Small Schools Spur Academic Growth, Says MDRC Report

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 25, 2012 3 min read
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By guest blogger Jackie Zubrzycki

A new report by the New York-based education & social research organization MDRC indicates that students in 105 of New York City’s 123 so-called “small schools of choice” grew more academically and were more likely to graduate than students in New York’s larger public high schools.

The positive outcomes held true for all subgroups, including African-American and Latino males, students who tested at all levels of proficiency in math, and students who were eligible for free and reduced price lunch.

New York City’s small schools initiative resulted in 216 new schools being opened between 2002 and 2008, and was sponsored by prominent funders like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Gates also provides some support to Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.)

Once widely popular, the movement to carve up large high schools into smaller, more personal schools has lost some of its early momentum. The new MDRC report focuses on 123 nonselective small schools, which the researchers dubb small schools of choice and describe as the “heart of the small schools movement.”

The researchers are touting the study’s rigor and scale. Because students apply to New York City high schools, students who attend small schools can be reliably compared against a control group of students who applied to the same schools but didn’t get in. When asked whether the 18 small schools of choice that weren’t included might have different results (Perhaps they’re not oversubscribed because they’re not as successful?), report author Rebecca Unterman said, “We feel 105 out of 123 is a large proportion, and think it’s pretty representative.”

The study tracks 21,000 students, most from poor neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx, who entered 9th grade in 2004 and 2005. The difference in academic performance from one cohort to the next was not statistically significant. Students from both cohorts at the small schools of choice were significantly more likely to score 75 points (the City University of New York’s cut-off rate for requiring remedial coursework) or above on the state’s English Regents exam and had higher graduation rates than the control group. The small schools of choice also graduated a higher percentage of kids within four years AND within five years.

Gordon Berlin, the MDRC’s president, said the results were particularly striking given the demographics of the students enrolled at the small schools of choice. “This is reform where we most need it,” he said. “Eighty-three percent of these kids qualify for free and reduced lunch. Ninety-three percent are black or Hispanic. More than 63% enter 9th grade behind grade level.” Berlin noted that though the schools did not fully close the achievement gap between racial groups, “We should not let the perfect become the enemy of very good. These schools are serving a remarkably disadvantaged group of students.”

The MDRC released its first report on small schools in June of 2010, as we reported , and those results were also positive. The main new development is that this year, the addition of the second cohort of students allowed researchers to probe further into different subgroups’ performance and to discover the impact on five-year graduation rates.

The MDRC plans to follow these cohorts into college and career. James Kemple, the executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools (who helped design this study while at MDRC), said his organization is also planning to follow up on the MDRC’s results by looking into the “how” and “why” of the improvement.

Kemple said, “One thing that seems clear, based even on work that MDRC has done, is that it’s not just smallness for smallness’ sake [that boosts student achievement]. How do you take advantage of smallness to create an effective learning environment?”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a statement about the study this morning, calling it “important” and “encouraging” and saying that it upends “conventional wisdom about the impossibility of turning around chronically low-performing high schools,” which he refers to as drop-out factories.

Duncan echoes MDRC’s stance that reformers should build on the small schools’ successes. The statement reads, “For too long, educators have tinkered around the edges in low-performing schools, consigning generations of students of color to receiving an inferior education. It’s time to transform chronically low-performing schools. It’s time to put an end to the tireless tinkering.”

The report was just released last night, so stay tuned for additional reactions.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.