then closing schools that were systematically failing their kids. But de Blasio would take a more collaborative approach and attempt to turn around 94 of the city’s lowest-performing schools by providing them with substantial additional resources. More social services, keener administrative attention and greater collaboration with the local community were the hallmarks of Renewal.
Well, so much for that.
Four years and $773 million later, Hizzoner announced this week that Renewal Schools has come to an end, having failed to make a meaningful impact. The disappointing results were finally too obvious to ignore, even for the administration that once hailed the program as a national model. More objective observers had seen this coming for quite some time.
Many of the schools have failed to meet even the city’s relatively generous performance targets over time. More than a year ago, a study I conducted for the Manhattan Institute showed that, on average, Renewal Schools had experienced only slight improvements on standardized tests relative to how they would have performed had they not entered the program.
A similar study using a slightly different methodology, by Teachers College Professor Aaron Pallas, found that the program had no measurable impact on student performance. Most recently, a study of the program funded by the city and conducted by the RAND Corporation — but never publicly released — reportedly found that Renewal had little discernable effect.
Meanwhile, there is persuasive evidence that the Bloomberg approach was benefitting students. Mayor Mike’s administration moved students who had been attending failed schools to more effective ones, and the kids experienced academic gains. The schools that opened in place of the closed ones, moreover, produced better academic outcomes at a lower cost per pupil.
The de Blasio administration often points out that several of the Renewal Schools did improve. That’s technically true but also misleading.
Perhaps those schools benefitted from the program. Then again, a particular school might improve or get worse from one year to the next for any number of reasons. The research gives little reason to believe that the gains made by those schools were driven by their Renewal status. And even the most generous estimates don’t suggest that the program’s effects were nearly large enough to justify its hefty price tag.
Some may see the failure of Renewal Schools as proof that resources don’t matter in public education. That’s too strong. Schools need resources to succeed. And some recent studies have found convincing evidence that more resources can lead to public school improvements.
But resources aren’t everything. And the fact that more resources can sometimes lead to improvements doesn’t mean that resources alone can turn around schools that consistently fail their students. The Renewal Schools debacle is only the most recent reminder that turning around failing schools isn’t just expensive — but in many cases nearly impossible.
You don’t need to be a conservative to believe it’s a good idea to close a school that systematically fails its students year after year. Indeed, even those who believe that more expensive services are the solution for improving urban public schools should be skeptical of diverting so many scarce resources toward systematically failing schools that are unlikely to improve.
Had the city instead closed the schools and reallocated the students to more effective sites, what could it have done with that $773 million?
The fundamental mistake underlying turnaround programs like Renewal Schools is that they treat a school’s systematic failure as the most important problem to solve. But the focus of public school systems should be kids, not schools. New York (and other cities) should draw the necessary lesson: Sometimes the answer isn’t to fix a failing school — but to start over.
This piece originally appeared at New York Post
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