In his renewal plan for struggling schools, Mayor de Blasio has mistakenly fallen for a myth usually promoted by his conservative adversaries: that failure is the fault of individual schools, not the school system. His proposed solutions — community services, extra instructional time, and increased professional development, timed to a three year deadline prior to closure — treat these schools as isolated problems rather than the natural result of insidious central policies.

Like any myth, the assertion has some basis in truth. Some principals provide poor leadership and, while it is rare in my experience, concentrations of poor teaching can mire a school in mediocrity.

But the main reason the myth is attractive is because it is an easy way to avoid looking at systemic problems. Research demonstrates that the scale of New York’s “failing schools” is caused by district policies that lead to concentrations of highly mobile, low-achieving students. Too often, New York City has pre-determined “winners” in its school policies without admitting that other schools will lose in a trumped-up competition to cast the central administration in a positive light.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was a famous proponent of the myth. His widely praised, simplistic solution of closing schools he deemed failures clearly didn’t solve the problem, since Mayor de Blasio inherited these schools which he is now under fire to clean up. What Bloomberg really did was not close schools, but move children who should have been the real targets of his help.

This massive shell game cloaked systemic failure – 94 schools are on this list alone! – to provide cover for policies like small schools and choice and to avoid central responsibility for politically difficult solutions.

As stated by Profs. Jennifer Jennings and Aaron Pallas in a 2010 Annenberg Institute report:

The “winners” in [New York’s school choice] system survive by attracting the students and other resources that can enable them to succeed, and the “losers” run the risk of being closed. The NYCDOE might view its role primarily as creating a market and providing students and families with information about the population of high schools that can help them make an informed choice … But such a view treats each school as an independent entity that rises or falls on its own merits. What is missing is a view of the population of high schools as a system, in which schools occupy distinct niches, and the fortunes of one school can influence what happens to other schools.

How the system set a school up for failure was ably described by the New School’s Center for New York City using Paul Robeson High School in a case study:

All agree that enrollment at Robeson increased and its student body changed dramatically beginning in the early- to mid-2000s, as Chancellor Joel Klein began to close down many of the city’s large high schools. The DOE had set out to create scores of smaller schools to provide more intensive attention and support for low-performing students. … As a result, Robeson took in hundreds of students who would previously have gone to larger high schools but were instead displaced when those schools were closed down. Many such students had a history of truancy and were much older than Robeson students in the same grades.

The case study concludes that as a result of these and other system-driven demographic changes, “the graduation rate plummeted to 40 percent. Robeson had become a different kind of school, and it clearly needed help.”

Robeson has closed, but many of the schools on de Blasio’s “renewal schools” list undoubtedly faced similar challenges, as students from other closing schools enrolled or their situations were otherwise compromised by central office decisions. Now, the city needs to take ownership of solutions, instead of blaming the students, teachers, and principals triaged to benefit others. If de Blasio only tries to staunch the bleeding by creating a series of temporary fixes for select schools, instead of repairing the system’s inequities, his plan will fail.

One place to start would be to diminish the number of latecomer students, who are known as “over-the-counter” students and who often have more severe academic and social needs, enrolling at struggling schools. The city has already put those limits in place at Boys and Girls and Automotive high schools, but the other struggling schools need that benefit as well so that those students are spread more equally throughout the system.

Another goal should be to develop a system of choice that avoids concentrations of haves and have-nots in city schools. As stated by Baruch College Professor Judith Kafka, “Our school system already concentrates poverty. Does choice interrupt this process? It can when the school system makes integration a priority and enacts what is often called ‘controlled choice’ as described in the work of the Century Fund’s Richard Kahlenberg.” Those policies focus on admissions rules that emphasize choice and also aim to create stable, economically diverse student populations.

Real solutions will require politically difficult changes to budgeting and enrollment policies, as well as a concerted effort to help schools improve their reputations. Such solutions would involve trade-offs, and some schools would likely benefit more than others. But the varied recommendations for solving our struggling schools crisis put forth so far by Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, the New York City Charter Schools Center, and even Mayor de Blasio, fail to adequately address the systemic causes of school failure.

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