A School Too Far: Is School Choice Unraveling Education Reform In New York City?

It would appear that when students don't attend school, they don't get educated in ways that are productive for them in particular, and society at large.

Teachers have long known this to be the case. Now the issue is being joined by politicians, fueled by a Johns Hopkins study that found that 15% of American school children have been labeled chronically absent for missing one school day in ten. In New York City the number is 20%.

With only a few weeks remaining in the current school year, New York City has launched a multi-million dollar advertising campaign that asks, "It's 9:00 AM Do You Know Where Your Kids Are?"

Prior attempts at reducing truancy have included celebrity messages and "robo" calls made to the homes of the chronically absent by famous rappers to encourage attendance. Parental responsibility remains a touchy issue. While Bloomberg pointed his finger at parents, he maintained that it's up to the schools to ensure that their students are in attendance.

The problem isn't unique to New York City. Buffalo's teachers refused to have students who were chronically absent factored into their evaluations. The state refused to release Race To The Top monies until an agreement was reached. But there were no solutions that offered any real hope of reversing the staggering number of truants, save the tired nostrums of increased counseling and more parent outreach.

At the end of the day, neither public service messages, nor increased cooperation between schools, police, and social welfare services will cut the truancy Gordian Knot.

That's because the truancy statistics are a fairly accurate reflection of the number of students who don't want to be in school. They don't want to be there, especially high school students, who represent the largest percentage of truants, because they arrive in high school incapable of performing on a high school level.

Many believe the intractable problem of low attendance and low achievement could be solved by ceding absolute power over the schools to the mayor, in much the same way the Roman Senate appointed a magistratus extraordinarius when a crisis faced the Republic.

When similar powers were granted to Mayor Bloomberg, he instituted a series of reorganizations and reforms claiming they would reverse high dropout rates coupled with dismal graduation statistics.

Hundreds of small schools that offer a myriad of career options were created. They combine parental school "choice" along with a more intimate setting to prevent "at risk" students from falling through the cracks as they did in the large schools. But that hasn't happened. All you need to do is look at truancy rates and NYC's dismal results on state and national tests for proof.

Ending social promotion was another signature component of the mayor's reforms, but the policy was dropped without fanfare just a few weeks ago.

Ironically, a series of deleterious unintended consequences directly tied to the reconfiguration of our schools has exacerbated the truancy crisis.

The practical effect of "choice" is to allow students to attend schools anywhere they are accepted in a city of 500 square miles. It means that tens of thousands of students who would ordinarily walk to school now ride public transportation.

Some will have commutes that come close to four hours a day, hardly an incentive for increased attendance. (By the way, if they live up to a mile and a half away from school and there are no free metro cards, they'd walk three miles a day. Did anyone at city hall consider the effect that might have on child obesity before turning students into mass transit commuters?)

What's more, NYC will allow students to register for high school until the age of 21, even if they have made no academic progress in over five years of attending high school. They'll receive free metro cards to ride to school. I'll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions about what a 20-year-old sophomore might be up to during their daily commute.

The long distances that a parent might have to travel to meet with guidance and teachers, say if a child living in the Bronx is attending school in Queens, have complicated the call for increased outreach to parents.

The number of homes of chronically absent students an attendance teacher is able to visit is compromised by distance as well.

I teach at Jamaica High School, one of the large great comprehensive high schools that are being phased out. Four small schools operate alongside us as we face the fate of the incredible shrinking man. The entire "complex" has been renamed the Jamaica Campus to assuage community concerns that de-coupling the school from the neighborhood would be bad for the community and the school

My lunch period is spent with some of the coaches of the varsity teams at the "campus." They complain about how difficult it is to run after school activities now that they have to recruit their teams from five different schools.

Kids who commute long distances won't participate. One coach told me that "in the old days a student would practice or play on a team and be back home by 6:30 PM. Now someone who wants to play on a team and lives in another borough is looking at getting home at 8:30." She added that it affects other after school activities as well.

Subway crime is up. Obesity is up among the most impoverished. Truancy is up. High school athletics are in decline. Test scores are in decline. Do you think there might be a connection? Does anybody care?