I’m a podcast junkie, and listen to them all the time—in the car, on the train, on a jog, walking my dog. And one of my new favorites is Embedded, which was created by a respected NPR reporter with the aim of “going deep” on a breaking news story.
So, as a longtime education journalist and now blog writer, I was intrigued when I spotted the recent one about school closings, a topic on which I reported and researched extensively. You can’t work in the Chicago public education sector without developing a distinct point of view on school closings. And you shouldn’t report on it unless you seek out the nuance and complexity of this intensely controversial issue.
Imagine my disappointment when I heard this intro to the podcast:
Schools across the country are closing, namely traditional public schools, you know that place you walk to or take the bus to every day when you were a kid. And the reasons why are complicated, first, people are on the move, the economy is changing, so when people leave a town or a neighborhood and there aren’t enough kids in a town, it’s hard to keep a school open.
But there’s another big reason, when No Child Left Behind was passed in the early 2000s, it embraced this idea of school choice. Kids are now able to leave failing public schools to go to charter schools or use vouchers to pay for private schools. A decade later, closing the underperforming schools that remained became a priority for the Obama administration. So now if the school sucks, just close it. Send the kids to some other school. But here’s the thing though, these school closing are disproportionately affecting poor black kids. What’s that like, if it’s your school?
There’s just so much that’s flat-out wrong about that intro that we need to break down the errors point by point:
- The first part acknowledges that school closings happen for a myriad of complicated reasons, but seems to suggest it’s a new phenomenon. It’s not. Nearly 1,000 schools closed in the 1995-96 school year—seven years before No Child Left Behind (NCLB) became law.
- No Child Left Behind was about a lot of things—accountability, testing, teaching quality, transparency, and yes, school choice, but only as it relates to the right for parents to transfer from an under-performing traditional school to a better-performing traditional school in the same district. But it was most decidedly not an embrace of charters and vouchers, which were individual state policies that evolved over a distinctly different track.Public charter schools were first created in 1991—a decade before NCLB—and have since expanded to more than 6,000 schools in 43 states. Vouchers pre-date NCLB by 12 years, and while 13 states and the District of Columbia offer some form of vouchers, most programs are open only to low-income families, students with disabilities, and students in rural areas with no schools.
- Closing underperforming schools because it was a “priority” for the Obama administration? Um, not so much. The number of school closings remained relatively steady during Obama’s first term, seesawing between 1,515 and 1,840 by 2012 (the most recent year data was available) and also included the closing of about 200 charter schools. Actually it was the Obama administration that offered states waivers from NCLB’s most rigid requirements, presuming the states created other reasonable school and teacher accountability policies.
- Not much evidence to support this notion: “If the school sucks, just close it.” Think about this: Only 2 percent of schools closed in the peak year (during the Bush administration, for what it’s worth)—clearly only a fraction of the schools that truly “suck.” And can we agree that some schools really, truly do “suck”—not because they had a few bad years of test scores, but because they’ve been failing students and families for years, even decades?
Clearly, the reporters developed a soft spot for the featured school in this story, Wilkinsburg High in Pennsylvania. They got to know the heroic teachers, the student leaders, the parents who held a deep nostalgia about their neighborhood school. They were there during a mass shooting in the community, which detoured the school closing narrative for part of the story. They were there for the bittersweet graduation of a senior class that had dwindled to 25 students by the time the final bell rang.
I get it. I’ve spent a year embedded in a school that was bigger, but just as troubled as Wilkinsburg, and you can’t help but start rooting for the community, to wish for that lucky break that will turn around their grim fortunes and give all those worthy students a bright future.
But the podcast left out some key facts about Wilkinsburg—the dysfunction that drove the declining enrollment and the decision to close. There was a passing mention of low test scores and a grade of F- on state report cards, but the school was graduating fewer than two-thirds of its students. They didn’t offer a single AP course. The students who took the SAT college entrance exam scored an average of 1100—out of 2400 possible, which is the 10th percentile of all SAT-taking seniors nationwide. For the Wilkinsburg graduates who made it to college, two-thirds were required to take remedial classes in math or English to relearn the material they should have learned in high school.
They interviewed a mom who was furious that the dollars that once went to the Wilkinsburg district were now following students to nearby public charter schools or private schools in the form of vouchers. This mom was adamant that her neighbors should not have the opportunity to move their kids to a better school “for free.” She was fundamentally opposed to school choice for low-income families, but in the end was able to exercise choice for her own son by moving to a new school district. She’s lucky she had that option. Many do not.
Maybe it would have been helpful to talk to a few African-American parents who had left Wilkinsburg High in droves, because they were offered better school options regardless of their ability to pay. If those neighborhood parents wanted what Wilkinsburg High was offering their children, then that school would have never closed.
School closings are devastating for a community. They should absolutely be a last resort. But a respected reporting team from NPR should be able to convey this devastation without resorting to incomplete fact-finding and glib vilification.