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A Call for Smart Spending on Successful Schools

We should cut our losses with chronically failing schools and spend our limited resources expanding what works and investing in needs-based innovations

A Call for Smart Spending on Successful Schools

Much of today’s discussion surrounding the crisis in public education centers around failing schools.

In New York State, 1,325 schools were identified as needing improvement this year. Of the 1,325 schools that have been identified, nearly half of them (640) are here in New York City. 

Since 2009, over $1 billion in federal money has been spent nationally to improve poorly performing schools. In New York City, $45.9 million has been spent on poorly performing schools.

Last year, 102 schools were added to the list of New York City schools "in need of improvement." And this year, just this month, and precedented 340 additional schools were added to the New York City list of schools "in need of improvement."

This says to me that this is money that is misspent. Rather than focusing our energy on trying to keep a sinking ship afloat, why not spend our time and resources on replicating and expanding what we know works or creating entirely new models that meet the challenges we face today and in the future?

Three years ago, in 2009, Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn wrote a piece for CNN warning of the possible dangers in investing so heavily in failing schools. They predicted that spending money on programs or infrastructure that is not radically different from what currently exists today would only get us more of the same in terms of results.

They suggested that if federal government spending in education met one of four criteria -- student-centered instructional technology, educator training, infrastructure, or research -- we would begin to see the substantive changes in public education that we desperately are seeking. 

The numbers that we see today are telling us their predictions were correct. Very few of the failing schools that received funds in 2009 have been removed from the list of failing schools (only 12 New York City Schools were removed from the list).

Imagine if that same money was spent on expanding the capacity of schools that are working, either to accommodate more students or to create new models developed with the current needs of our students in mind.

We would see schools that look nothing like our current one-size-fits-all models of education; we would see schools that are actually focused on teaching and learning instead of testing. 

Maybe we could have students grouped in small distance learning communities according to interest and abilities. Or perhaps we would see schools where vocational and technical education has been reimagined to meet 21st Century needs.

Or imagine schools where technology and electronic devices are not banned as they currently are in New York City public schools, but are embraced and made an integral part of teaching and learning. 

There is often a visceral outcry from various community constituencies when failing schools are slated for closure. This response is often driven by emotional connections to a school’s past history in the community, a sense of tradition, or a belief that the system is giving up on the students.

This response is almost never connected to the school’s present reality, in terms of the school's discordant learning environment or poor academic outcomes.

Turnaround and Restart initiatives are an attempt to avoid the unpleasant messiness of school closure. But often they wind up being nothing more than symbolic half measures that are moderately successful in the short term but leave the school in the same place it began once the additional resources and supports have been pulled away. 

Although it is a more contentious path, I believe that we would be much wiser to cut losses with chronically failing schools and spend our limited resources expanding what works and investing in needs-based innovations.

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