The NYC Small Schools Experiment

New York City has an extraordinary base of talented educators, education support groups, and community based organizations. Debbie Meier’s Central Park East was among the first breakout small schools (co-founder Julian Cohen now leads new school efforts for NYC DOE). Dick Beattie’s leadership and Irine Diamond’s funding lead to the formation of New Visions for Public Schools—the most capable urban school improvement group in the country. Michele Cahill’s Beacon Schools lead her to Carnegie Corporation and the New Century initiative, and then the DOE and the high impact multiple pathways work.

Bloomberg and Klein deserve a great deal of credit for the progress of the last eight years, but Tony Alvarado, Rudy Crew, Harold Levy, and many other leaders all played a part in a rich reform environment. More recently charter school developers like Eva Moskowitz have created great new options especially in Harlem.

This week I had a retrospective lunch with Saskia Levy, the architect of the well respected Urban Assemblies network. Saskia has had the rare opportunity to spend a year at MDRC reflecting on what we learned over the last 10 years of new school development. Their report will show promising results from a confluence of leadership, capacity, and investment.

Small schools create conditions where adults can shape a powerful culture and sustain relationships. They provide a necessary but not sufficient condition for improved instruction—folks like Saskia that paid attention to execution and instruction got improved test scores. But I think it’s fair to say that almost all new school developers (including those that just ignore standardized tests) demonstrated improved graduation rates compared to the disastrous big high schools they replaced.

Saskia and I speculated that new personalizing technology may help us develop new individualized formats—some big, some distributed. But we also noted that everyone opening great new schools is sticking to the small school formula—maybe they are on to something. Big schools were the fad that didn’t work.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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