Great size rarely correlates with education success. Big cities have been plagued with low-performing schools for decades, mostly because large pockets of poverty – bad for schools – are usually part of the urban environment.
That is why what has happened in America’s largest school district is so remarkable. In the last three decades, New York City high schools have had a renaissance. Their advances in creativity and learning are something to behold.
A new study by Ray Domanico, one of the nation’s most talented education researchers and reformers, notes that like most big cities, New York lost many middle-class residents after World War II. High schools struggled to prepare “most of their increasingly poor and nonacademically inclined youngsters for college,” he said. “The citywide graduation rate was below 50 percent and resistant to change. In some high schools, the graduation rate was below 20 percent.”
Then came a big shift. “Between 1994 and 2014, New York City engaged in a historic overhaul of its publicly funded high schools,” Domanico wrote. “This included the opening of charter high schools (made possible by a 1999 state law) and the creation of new, smaller district high schools that would, in time, replace many of the city’s large, traditional, comprehensive, and vocational high schools.”
The educational insurgency of that period created 359 new public high schools under control of the city’s Department of Education and 56 publicly funded but independently operated charter high schools. Parents could choose from a much wider variety of educational approaches than they had had before. By 2019 those schools were serving more than 173,000 students. That was 59 percent of New York City public high school students.
“Current data show that, on average, the nonselective small schools created in the years under study are getting their students to progress through the grades, earn passing scores on the necessary Regents exams, and graduate on time about 83 percent of the time,” he said.
Domanico is now a senior fellow and director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute, the publisher of his report. It is a nonprofit think tank proud to be labeled “conservative” since its birth in 1977. Yet as proof of his allegiance to facts rather than ideology, Domanico heaps praise on the New York Performance Standards Consortium. It is a staunchly progressive, anti-standardized-testing group of 38 high schools, including 36 in New York City. You should think twice about inviting its leaders and Domanico’s employers to the same parties.
The consortium schools have state permission to substitute performance assessments for most Regents exams. They do not share the typical American high school aversion to encouraging writing. Consortium students must submit research reports that they present to external evaluators. Their graduation requirements include analytical essays on literature, social studies research papers, extended or original science experiments and problem-solving at the higher levels of mathematics.
“The success of these schools in getting graduates into college – and the success of their students once they are in college – is admirable,” Domanico said. Seven consortium schools that lacked data to compare them with older schools were not included in Domanico’s report, “The Transformation of Public High Schools in New York City.”
His analysis does have a political dimension. It points out in its first paragraph that the reforms he praises “started during [Rudolph] Guiliani’s mayoral administration and accelerated in 2002 when the [Michael] Bloomberg administration began methodically reviewing the performance of all its schools and closing those that consistently demonstrated poor performance.”
Domanico said that despite independent research showing that the changes by those sort-of Republican mayors led to positive student outcomes, Democrat Bill de Blasio “brought those efforts to a close when he became mayor in 2014.” Domanico suggests that newly elected Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat who has criticized de Blasio, make another shift. Domanico recommends going back to closing the lowest-performing high schools, recognizing workforce preparation as a valid alternative to college readiness for high school diplomas, opening new schools reflecting new research, and – significantly – supporting more growth for the unconventional New York Performance Standards Consortium.
Domanico said the small high schools he looked at averaged 407 students, the large high schools averaged 1,171 students, the consortium schools averaged 425 students and the charter high schools averaged 319 students. The portion of students from lower-income families at the small schools, charter schools and consortium schools was above 75 percent. The portion of students who were Black or Hispanic was 80 percent for small schools, 93 percent for charters and 76 percent for consortium schools.
Domanico identifies two crucial developments in the transformation of the New York City high schools. The first was efforts for reform by frustrated teachers and community leaders that led to both new schools and the transfer of power over schools from the school board to the mayor. The second was a new state law that allowed the creation of charter schools outside school district control.
I notice the consortium schools, rich in student writing, have only two campuses outside New York City, in Rochester and Ithaca. It’s hard work to toss out standardized tests in favor of performance assessments and big research papers. But I wish more districts in other parts of the country would give such schools a try.