You come here and say we are an ‘F’ school, but you don’t walk the halls we do,” said high-school junior Christina Johnson in 2013 after a hearing was held to determine whether the Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn should be closed. “I know for a fact that Boys and Girls doesn’t leave anyone behind.”

Except it did. In 2009, only 23 percent of its students passed the algebra portion of the Regents exam, compared with a city average of 58 percent. And only 60 percent of Boys and Girls students passed the English portion, compared with 70 percent citywide. The school’s four-year graduation rate was 44 percent, putting it on the state’s list of “persistently low-achieving” schools. But none of these facts seemed to faze the parents, teachers, administrators, and politicians who wanted to see this high school and other failing educational institutions remain open.

The hearing came at the tail end of Michael Bloomberg’s 12-year mayoralty. The policy of closing schools that were failing their students was developed by Bloomberg after he was given effective control of the system in 2002, and it was implemented by the schools chancellors who worked for him—first Joel Klein, then Cathie Black, and finally Dennis Wolcott. During his mayoralty, more than 100 schools at all levels were shuttered.

“It was just too strange that the chancellor and the mayor would just get up and announce these school closures as if they had achieved something for the educational system,” then comptroller John Liu told the website Voices of NY. And Bill de Blasio, then public advocate and a candidate to replace Bloomberg as mayor, suggested that Bloomberg’s school closures were a “bankrupt policy.”

True to his word, when de Blasio took over City Hall in 2014 he announced that an extra $150 million would be put into improving 94 of the city’s lowest-performing schools that year. Boys and Girls High School was on the list. 

“The previous administration had a policy that a school like this was left to fend for itself, and that’s why we’re here today, because we reject the notion of giving up on any of our schools,” de Blasio said. “We’re not giving up on them—in fact [we are] giving them what they need to succeed.” 

With this policy, the mayor was satisfying several constituencies at once. He could make the teachers’ union happy with job security and more money for even the worst-performing teachers. At the same time, he could claim to be a champion of the people, saving neighborhood institutions from cold-hearted politicians. As a bonus, if the Renewal plan succeeded even a little, de Blasio might have another weapon in his scorched-earth war against Eva Moskowitz, the head of Success Academies, the city’s largest and  highest-achieving charter-school network. Look, he could say, all our failing schools need is more money, and we could produce results as good as yours. Indeed, if it weren’t for charter schools stealing our resources, all our schools could be excellent.

According to the mayor, what these failing schools needed was an extra hour of instructional time each day, more professional training for teachers, and summer school. But the real focus of the Renewal program was its so-called wraparound services. These schools would be designated “Community Schools” and would attempt to deal with the nonacademic challenges students face. These might involve mental-health counseling or more food for kids who were not getting enough at home.  

Five years later, de Blasio has now all but admitted failure. In a recent interview with the New York Times, he said, “I’m at peace that with the information we had and the structure we had at the time, it was a sensible approach.” But he added, “I would not do it again that way.” At one point, he suggested that the problem was expecting results too fast: “We put ourselves on this very aggressive three-year timeline. In retrospect, that was probably an unrealistic timeline in some cases.” But even after adding a fourth year to the program, the results were not there. 

The overall cost: a staggering $773 million. All of it down the tubes. What’s even more staggering is that the three quarters of a billion dollars flushed down the toilet is merely a drop in the bucket for a system with an annual budget of $24 billion—not even 1 percent over five years. But the fact that such a sum has produced next to no results and has done tangible harm to kids who could have gone to a different school rather than being trapped inside an unsalvageable institution is worthy of public outcry. Philanthropists like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Walter Annenberg discovered to their sorrow that they could pour hundreds of millions of dollars into urban public-school systems without even creating a ripple. But that was private money, theirs to play with. Every dollar spent by de Blasio came from taxpayers.

Of the 50 schools that remained in the Renewal program—some closed because they didn’t improve and others dropped out—enrollment dropped considerably, as much as 17 percent between 2014 and 2018. Despite claims at public hearings, most parents know a failing school when they see it. If they can get their kid out, they will. 

Three different analyses of the Renewal program while it was in effect found little improvement at the schools and questioned whether the de Blasio administration was really getting any bang for its buck. One report for the website Chalkbeat, by Aaron Pallas of Teachers College, found that the improvements made by Renewal School students were the same as those made at other schools with similar demographic profiles and no extra dollars. A second study by the Rand Institute was not released publicly but, according to the New York Times, found “few measurable effects on academic performance over two years.” 

Marcus Winters, a professor at Boston University, found a small but meaningful improvement in test scores in a study he did for the Manhattan Institute: “The average renewal school improved its test score in ELA [English Language Arts] by 8.6 points and in math by 1.8 points, compared with 6.8 and 0.18 points, respectively, for the average nonrenewal school.” But even that study noted that “the effect is statistically insignificant for certain grades in math and ELA; and it is statistically insignificant for ELA when renewal schools are compared only with nonrenewal schools that were low-performing as of 2013.”

Moreover, Winters notes that the gains “have not come cheaply: about $1.4 million in additional annual spending per renewal school [as of 2017]. In contrast, Mayor Bloomberg’s school-closure policy produced large gains and required little, if any, additional spending.” More important is Winters’s observation that “even when failing schools improve modestly, it is an open question whether the improvement outweighs the opportunity costs.” What would have happened if that $773 million had been given to Success Academies or KIPP or other high-performing charter networks? The impact might have been astounding.

For anyone who has the slightest familiarity with the problems of low-performing schools, the program’s failure came as no surprise. The 30-year history of these “turnaround” projects is riddled with expensive failures. 

Andy Smarick, who served as president of the Maryland State Board of Education and deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, observed in a 2010 essay that “school turnaround efforts have consistently fallen far short of hopes and expectations.” Smarick notes that since the early ’90s, school-reconstitution efforts have been undertaken in Jersey City, Compton, Cleveland, Denver, Chicago, and Houston. They have included “an astonishing array of improvement strategies, including…conferences, professional development, turnaround specialists, school improvement committees, training sessions, principal mentors, teacher coaches, leadership facilitators, instructional trainers, subject-matter experts, audits, summer residential academies,…new curricula, improved use of data and turning over operation of some schools to outside organizations.”

In 2000, California targeted the lowest-performing 20 percent of schools, but after three years, only 11 percent of those schools were able to make “exemplary progress.” Of 52 Ohio schools that had been targeted with a turnaround plan, fewer than half showed any gains in student performance after several years. According to a 2008 study from the Center on Education Policy, only 12 percent of Maryland schools that were being “restructured” made adequate yearly progress according to the No Child Left Behind Standards.  

The states are supposed to be our laboratories for fixing education, but no one at the federal level was interested in paying attention to the laboratory results. The Obama administration went all in on the school-turnaround model. In 2009, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said his aim was to turn around 1,000 schools every year for five years: “We could really move the needle, lift the bottom and change the lives of tens of millions of underserved children.” 

After $7 billion was spent to fix these schools, an analysis funded by the administration’s own Department of Education of the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program found: “Overall, across all grades…implementing any SIG-funded model had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.” As a Washington Post headline put it: “Obama administration spent billions to fix failing schools, and it didn’t work.”

The reason school turnarounds don’t work is simple, according to Chester Finn, perhaps America’s foremost scholar of education. “A school is set in its routines, attitudes, expectations, culture, and curriculum,” Finn says. “You can change any one or two or three of those, but that doesn’t turn the ship around. If you want to turn the ship, you have to turn the rudder and reverse the engines.” If you don’t hire a new leader and let the new leader pick some new teachers and administrators and you don’t get everyone on the same page about the curriculum and school discipline, nothing is going to change.

So what is behind the idea that the culture of low-performing schools can be turned around? It is the notion that what these schools need is not a cultural change at all but simply infusions of cash. Decades of evidence belie this idea. Studies of school funding are a little like studies of whether money can buy happiness. Once you get to a certain level, there is not much return on the investment.

The evidence suggests that there is a minimal level of funding needed throughout the world to maintain a functional institution. But after that, adding more resources doesn’t consistently produce a better school. Finn cites his former Department of Education boss William J. Bennett, who used to refer to the “myth of the 14-egg omelet,” when he was asked whether we shouldn’t add pre-K to our public education system. “If you’re a terrible chef who can’t make an edible omelet with 12 eggs,” Bennett would say, “why do you suppose adding two more eggs will help?” 

The effects of “wraparound services” on low-performing schools are also tragically negligible. While it is true that children from these schools also face non-academic challenges—from violence, trauma, poverty, a lack of adult supervision, etc.—adding more services without changing the curriculum, the teaching, or the leadership of the school simply does not produce results. That is what marks the difference between the failure of the Renewal Schools and, say, the success of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which created high-performing charter schools even as it offered the kids and their families health services, employment programs, and other kinds of counseling. No matter what, the core change for the improvement of a school must be a shift in its academic life. 

The idea that wraparound services will make the difference seems both logical and compassionate. If a child is hungry or saw a friend get shot the previous night, it will be hard for her to concentrate on school work. But the advocacy of wraparound services is often accompanied by emotionally manipulative and disingenuous argumentation. The American Federation of Teachers’ website, for example, includes this explanation of the racial achievement gap: “What goes undiscussed, what lurks in the shadows, is the specter of poverty—the harm and hurt of it and the Herculean effort poor children, their schools, and their teachers make to prevail over the conditions of their lives: unsafe neighborhoods, lack of health care, inadequate housing, and the substandard wages paid their parents.”

But the specter of poverty does not prevent all children from learning. There is no acknowledgement by the AFT that the students who attend Success Academies, for instance, also experience unsafe neighborhoods, lack of healthcare, inadequate housing and parents with lower wages. Despite all those factors, the students at that charter network are performing above their peers in Scarsdale, the Westchester suburb with a school system nationally famous for its high achievers. 

The same people who claim that poverty (or racism or violence) prevents them from doing their jobs as teachers lead the efforts to get more money put into turning around bad schools instead of closing them and starting up new institutions. These new ones don’t have to be charter schools. Bloomberg and his superintendent Joel Klein also started up dozens of smaller new schools, often situated inside now-closed school buildings, that did not operate under special charters. Their principals had somewhat more leeway in terms of hiring and firing, and the city offered significant academic and curricular support to them. But the Bloomberg administration was notable in the way it gave up on the notion that more resources could turn bad schools into good ones.

The evidence strongly suggests that the policy was a clear success, especially for the most vulnerable kids in New York. The research firm MDRC conducted extensive studies comparing students at these new schools with ones who had participated in a lottery but did not get in. The kids at the new small schools saw a four-year graduation-rate increase by a rate of 9.4 points, with particularly impressive gains by black males, whose rates were 12.2 points higher than those of the control group, and special-education students, whose rates were 13.4 points higher. These kinds of gains are almost unheard-of in educational interventions. And the gains translated into higher postsecondary enrollment rates for new school students, including a gain of 9.6 points for kids who were on free or reduced lunch and a gain of 11.3 points for black males. 

The most surprising fact about the Renewal Schools story is that the mayor admitted he was wrong at all. Typically, these programs are simply phased out without anyone really acknowledging their failures. Or, in the case of the Obama administration, the acknowledgment happens after everyone responsible has left the building. 

Perhaps Richard Carranza, the recently installed schools chancellor, was not as wedded to the program as his predecessor was. Maybe de Blasio didn’t want this program’s failure hanging around his neck as he contemplates a presidential run. With a tighter budget this year, maybe the mayor calculated he couldn’t dump such large sums into a failing program. 

Still, it seems unlikely that the mayor and his allies will learn from their mistakes. “They have painted themselves into corner,” concludes Smarick. “They have nowhere else to turn after program like this fails.” Once they’ve found that pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a failing school doesn’t work, they have to acknowledge there might be something else wrong with the system that requires them to provide kids with other options. It may be that those options are other schools in the district or in the city or charter schools—or even (dare I say it) vouchers so that kids can go to private schools. But the traditional public-school monopoly, in which there is one centralized authority directing you to a particular school based on where you live, is not working. 

The acknowledgment of New York’s $773 million failure won’t stop the turnaround industry from perpetuating itself using any argument ready to hand. Indeed, researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder published an op-ed for the Washington Post in which they argued that de Blasio just wasn’t committed enough to the plan. “Like many politicians before him,” they wrote, “de Blasio underestimated the time needed for the reform to take root and to generate measured outcomes such as increases in test scores.” 

How long should we wait?

How many kids must be sacrificed?

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