Study of Small High Schools Yields Little on Achievement

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High schools receiving $80 million in annual federal funding to support “smaller learning communities” can document that they are taking steps to establish learning environments more intimate than found in the typical comprehensive high school.

But, according to a federal study, such smaller schools can’t answer the most significant question: Is student achievement improving in the smaller settings?

The evaluation of the 8-year-old program found that schools participating in it show signs of success. In the schools, the proportion of students being promoted from 9th to 10th grade increases, participation in extracurricular activities rises, and the rate of violent incidents declines.

But the evaluation found “no significant trends” in achievement on state tests or college-entrance exams, says the report, which was prepared by a private contractor and released by the U.S. Department of Education last week.

The report does, however, say that the percentage of students planning to attend college increased in schools receiving federal money under the program.

Even if the study reported increased student achievement, it would not have been able to identify the schools’ reform as the reason, said the expert, Valerie E. Lee, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor.

Dividing high schools into separate, smaller learning communities “creates stratification in the school,” said Ms. Lee, who led a separate in-depth study of five high schools that subdivided into schools-within-schools. ("Schools-Within-Schools Model Seen Yielding Trade-Offs," Sept. 19, 2007.)

Two Strategies

The concept of breaking up large schools is “increasing inequity in our schools,” said Ms. Lee, who said she was critical of the federal study’s design when she participated in a group advising the researchers on the project.

The Smaller Learning Communities grant program, which began in 1999, near the end of the Clinton administration, started with $45 million in competitive grants to help high schools establish “schools-within-schools.” In the fiscal 2001 appropriations bill for the Education Department, the final one signed by President Clinton, money for the program more than tripled, to $145 million.

But the Bush administration has never embraced the program. In his fiscal 2009 budget proposal, President Bush recommends terminating it.

In the current fiscal year, around 40 school districts are receiving $80.1 million from the program. Most of the aid is for projects that are part of five-year federal grant commitments.

See Also
For background, previous stories, and Web links, read High School Reform.

The idea of smaller schools as a spur to improved student learning has received significant backing from educators and funders over the past decade. Since 1999, the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $1 billion in small-schools grants, both to help create stand-alone small high schools and break up large high schools into smaller units.

Under the federal program, most grant recipients chose one of two popular options for making a small learning community, according to the report. They either created a separate school community for freshmen or set up several different academies focused on skills and knowledge needed to succeed in specific careers.

The schools also applied popular strategies for organizing themselves, says the study, which was conducted by Abt Associates Inc., a Bethesda, Md., firm that specializes in evaluating federal programs. Several schools adopted a block schedule, giving teachers longer classroom periods over the course of fewer days. Others assigned students to teams of teachers working across different subjects to coordinate lessons and develop long-term ties.

Small-School Problems

Each of those strategies may help student achievement, said Ms. Lee. But some of them work to increase inequities in the schools, she added.

In the 2007 study of five high schools, Ms. Lee and Douglas D. Ready found that when schools subdivided into career academies, high-income students tended to enroll in one particular academy, either because it was perceived to offer the best education or because it was the most popular option.

In such cases, one particular academy’s student achievement would be higher than that of the larger school it replaced. But student achievement across all the new subunits would most likely be the same as in the previous school, Ms. Lee said.

Vol. 27, Issue 38, Page 10

Published in Print: May 21, 2008, as Study of Small High Schools Yields Little on Achievement
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