Magnet schools and N.J. high schools: Two-tiered system means some were designed to fail


Here is an Op-Ed piece I wrote for the Star-Ledger a few years ago when I was principal of Barringer High School. Thought I’d share it again.

Many cities across the nation have created a two-tiered system for secondary education comprised of magnet and comprehensive high schools. The laudable idea was to create schools that offered a select group of students a high-quality education often combined with a specialized education in arts, sciences or technology.

Though they are located in the same socio-economic areas, magnet high schools dramatically outperform comprehensive high schools in all measurable academic indicators including state assessments, college acceptance and drop-out rates.

Students who don’t have the grades, ability or simply the desire to attend one of the magnets end up in our comprehensive high schools. These high schools must accept any student that lives within their particular school zones, regardless of academic proficiency.

Whether due to cream-skimming, overcrowding, high mobility rates, a disproportionately large special education-population, or the fact that they have become dumping grounds for poorly performing staff and students, comprehensive high schools are designed to fail.

Cream skimming is the process of selecting students based on academic performance. Though it is difficult to track which students and how many are lost from the comprehensive high schools to magnet schools, there is a strong perception that cream-skimming has a negative effect on the students that remain at the comprehensive high schools, thus having a major impact on test scores, college acceptance rates and graduation rates.

One tremendous factor that also differentiates magnet high schools from their comprehensive high school counterparts is their enrollment size. In 2004, a study by Valerie Lee, professor of education at the University of Michigan, examined which size high schools work best with respect to learning and student achievement. Her conclusion: the ideal size of an effective high school has between 600 and 900 students. Most comprehensive high school enrollments are over 1,000.

Student mobility, the phenomenon of students changing schools for reasons other than grade promotion, is another obstacle faced by comprehensive high schools. Chester Hartman, the director of Research of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council in Washington, D.C., found in a 2002 study that students who transfer frequently between schools during the school year are at greater risk for academic and behavioral problems.

Hartman also found that high student mobility has consequences for mobile students, non-mobile students, teachers, and schools. For students, the long-term effects include lower student achievement on exams and reduced academic production, ultimately resulting in a higher likelihood of dropping out.

Often, comprehensive high schools must serve a disproportionate number of special needs students. Magnet high schools’ special needs populations usually average between 2 percent and 5 percent, compared to between 20 percent and 30 percent at comprehensive high schools. Such large special education populations should translate to resources, but that is usually not the case.

Many of the magnet high school programs do not serve second-language learners, so these students must attend comprehensive high schools which offer such programs. Based on the No Child Left Behind Act, students in special populations are still expected to pass state assessments and their failure rates are calculated in the overall test scores of the comprehensive high schools., further making it more difficult for those schools to make the required “annual yearly progress.”

Comprehensive high schools are often “dumped on” as well. Students that do not perform well at the higher performing magnet schools, charter schools and or vocational schools are sent to their zone schools regardless of infraction. Many times students go from incarceration to their zone school, often without transition. Talk about putting sharks into a guppy tank!

In addition, poor-performing teachers from the best schools are often transferred to comprehensive high schools as punishment and good teachers are often transferred to magnet schools as a reward. Poor-performing teachers at comprehensive high schools often finish out the rest of their careers at these schools, damaging countless students.

Not only do poorly performing comprehensive high schools not do well on state assessments, their students come from a wide range of difficult backgrounds. Abusive households, neglect, drugs, gangs and violence are prevalent in their neighborhoods. Not all students misbehave or demonstrate poor behavior but when schools are forced to enroll disruptive students, good students often become targets.

If we switched the students at comprehensive and magnet high schools and left the same staff and administration, would magnet school continue to do well, or better yet would that comprehensive high school continue to perform poorly?

The next time you hear about poorly performing schools, drop-out factories or a widening achievement gap understand this: It’s not entirely the kids’ fault, it’s not entirely the parents’ fault, it’s not entirely the teachers’ fault and it maybe, quite possibly not entirely be the principal’s fault. It might just be that the school was designed to fail.

Jose Aviles is principal of Barringer High School in Newark.


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