Transforming the High School Experience: How New York City's New Small Schools Are Boosting Student Achievement and Graduation Rates
Howard S. Bloom, Saskia Levy Thompson, and Rebecca Unterman
The small-schools movement is a damaged brand, thanks to research showing that “smallness” is not enough when it comes to boosting achievement, especially for disadvantaged pupils. So it would seem that this study by MDRC, which finds positive effects in New York City’s “small schools of choice” (SSCs), is notable for saying otherwise. But, as the authors put it, these schools “are more than just small”—they were created through a rigorous application process, and they had to fulfill other criteria, such as serving traditionally disadvantaged communities. Even more important, however, is that they were created to replace roughly twenty large failing high schools have been closed for chronic low performance since 2002, proving that school closure and opening new schools is possible on the large scale. (Indeed, these schools collectively serve about 45,000 students—roughly the same size as the entire Houston high school population.) MDRC analysts tracked 21,000 NYC students who applied to a ninth-grade SSC lottery between 2005 and 2008; some got into a small school and some did not, thus creating a randomized sample (think lottiered-in, lotteried-out charter study design). The results were strong: SSCs increased the likelihood, year by year, of students being on track to graduate. For example, at the end of the second year at a SSC, students had on average accumulated 22 credits towards graduation, while non-SSC students had just 19. This translated, after four years, into an average 7 percent higher likelihood that a SSC student would graduate on time (in four years) than a non-SSC student. The Gates Foundation (which funded the study as well as a big chunk of NYC’s small schools initiative), and Joel Klein, have both taken lots of flack for their enthusiasm for small schools. This study appears to be at least a partial vindication. Read it here.
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