Our Expensive, Manipulated Public High Schools

The idea of spending one's way out of educational problems did not begin with New York's recently appointed chancellor, Richard Carranza.  It can be traced to Jonathan Kozol, whose first bestseller on education came out in the 1960s.  Kozol was an educational reformer who emerged as a critic of education after he spent less than a painful year teaching 4th grade in the Boston public schools.  As Kozol matured as an educational reformer, he shifted away from harping on the racism of the white teachers, as he did in his first book, Death at an Early Age

A later book, Savage Inequalities, advanced a different view.  Under this view, the new reformers propose to make teachers and principals accountable by ending tenure (tenure has been weakened but is still in place in New York City) and inspired reforms such as implementing new ways of rating teachers (Danielson rating system) and implementing the small high school movement.  The last initiative was undertaken by Deborah Meier and then driven by the Coalition for Essential Schools and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Teacher unions got on board with the idea that inner-city schools fail not because of the racism of the teachers, the premise of Kozol's first book, but because they have less money to spend than more successful suburban schools.  Give us as much money as the best suburban schools, the unions say, and we will produce successful urban schools.  Since the 1990s, it has become a mantra of the liberal mindset that if we throw enough money at a social problem, we will solve that problem.  In America, the Almighty Dollar (a regular liberal alternative to Almighty God) can buy us out of our dilemmas.  The faults Mr. Kozol saw in Boston could be solved if we "invested" more in our schools, in our youth, in the urban poor, and in "creative programs" to renew the practices of our failing schools.

New York State spent $22,366 per pupil in 2016, which was a 14% increase in expenses from 2012.  As recently as 1995, the expenditure was $9,500 per pupil.  These increases have mainly been in the areas of salary, benefits, and support services.

However, as per pupil expenditures have skyrocketed over the decades, so has the increase in school bureaucracies, and declines in SAT and ACT scores for college admissions.  In fact, the College Board in 1995 readjusted its SAT scoring so scores in both math and reading were skewed significantly upward.  Other scoring "adjustments" have been made over the years to improve score results.

In the 1990s, the Coalition for Essential Schools advanced the small school movement for high schools.  Under this educational model, the comprehensive high schools of our cities were to be dismantled.  These institutions with 2,000–4,000 students each were deemed too large to create the nurturing atmosphere needed and too big to allow for the personal attention that would come in a more personal environment.  So, in New York City, the comprehensive high schools were broken into three or four small high schools.  Sometimes these small high schools were not even called high schools, but were called "academy schools."  This was to create an elite aura around the school since some private schools are called academies.  The idea was that they were to be new, focused, and special because each would be thematic.  

In the new small high school landscape, the entering high school students and their parents would select a theme.  So, in New York City, there might be a performing arts academy high school, a business academy high school, a technology academy high school, a music and art academy high school, etc.  Since there were not enough talented and gifted students in these small schools, more advanced courses like Advance Placement courses at first were not offered.

However, after a little while, those classes were begun, comprising students who would not have been allowed in ten years before.  This was part of dispelling the inherent "racism" that it was claimed existed in the school system.  When this writer asked a principal if packing the Advanced Placement classes with students who could not expect to get a 3, 4, or 5 on a scale of 1 to 5 (3,4, and 5 being considered passing by various colleges), he replied, "It doesn't matter because it's giving them good experience no matter how well they do."  Everyone was brushed aside who asked if placing unqualified students in AP courses was not setting them up for failure.  This was going on at the same time as teachers were pressured into passing greater numbers of students.  For the first time, students taking those courses began to fail them, and in some cases, oddly, students who were getting good grades in those courses received mere 1s and 2s on the AP exams. 

But the greatest achievement of the academy schools or small school movement was that instead of one principal, you had three or four principals.  This meant more good-paying jobs for those with connections.  We could see a rise in administrative cronyism.  Potential principals enrolled in intensive training programs offered by the New York Department of Education to be able to move ahead in this new small school world.  At a meeting held to introduce teachers to the training programs, one young woman — only in her late 20s — was introduced to speak to the potential candidates.  In the older comprehensive high schools, one became a principal only after 20 to 30 years teaching and administering in the system.  However, with less than five years' experience, she was a principal.  She related her experiences, and then, as if at a high school commencement, she thanked her mother for her advancement.  Her mother was a principal in Queens in New York City.  The young lady principal did not even realize that she was telling us that she had gotten the job through her mother's connections. 

Another young man, no more than 30, was the principal of a middle school "for social justice."  Someone knowing the tone of the New York City schools wondered out loud if their idea of social justice included kids robbing other kids in the boys' bathrooms.  Another attendee of the colloquium asked if one's publications counted toward becoming a principal, and the woman in charge of the program said quite solemnly that they did not.  In short, it was all about connections, fast-tracking of individuals into good jobs, phony names for schools, and trying to cover up the abounding illiteracy and disruptions. 

Are we beginning, then, to see, as this writer sees, a pattern of score-tampering, outrageous increases in spending, and school size manipulation?  All seem driven by the mantra of promoting student "success," yet we see more money being spent despite lower scores, which are adjusted to appear higher, and smaller schools in the name of caring that offer fewer elective options; increase the numbers of jobs for principals; and create a smaller environment in which it is actually easier to manipulate attendance numbers, test scores, course grades, and numbers of credits accumulated by students.  This is the cynicism of our social justice warriors as well as their corruption.

E. Jeffrey Ludwig teaches philosophy and is the author of the best-selling book The Catastrophic Decline of America’s Public High Schools: New York City, A Case Study, available here.

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