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The Tip of the Iceberg: SURR Schools and Academic Failure in New York City

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The Tip of the Iceberg: SURR Schools and Academic Failure in New York City

July 1, 2001
EducationPre K-12

Since 1989 the New York State Education Department has been issuing a list of low performing public schools that are targeted for corrective action. They supposedly run the risk of being closed if significant improvements are not made. Over the years nearly ninety percent of the schools placed on the notorious SURR list (Schools Under Registration Review) have been located in New York City, even though only twenty percent of the schools in the state are New York City public schools. Presently 98 of 114 schools on the list are in the five boroughs. Previous reports have shown that a disproportionate number of the children assigned to these schools are African American or Hispanic. These schools also have a disproportionate number of teachers who are not fully certified and have less than five years of experience in the classroom.

The State Education Department’s focus on these failing institutions can be seen as part of a larger effort to raise academic standards and hold schools and students accountable for their performance. High school graduation standards have been raised by requiring students to pass Regents Examinations in specific subject areas, and state tests are administered in reading and math to students in the fourth and eighth grade—all of which are tied to new curriculum requirements. The state tests are complemented by reading and math tests administered by the city Board of Education to students in grades 3, 5, 6 and 7. These rigorous assessments are admirable because they provide an objective—though imperfect—measure of how well the public school system is doing and whether progress is being made at an acceptable pace.

Materials distributed by the Regents under the auspices of the SURR initiative bear testimony to lofty goals and assurances that no child will be allowed to attend a chronically failing school. According to the plan, at least ninety percent of the students at any given school are expected to score at or above the statewide performance benchmark, and the dropout rate is not to exceed five percent. Supposedly, any school identified as being among those farthest from the state standard is at risk of having its registration revoked. In actuality, only those schools with more than sixty percent of their students below standard are considered for inclusion on the SURR list, and only a small proportion of those are so designated. A recent report issued by the State Education Department indicated that three out of four of the 1100 public schools in New York City are not performing adequately. The dropout rate in the high schools is above eighteen percent, and less than half of the students graduate in four years.

When a school is placed on the state SURR list, it is required to develop an improvement plan and is closely monitored by the State Education Department. Supposedly, it is given three years to demonstrate improvement, or it runs the risk of being shut down. As the Regents’ guidelines have it:

If insufficient progress is made during the time allowed, and no extenuating circumstances exist, the State Commissioner of Education will recommend to the Board of Regents that the school’s registration will be revoked.

These guidelines give the impression that strong intervention and rapid turnaround are the order of the day. The realities are more sobering. On average, a school lingers on the SURR list for five years. More than nine years pass before a failing school on the list is forced to close. Most of those that are removed from the list—held out as an indication of adequate improvement—are, according to test scores, failing institutions. And those actually included on the list are only a fraction of the schools in the city with a history of low academic performance, the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

In 1996, the New York City Board of Education created a Chancellor’s District, which encompassed fifty-five of the worst schools from the SURR list. These schools were provided with additional funding, longer school days, and smaller class sizes, with the hope that such special attention would reverse their desperate course. In April of this year, the Board of Education announced that nine of these schools would be put back in their home districts, and seven others would be added to the Chancellor’s District. Five of those that had been returned to their home districts had been removed from the state SURR list. A review of student performance indicates that notable improvements have been made at the schools that were taken from the Chancellor’s District. But the same evidence shows that these schools are a long way from the standards set by the state as a measure of adequacy.

Academic failure in New York City is widespread and accepted. It is the norm rather than the exception. Perhaps one reason that politicians, policy makers, and opinion leaders find failure in the system so tolerable is that hardly any of them have children in schools that appear or belong on the SURR list, and in fact only a small minority even have children who attend public schools. The further one climbs up the ladder of influence, the less likely it is that they have a child in a failing public school, or any public school for that matter. Perhaps New York is really two cities rather than one. There is one small city populated by the fortunate, who manage to send their children to the best public and private schools available. Then there is the larger city of the unfortunate whose children are routinely assigned to failing schools, frozen into a life of low expectations and meager opportunity.

There is a hushed assumption among many of those who live in the first city that those in the second are doing as well as might be expected. Their assumption is informed by data which shows a high correlation between poverty (or race) and low academic standing. The implicit suggestion is that the causes of failure can be traced to the student or the family rather than the school or the system. Such resignation to failure falls lame in the face of the many academically successful public and non-public schools that thrive in the midst of poverty and social deprivation along side many failing institutions. The widespread sense of resignation serves as a cynical excuse for a system that lacks the political will and the professional know-how to provide a decent education for all, or even most, children in the city.