Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Flunking Schools


One of the school system's most vexing problems is what to do to improve schools that are not functioning. Over the past decade, a quarter of all public schools in New York City at one time or another have been officially declared to be failing. These are called SURR schools, or schools under registration review.

At one of these schools, I visited a small elementary school art class. The class was in total chaos, with children standing on desks and jumping off them, running around and screaming. The teacher was yelling too. The teacher told us she had "only" been with the class for three months and that, as a substitute, she did not know the children's names and had never been given a roster, despite having asked for it several times.

Unfortunately, educators know this kind of situation well.


What makes a failing school? Many things, say state investigators, including:

  • Ineffective instructional methods
  • Inadequate planning
  • Insufficient supplies and materials
  • Uncertified and inexperienced teachers
  • Inadequate instructional leadership
  • Poor communication among administrators and teachers
  • Low academic standards
  • Curriculum deficiencies
  • Insufficient parent involvement
  • Lack of a consistent, uniformly applied student behavior policy
  • Inadequate student supervision
  • Inadequate teacher supervision
  • Inadequate library resources
  • Poor staff morale
  • Excessive principal turnover
  • Deficiencies in the English as a second language and bilingual programs
  • Special education deficiencies

The Board of Education was slow to respond to these problems. There was little overall planning or accountability until former Chancellor Rudy Crew created the "Chancellor's District", also called District 85 which grouped the worst schools together to supervise their improvement. These schools roughly correspond to those on the SURR list.


In 1989, New York State devised the scheme for putting low performing schools under "registration review." The targeted schools, which get some extra funds and assistance in curriculum and planning, are those that are farthest from meeting the state's performance standards according to their students' standardized test scores, or have been identified as being "poor learning environments." If the schools do not improve, they are shut down.

Since 1989, roughly 250 New York City public schools have been placed on the SURR list. Currently, 114 schools, 98 of them in New York City, are under registration review.

Just how bad at least some of these schools must be becomes clear when one looks at school performance overall. Throughout New York State, only 60 percent of fourth graders in public schools meet state standards for both reading and math. In New York City's SURR schools, only 10 percent of the fourth graders meet the standards.

The SURR process was supposed to improve the poorly performing schools, not shut them down. Critics, though, say this is not happening.

A new study, "The Tip of the Iceberg" by Joseph Viteritti and Kevin Kosar of New York University, published by the Manhattan Institute, states that on average, schools that do not improve remain on the SURR list for nine years before finally being closed. During this time, of course, thousands of students remain enrolled in what the state itself calls a poor learning environment.

While schools that improved enough to be removed from the list continue to do better than SURR schools, the study found, the majority of students in those former SURR schools still perform well below acceptable academic levels. The report also questions whether the SURR system masks the "iceberg" of general low performance in all city schools. In sum, argues the report, 70 percent or more of the students read below state standards in over a third of city schools.

The state admits that there needs to be quicker, more accurate data collection and evaluation of schools. (The state's role in identifying and improving low-performing schools is the subject of pending litigation). But the State Education Department officially declares that "the registration review process works," according to its August 2000 "Registration Review Report. It noted that 96 schools have been removed from the list since 1990, and the removal rate is accelerating. Only 17 were taken off from 1990 to 1995, whereas 79 were removed over the next five years. In December, 2000, an additional 25 schools on the state list were removed, the most ever in a single year, because test scores had moved them above the SURR threshold.

Critics contend that the removal rate says little about the quality of the schools. A school's students can have very low scores and the school can still be above the threshold for SURR. Further, they argue, test scores are subject to fluctuation and a statistical upward "blip" is likely among schools at the very bottom. Therefore, schools might rotate off the list to be replaced by others more because of probability than progress.

While he was a state regent, Harold Levy took steps (that he has backed away from since becoming chancellor) that would require SURR schools to employ only certified teachers. (Ten percent of city teachers are not certified, and many more teach outside their area of expertise.) The school system also reached an agreement with the United Federation of Teachers that makes teachers in SURR schools eligible for extra pay. Experienced teachers, however, have been slow to respond to incentives, and so most of the certified teaches in SURR schools are new teachers, many of whom have only the minimal preparation offered under a new state program. Thus, students in failing schools still get the least experienced and least prepared teachers.


Different states have taken varying approaches to the problem of failing schools. For most of the 1990s, New York focused on painstaking school-by-school reform and generally avoided state takeovers of entire districts. Other states, such as New Jersey, took over districts, including Newark and Jersey City, but failed to significantly improve the schools.

The difficulty of finding sweeping solutions came sharply into focus early this year when Schools Chancellor Harold Levy tried to privatize five SURR schools under the auspices of the for-profit Edison Schools, Inc. Like most low performing schools, these schools had spent years on the list undergoing a long sequence of "corrective action," planning and reviews.

Acting under pressure from Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Levy declared Edison could do a better job. But for his plan to take effect under state rules, parents of at least 50 percent of the students at a given school had to approve the idea. After a heated campaign, parents at all five schools rejected Edison. Today, the schools remain on the SURR list and two of them, IS 320 and IS 111, are slated to close.


Today, some states and the federal government are coming up with other solutions.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush, for example, has called for giving vouchers to students in that state's failing schools that they could use to pay tuition at private schools. The plan resembles existing programs that cover tuition in private programs for students with disabilities who cannot receive an appropriate education in public school. A suit has been filed against the Florida plan.

In 1994 a New York State task force recommended a similar plan to help students who have been forced to attend failing schools. But vouchers have been a volatile issue throughout the country, particularly in New York. Advocates say that giving vouchers to students in bad schools would rescue students from educational neglect and provide public school systems with a clear financial incentive to improve failing schools. Opponents believe vouchers will only make a bad situation worse, taking money and talented students our of the public schools.

Earlier this year, Congress rejected giving private school vouchers to students, but other methods to deal with failing schools, including providing students with a choice of public schools and issuing vouchers for private tutoring, could be included in legislation later this year.


Though the Senate and House proposals differ, bills in both houses give schools between 10 and 12 years to meet state-designated goals for all students. Progress would be assessed yearly. If schools fail to meet the targets for any student after the agreed upon time period, they would be closed.

Both bills also require schools to report on students' performance targets and call for results to be broken out by income, race and ethnicity. Advocates for poor and minority students have called for this kind of reporting on the grounds that lumping all results together can disguise discrepancies in performance and inequities in the allocation of resources. For example, 73 percent of white state public school fourth graders meet the standards in math and reading, while only 39 percent of black and Hispanic students do.

As school systems rush to meet the new reporting and performance targets, some educators fear that states may set meaningless standards, thus ensuring that all schools can meet them. As one New York State Education Department official said, the overwhelming temptation will be to "game the system and drop the standards."

Another concern is that annual high-stakes tests could drive minority students in failing schools (and elsewhere) to repeat grades and eventually drop out. New York City has already seen a rise in its dropout rate, New York having one of the worst high-school graduation rates among major cities in the country, according to a recent report. Only 54 percent of city public school students graduated on time. Many attribute the high dropout rate to the state's new emphasis on tests for promotion and graduation.


These approaches all address the problem after it has occurred. It would clearly be better to prevent students and entire schools from falling below standards in the first place. To accomplish this, according to a range of studies, superintendents and principals must be alert to the needs of at risk students, so classes should be smaller in kindergarten through third grade. Schools should use proven instructional programs such as Reading Recovery to aid students who need extra help.

Because principals can lose their jobs if their schools consistently fail, studies suggest they should have greater discretion in hiring and firing teachers. Superintendents, too, should have greater discretion to move teachers in and out of schools, much as other government agencies can transfer staff.

As the only people in the system who can make the needed changes, principals need higher salaries, along with the ability to assemble a similarly well-compensated team. And they must be evaluated on how well their students learn, not on whether the youngsters simply mastered some short-term test-taking strategies.

The solution to the problem of low-performing schools has been summed up in three words by Adelaide Sanford, the vice chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents. There must be, she says, "outrage, resources, and action."

Other Resources:

Several thoughtful reports, in addition to those cited in the text, offer solutions to the problem of low-performing schools.


David C. Bloomfield is an associate professor of educational administration at Brooklyn College, CUNY. He was a member of the New York State Regents Visiting and Advisory Committees on Low Performing Schools.

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