Another Study Validates Replacement of Big Bad Schools With New Small Schools

Another study demonstrating the effectiveness of the new small high schools in New York was released last week.  A  study conducted by researchers Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Weiwei Hu, and Parag Pathak showed that attending one of 150 new high schools boosted achievement and graduation rates.

As noted in the review of prior studies (below), this study dramatically understate the real benefit of the new schools in favor of gold standard research methods.  They compared current high school options in NYC.  However, the important intervention in NYC in the last decade was the political courage by the administration to close and replace failing schools.  In many cases, the new high schools have graduation rates DOUBLE the schools they replaced.
Joel Klein and Michele Cahill (at Carnegie and the Department) as well as Bob Hughes (noted below) deserve a lot of credit for these gains.
–January 2012 post–
Today MDRC released another study that conclusively proves that new small schools work.  That and the fact that every quality school developer in America still opens small schools should finally put to rest criticism about a failed experiment.  You’ll never see a 3000 student KIPP.
Like the last study, the methodology missed the big impact by comparing new schools to other choices and not the schools they replaced.  In many cases the new schools had DOUBLE the graduation rate of disastrously bad schools closed by Joel Klein’s administration.  Give some credit to Rudy Crew and Harold Levy for launching the differentiated approach to accountability and support.
It’s also important to note that these new schools did not benefit from the additional flexibility that charter schools enjoy not by choice but because the state had cap in place.  These results would have been even better had there been more ability to restaff and restructure the schools.
Another missing part of this story is the leadership provided by Bob Hughes, New Visions for Public Schools, the largest and most successful intermediary of the last decade.  Bob’s team helped identify and incubate most of the successful school developers.
Here’s the tough medicine.  We still don’t have reliable and robust improvement strategies for big bad high schools.  As this study proves, it’s best to close and replace.
–MDRC Release–

Graduation Rates at Small Schools, Which Serve Highly Disadvantaged Students, Are 8.6 Percentage Points Higher Than Other Schools.  Effects Seen Across Every Subgroup of Students, Including African-American and Hispanic Males, Less-Proficient Students, and Low-Income Students

(New York, January 25, 2012) — MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research firm, released new findings today from its multiyear study of small high schools in New York City showing that these schools, which serve mostly disadvantaged students of color, are producing sustained, highly favorable effects, raising graduation rates by 8.6 percentage points, which represents 43 percent of the gap in graduation rates between white students and students of color in New York City. This increase translates to nine more graduates for every 100 entering ninth-grade students.
These graduation gains are driven almost entirely by Regents diplomas attained, and the effects are seen in virtually every subgroup of the overwhelmingly disadvantaged student population in these schools, including male and female students of color, students with below grade level eighth-grade proficiency in math and reading, and low-income students. In addition, the schools are raising by 7.6 percentage points, or nearly 25 percent, the proportion of students scoring 75 or more on the English Regents exam, a critical measure of college readiness as defined by the City University of New York. More than 21,000 students and 105 schools are included in the study.
“These results demonstrate clearly that high school reform at scale is possible, with potentially important implications for federal School Improvement Grant funding as well as high school turnaround efforts underway in every district in America,” said Gordon Berlin, President of MDRC. “While more certainly needs to be done if all students are to be prepared for college and careers, the small school strategy as implemented in New York provides a solid foundation on which to build.”
During the past decade, New York City undertook an ambitious district-wide high school reform. Between fall 2002 and fall 2008, the school district closed 23 large failing high schools (with graduation rates below 45 percent), opened 216 new small high schools (with different missions, structures, and student selection criteria), and implemented a centralized high school admissions process that assigns over 90 percent of the roughly 80,000 incoming ninth-graders each year based on their school preferences.
At the heart of this reform are 123 small, academically nonselective, public high schools. Each with approximately 100 students per grade in grades 9 through 12, these schools were created to serve some of the district’s most disadvantaged students and are located mainly in neighborhoods where large failing high schools had been closed. For 105 of these schools that had more applicants than seats available, MDRC’s study takes advantage of the lottery-like features in New York City’s high school admissions process to compare over time the academic outcomes of students who won lotteries and enrolled in the small schools with those who sought admission, lost a lottery, and enrolled in other New York City high schools.
In June 2010, MDRC released the first report from its study, which showed that the new small high schools increased students’ likelihood of earning credits, progressing through school, and graduating in four years with Regents diplomas. This new brief extends the analysis by a year, allowing for examination of a second cohort of students to reach graduation. The study’s new findings include:

  • Sustained impacts on graduation with Regents diplomas: With the addition of a second cohort, average four-year graduation effects have reached 8.6 percentage points (meaning nearly nine more graduates for every class of 100 entering ninth-graders). This effect is driven by an increase in Regents diplomas attained.
  • Positive graduation effects for virtually every subgroup, including students with low entering proficiency in math and English (levels 1 and 2, in New York City terminology), males and females, blacks and Hispanics, and eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch.
  • A positive effect on a measure of college readiness: a 7.6 percentage point (or 25 percent) impact on scoring 75 or higher on the English Regents exam (which exempts students from remedial English at the City University of New York). There was no effect on scoring 75 or higher on the math Regents exam.
  • Five-year graduation effect: Students in the new small high schools are 7.1 percentage points more likely to graduate in five years than their control group counterparts (75.2 percent vs. 68.1 percent).

What Are Small Schools of Choice?  Small schools of choice (SSCs) — a term coined by the researchers to emphasize the fact that these nonselective schools are chosen by students of all academic levels — are more than just small. They were developed and approved through a competitive proposal process administered by the New York City Department of Education and designed to stimulate innovative ideas for new schools by a range of stakeholders and institutions, from educators to school reform intermediary organizations, including New Visions for Public Schools, the Urban Assembly, Institute for Student Achievement, the College Board, and others. The resulting schools emphasize academic rigor; strong, sustained relationships between students and faculty; and community partnerships to offer relevant learning opportunities outside the classroom. Each SSC also received start-up funding as well as assistance and policy support from the district and other key players to facilitate leadership development, hiring, and implementation. These reform efforts were supported by a consortium of funders, led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Open Society Institute, and were implemented in collaboration with the United Federation of Teachers and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators.
How Was the Study Conducted? The study takes advantage of lottery-like features in New York City’s high school admissions process. Each year, NYC eighth-graders are required to select in rank order of priority up to 12 high schools that they want to attend; when an SSC has more applicants than spaces, the district uses a randomized process to break ties and assign students to the SSC or to another school in the district from each student’s list of preferences. These lotteries were found in 105 of the 123 SSCs and provide the basis for an unusually large and rigorous study of the effects of enrolling in SSCs on students’ academic achievement; the study tracks more than 20,000 students in SSCs and other high schools in New York City. The study does not compare the SSCs to the large, failing high schools they replaced but, rather, to the other public high schools operating in the reform-rich atmosphere in New York City.
MDRC’s study is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. All publications from the study, including the new one, Sustained Positive Effects on Graduation Rates Produced by New York City’s Small Public High Schools of Choice, by Howard S. Bloom and Rebecca Unterman, are available on MDRC’s Web site.

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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