Choice system lifts accomplishment in Harlem schools Program started in 1974 has become a model for others nationwide


NEW YORK - Twenty-four years after a school district in East Harlem began one of the nation's most extensive experiments in educational competition, a recently released study found that the district's program of allowing students to choose what schools to attend had lifted achievement in all schools and had not created a system of have and have-not schools.

The program, which has been used as a model throughout the country, nearly doubled the overall number of schools and created many small schools as alternatives to the customary neighborhood school.

The study, by two political scientists at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, found that reading and math scores began rising steadily after the school-choice program began in 1974, at a time when District 4 in East Harlem was ranked last in New York City.

Scores up in all schools

Scores have gone up in all schools, both the neighborhood schools and alternative ones, the researchers said.

And although the improvement leveled off or declined slightly in the late 1980s, the district is still performing better on reading and math tests than schools in the rest of the city with similar concentrations of students from poor families who move frequently and do not speak English well.

"The data show quite clearly that choice in District 4 has not produced any 'loser' school," said the report by Dr. Paul Teske and Dr. Mark Schneider. "To the contrary. Our data show most of these schools have improved over time, suggesting that choice has put competitive pressure on all schools to improve."

The East Harlem experiment has been widely imitated by other inner-city school systems across the country and cited as a model of school reform by William J. Bennett, the former U.S. education secretary.

But although school choice systems based on small alternative schools were viewed as the vanguard of change just a few years ago, they have fallen out of the spotlight more recently, at least in New York City.

Some critics have said the alternative schools engineer their success by importing students from other districts, getting grants not available to traditional schools and skimming the best students from neighborhood schools.

Teske and Schneider said they had looked at each of those objections and found that none of them were decisive factors in raising test scores.

Instead, they found that the strongest single factor was the number of new schools created, and the District 4 program did just that - in effect, expanding the marketplace.

In 1974, when Anthony Alvarado, the District 4 superintendent then, began the school choice experiment, East Harlem had 22 schools in 22 buildings, the researchers said. Over the next decade, it created more than 20 new schools.

Reacting to the report, Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew - who has been criticized for not being as vocal a supporter of small schools as previous chancellors - said he would like to see choice expanded in New York City.

'True educational reform'

"We're seeing evidence of true educational reform where there is a combination of local autonomy and central support, entrepreneurial spirit and a wise use of data," Crew said.

"Improved student achievement is the net result of this kind of competition," Crew said.

Seymour Fliegel, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the first director of alternative schools in District 4, said that it was important that the choice experiment had produced good results for such a long time, and that it had done it in spite of the challenges of educating disadvantaged children.

The study compared reading and math scores in District 4 with the citywide average at the same time, to ensure that results would not be skewed by different tests.

In 1974, East Harlem elementary and middle schools were performing about half as well as students in the city as a whole.

As choice expanded, test scores rose steadily, peaking in the early 1980s at nearly 100 percent of the citywide average in reading and more than 90 percent in math. Reading scores declined slightly in the late 1980s, which the study attributed to new district leaders' slackening interest in alternative schools.

The study noted, however, that in spite of its gains, District 4 still ranks low citywide - 21st out of 32 school districts - with a score of 39.3 percent of students reading at or above grade level on the city reading test.

"It would be impressive indeed if we could argue that choice, or any reform, could break the relationship between test scores and parent socioeconomic status," the authors said. "No reform has yet been able to achieve that."

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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