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
MDRC
June 2010

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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