Why is the Manhattan Institute Supporting Lowering High Graduation Measures in NYS?

The Manhattan Institute is a conservative think tank and the publisher of City Journal,

The Institute serves as a leading voice of free-market ideas, shaping political culture …. Ideas that have changed the United States and its urban areas for the better—welfare reform, tort reform, proactive policing, and supply-side tax policies, among others—are the heart of MI’s legacy. While continuing with what is tried and true, we are constantly developing new ways of advancing our message in the battle of ideas.

Pre-Covid I attended numerous events, intellectually challenging, and while I disagree with their core beliefs always interesting to listen to a range of ideas.

The election of Trump changed the Manhattan Institute; one of their major funders is Rebekah Mercer, an unabashed acolyte of Donald Trump and the Manhattan Institute, previously supporting policies not candidates, banned any Trump criticism. Sol Stern, a frequent City Journal contributor, and a “never Trumper” found himself on the “banned” list, and, resigned from is role as a City Journal contributor in a scathing letter.

I also protested the role of Rebekah Mercer on the Board of Trustees, calling her “an accomplice in one of the most malignant political movements in the country [who] has weaponized what Steve Bannon calls his ‘killing machine,’ now wreaking havoc inside the Republican Party and trying to destroy the decent conservatism that first drew me to City Journal.”(Read entire essay here)

Daniel Bell-Adler in the Afro-American Policy Forum underlines the “Trumpified” influence over the MI..

     The Manhattan Institute’s embrace of [anti-CRT] crusade is consistent with its history of demonizing public schools and the urban poor. But as Stern experienced in the early days of the Trump era, there is also serious money behind the Trumpified version of this agenda.

I’ve been musing: how has the Trump orthodoxy in MI reflected in its education policies? 

The Institute has just released a policy paper entitled, The Transformation of High Schools in New York City,

Incoming mayor Eric Adams and his administration will soon have the opportunity to rethink how New York’s high schools might be reorganized or modified to serve the needs of students with differing achievement levels at the end of middle school: those ready for highly advanced work and those who enter high school clearly unlikely to attain college readiness.

I’m baffled, is MI advocating schools for W.E.B. DuBois’ “talented tenth” and the “unlikely to attain college readiness,” students, in other words advocating segregating schools by perceived ability? To quote DeBois,

The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races

The Report:

  • Three hundred and fifty-nine new public high schools that were opened between 1994 and 2014 are operating today under the Department of Education’s control, along with 56 publicly funded but independently operated charter high schools. Combined, these schools were serving more than 173,000 students by 2019, 59% of the total public high school student body.
  • Rigorous independent research of some of the schools that began in the Bloomberg era found that they had a positive impact on their students, compared with the schools that they replaced. Current data show that, on average, the nonselective small schools created in the years under study are getting their students to progress through the grades, earn passing scores on the necessary Regents exams, and graduate on time about 83% of the time. This is a great achievement over the outcomes of the previous high school system.

The former Board of Education began to close high schools (Andrew Jackson and Erasmus) and replace with small schools on the same campuses; a few years later expanding  the Chancellor’s District, closing four large dysfunctional high schools and replacing with sixteen small high schools. The teacher union supported the efforts and assigned staff to ease the transition from large to small schools. (I was a part of the team). The plan was to continue the Chancellor’s District model, unfortunately abandoned by Bloomberg. A deeply researched study found the Chancellor’s District high effective (Read here)

  • One particular group, the Performance Standards Consortium schools, has a different way of teaching and learning. They dispense, for the most part, with standardized testing and offer an alternative vision of student and school assessment. Their success in getting graduates into college—and the success of their students once they are in college—gets much less attention than they deserve.

The Consortium Schools have always been closely guarded by Ann Cook, the leader of the Consortium. The schools use a totally different approach to instruction and design; Ann has resisted scaling up. [See more later]

  • Charter schools came later to the high school sector and remain somewhat of a work in progress. Still, their students’ exam scores are impressive, as are the rates of their graduates getting in to college. These schools are clearly better than what existed in the past in the communities that these schools serve.

The attrition rates in charter high schools are staggering, it is clear charter schools “counsel out” low achievers, plus, charter high schools have low registers and fail to offer advanced subjects. (See Gary Rubinstein blog here)  [more later]

  • Overall, the city’s high schools continue to grapple with the very real achievement disparities among students from various demographic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Still, the transformation of the high school sector between 1994 and 2014 seems to have raised the floor of achievement and has created many more opportunities in communities whose students were once relegated to very low-performing high schools.

Whether the “floor of achievement” was raised due to the closing of large high schools and the creation of small schools or the “easing” of high school graduation requirements is not knowable.  The State has created safety nets for students with disabilities and English language learners, alternative pathways and superintendent’s discretion. See the listing and details here. Additionally the State changed the English Regents from two days (six hours) to one day (three hours), changed the Global Studies Regents from covering 9th and 10th grade work to only 10th grade; in each case the passing rates on the exams increased significantly. The continued fine tuning of graduation requirements by the State is admirable

Discussion and Implications
 The Report, to its credit, does not find large school closing/small school creation as a magic bullet.


The main motivation for the aggressive creation of new high schools beginning in the mid-1990s was the large numbers of traditional high schools with low and stagnant graduation rates.

The Board of Education under the Koch mayoralty supported a politically driven triage system, allowing some schools to erode academically and supporting others. The seven-member central board, five members appointed by borough presidents drove policy. While the Chancellor’s High School District worked closely with communities Bloomberg dismissed the model and accelerated the closing of large high schools, some dysfunctional, others without the political clout to survive. Kudos to the Ray Domanico and his team, the Report acknowledges the small high school movement has a long path ahead.

Students in the broad middle of the achievement scale can be successfully educated in the general, college-preparatory curriculum—and students at the higher and lower bands of achievement can be offered effective education in schools designed to allow them to reach their full potential, whether that be the Ivy League or the workforce. For these goals to become a reality, the State Board of Regents needs to reform some of its own previous decisions mandating that all high school diplomas reflect college-ready standards of achievement and the state education department will have to expedite the approval of new forms of credentials signaling work preparedness.

Eroding the high school diploma is not assisting anyone; the diploma has to have value and meaning. The disconnect between high school, community colleges and the world of work is a challenge, as we are aware in Europe there is a seamless path from school to employment, a pathway absent in our school system.

Recommendations for Mayor Adams’s Administration


  • Commit to a careful assessment of high school performance, and consider the closure of the lowest-performing high schools along with the dynamic creation of new opportunities for students in either new district-run or charter high schools. This last goal will depend upon the state legislature undoing the unnecessary cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the city, and the mayor should push the legislature to do so.

How about identifying low performing middle and high schools and intervene to improve outcomes. Until we have effective intervention strategies closing schools is not an effective strategy.

  • Signal support for the recognition of workforce preparation as a valid alternative to college readiness for high school diplomas.

What does “signal support” mean?  Yes, we need a wider range of Career and Technical Education schools, “valid alternative to college readiness for high school diplomas” sounds like dumping lower achieving kids into oblivion. [more later]

  • Create new schools that reflect what is currently known about the needs of students and the experience of the previous round of school creation. Specifically, the appropriate size of new high schools should be considered. Under the Bloomberg administration, new high schools were generally capped at fewer than 500 students each. While having some merit, this limited the range of courses that could be offered in individual schools. Up to a point, larger enrollments might allow greater course offerings while maintaining the personal nature and closer contact between students and teachers enjoyed in smaller schools.

We currently have 485 high schools (110 in 1990), many with declining enrollments, and, yes, individually too small to offer a range of course offerings. MAK Mitchell, a superintendent during the Bloomberg years created a Manual for multiple school campuses; the plan was for schools on a single campus to share budgets thereby enabling them to offer a wider range of courses on the campus. MAK left the Department and the Manual, once easily accessible on the Department website is probably gathering dust on a cybershelf.

  • Signal support for the work of the Performance Standards Consortium and efforts to expand this initiative in consultation with the organization’s leaders.

Ann Cook, the Consortium leader, has carefully sheparded the Consortium. The schools require a totally different instructional and organization structure; Ann has wisely limited the Consortium to forty schools under the current Department leadership. [more later]

  • Whatever standards are in place, the schools chancellor, with the mayor’s support, should ensure that schools award diplomas that meaningfully reflect the completion of necessary work. Isolated abuses will always occur in a large system, but principals must hear a clear and consistent message about the integrity of high school diplomas.

Absolutely agree, the credit recovery craze, a few hours in front of a computer screen to earn credits was academically fraudulent

The Report makes recommendations for the Board of Regents and the Mayor:

Recommendations for the State Board of Regents


  • Discontinue its insistence that there be only one type of high school diploma. In the past, high school diplomas of different types were issued and recognized. The requirements for a “local diploma” were set by each school district in the state; they represented successful completion of high school but did not necessarily imply college preparation. Regents diplomas signaled college preparation and required a full sequence of Regents-level courses and successful completion of the exams tied to those courses; today, this system is used to issue “Advanced” Regents diplomas.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to No Child Left Behind specifically prohibits “inferior” diplomas. (See here) and is antithetical to the goal of equity.
”Inferior” diplomas effectively means segregating schools, by ability (defined as parental income and education) and by race and ethnicity, a throwback to pre Brown v Board of Education. The My Brothers Keeper initiative addresses targeting traditionally lower achieving students can be highly effective, the Board,

  • But the requirement that all students successfully pass either five Regents exams or four plus an alternative approved credential should be removed. Many students barely pass these exams, and credible questions have been raised about watering down standards to allow some to pass. In place of these exams, the Regents should direct the state education department to more aggressively and quickly approve alternative pathways through which students can demonstrate readiness for the workforce with specific, industry-recognized credentials for specific types of work or similar competencies in the creative arts.

The State has a range of alternative pathways, one regents exam can be replaced by an “industry-recognized” credential (Read here), the Report calls for the expansion “quickly,” the process is complex.  Should the Regents reduce the number of required regents examinations to only English and Math with additional industry-based credentials substituting for additional regents? Will this discussion tbe part of the current Graduation Measures process?

  • Consider the success of consortium schools, and consult with the leadership of this group about ways to effectively expand the number of schools using this approach in New York City and the rest of the state.

Teachers commonly teach five periods a day with 25-30 kids per class, 100 to 150 kids per day; obviously portfolios are not an option. Consortium schools, aka, portfolio/roundtable assessment schools require totally different curriculum, different teaching methodologies and a highly collaborative management structure, and, just between the two of us, may not comply with ESSA requirements. “Valid and reliable” standards for assessing portfolios has eluded researchers, while the Consortium does a fine job, “scaling up”” is exceptionally difficult and has sunk many concepts.

  • Urge the legislature to remove the cap on new charter schools in New York City.

I have another suggestion, there is no need for charter high schools, fold the charter high schools into the Affinity District, the former charter management organization can continue to support the school. (See discussion here)

The aroma of Trump is absent from the Report, thumbs up! the call for a seamless path from school to employment is on target, tracking in high school has long ago been rejected, for obvious reasons.

Lots of more discussion ahead.

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