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Pedro Noguera: Lessons on the Gap for the Next Chancellor

The recent study “The Experience of One New York City High School Cohort: Opportunities, Successes, and Challenges” by Douglas Ready and his colleagues at Teachers College, confirms what we have known for some time: gaps in achievement emerge early and often widen over time.  Their study points to 3rd grade as a decisive period for differentiation in educational trajectories.  Other studies have suggested that the disparities are present even earlier, well before children enter kindergarten.

Their study acknowledges the progress New York City has achieved in increasing graduation rates, and recognizes that wide and persistent gaps in achievement remain between students of different racial and socio-economic backgrounds.  The study makes it clear that there is a need for ongoing improvement in college readiness and other indicators of achievement.  Given that New York City will soon have a new Chancellor and undoubtedly embark on a new agenda for reform, it would be helpful to reflect on what we know has been effective in improving academic outcomes for the most disadvantaged children, who after all, are the vast majority of children in New York’s public schools. 

Despite the sobering news from this report, we have clear and compelling evidence that some schools are doing a much better job than others in raising achievement and reducing academic disparities.  Despite what their critics may charge, several charter schools, particularly those that are part of the Success Academy network, are showing us that when careful attention is paid to the learning needs of disadvantaged children, they can excel academically and achieve at high levels.  It may well be these case that children with special needs, English language learners and the most disadvantaged children are under-represented at these schools, but there is no doubt that the vast majority of children they serve come from low-income, minority families in New York City.  The next administration should work to end the conflict and competition between charters and public schools so that we can encourage collaboration and begin looking closely at the approach these and other successful charter schools have taken to achieve success. 

Likewise, there are public schools in New York that are doing far better than their counterparts in consistently producing superior outcomes.  The great fault of the Bloomberg administration is that it allowed these successful schools to operate in isolation.  It would make sense for the next administration to allow schools that are struggling to visit and learn from schools that are succeeding in educating some of our most vulnerable students. 

For example, the Young Women’s Leadership Schools have managed to graduate over 90% of their students and send an equivalent percentage to college for several years.  While their college readiness rates are low they do extremely well on two key indicators identified by Ready and his colleagues: 9th and 10th grade credit completion.

Similar results are being achieved at other schools, including some serving even more challenging populations.  Recently, I visited the Academy of Language and Technology in the Bronx, a school that specializes in serving SIFE students – Student with Interrupted Formal Education.  All of these students entered high school illiterate in English and in many cases, with minimal literacy in their native language Spanish.  All of the students come from families with incomes at or below the poverty level but they attend a school that is deliberately organized to meet their academic and social needs.  I sat in as teachers thoughtfully critiqued each other’s lesson plans and I learned from administrators who told me that over half of their students to attend Saturday school and participate in an extended day learning program.  The school boasts a graduation rate over 95% with a population that is vastly overrepresented among the ranks of those most likely to dropout at other schools throughout NY City. 

While close examination of these schools, particularly with respect to SAT scores and college readiness rates, reveals that they have by no means succeeded in closing the gap with screened schools that serve more affluent students, they are nonetheless significantly outperforming other schools with similar populations.

It will be important for the next administration to closely examine the successes and failures among New York’s schools before initiating a new series of reforms.  We must also be willing to initiate a realistic conversation about what is possible.  There is absolutely no reason to believe that it will be possible to close the achievement gap on a wider scale without a broader effort to reduce poverty and expand access to vital services such as pre-school.  This does not mean that more cannot be done to improve academic outcomes and life chances for children in New York, but we should stop pretending that schools can do this work on their own. 

The previous administration operated under the assumption that everything that preceded its arrival was flawed and in need of eradication.  This was true both for programs such as the Chancellor’s District, which brought extra resources and attention to high-need schools (and which evidence shows was achieving progress), and many of the people who worked within the system, who were systematically marginalized or eliminated.   The next administration should build on the strengths achieved during the Bloomberg years and focus its attention on addressing the many areas of continued weakness. 

There will be no quick fixes or easy answers to closing the achievement gap or improving struggling schools.  Instead, let’s try this for a change: do more of what seems to be working and less of what’s clearly not. 

Pedro Noguera is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University.  Dr. Noguera is a sociologist whose scholarship and research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions, as well as by demographic trends in local, regional and global contexts.