773 Million Later, de Blasio Ends Signature Initiative to Improve Failing Schools

Eliza Shapiro, New York Times, February 26, 2019

Mayor Bill de Blasio is canceling one of his signature education initiatives, acknowledging that despite spending $773 million he was unable to turn around many long-struggling public schools in three years after decades of previous interventions had also failed.

The end of the initiative, called Renewal, is a blow to Mr. de Blasio, who had hoped that success would bolster his effort to build a national reputation for innovative policies. Urban educators around the country had also looked to Renewal as a model for improving underperforming schools in historically troubled districts, rather than closing them.

Instead, the program has been plagued by bureaucratic confusion and uneven academic results since Mr. de Blasio began it in 2014. Though some of the nearly 100 low-performing public schools have shown better results, many have fallen short of the improvements that Mr. de Blasio predicted. The Renewal label itself caused parents to seek other options, causing enrollment in some schools to plummet.

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The question of how to fix broken schools is a great unknown in education, particularly in big city school districts.

While some small cities like Lawrence, Mass., and Camden, N.J., have achieved some success with different strategies, no large school system has cracked the code, despite decades of often costly attempts.

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Though only about 25 percent of the schools in the program have improved enough to require less investment and support on the four-year timeline Mr. de Blasio established, the mayor insisted that Renewal still achieved its “core mission.”

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“We defined success as whether most of the schools could move substantially in the right direction — and that, we got,” Mr. de Blasio added.

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“We put ourselves on this very aggressive three-year timeline. In retrospect, that was probably an unrealistic timeline in some cases,” he said. Mr. de Blasio eventually added a fourth year to the program.

Renewal will not be replaced by an entirely different school improvement program. Instead, the city will direct funding and academic support to schools most in need of help, under a strategy it is calling comprehensive school support, by consulting student achievement data under a new centralized data system known as Edu Stat.

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The Renewal schools that did succeed tended to have particularly strong principals, according to a report prepared by city officials about the end of the program, and an emphasis on using student achievement data to identify problems. The high schools in the program, which used a structured data-tracking system, made the most collective progress: The average graduation rate rose to 72 percent last year, up from 52 percent in 2014.

Suspensions also dropped by more than 50 percent across all Renewal schools during that same period, which is notable since many of the schools had discipline issues, and attendance crept up by about 4 percent over the last four years.

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