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Education Funding Commentary

Come Clean on Small Schools

By David C. Bloomfield — January 24, 2006 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 6 min read

Corrected: This story misidentified the group that evaluated the first two years of the New Century High Schools initiative in New York City. It was Policy Studies Associates Inc.

—Patti Raine


Big foundations’ history of imposing big ideas on American urban public education is littered with failure. In the 1960s, the Ford Foundation bankrolled community control in New York City. Thirty-five years of mediocrity followed, and in reaction, that system has been replaced by the strongest model of mayoral control in the nation. In the 1990s, the Annenberg Challenge poured hundreds of millions of dollars into education reform without noticeable systemwide impact on student performance. Today, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is leading the charge to reform high schools by reorganizing them into small learning communities. The results in those schools are mixed at best, and fail to tell the story of whole systems—hundreds of thousands of students—disrupted by this ill-planned venture.

But perhaps the most troubling aspects of the Gates program are its failure to engage in any semblance of public accountability, its history of secret evaluations, and its disowning of responsibility for the harm it has caused.

I assume that the Gates work is well-intentioned. But the research underpinnings, while promising, are weak, hardly justifying the billions heaped upon school districts to scale up the design. Like Tribbles, those cuddly “Star Trek” creatures that created havoc when they multiplied, small schools are wildly attractive. To the lay mind, they appear more manageable and less threatening than the stereotypical “blackboard jungle.” Some have achieved astounding results. Well-regarded educators like Deborah Meier have demonstrated their potential impact on closing the achievement gap. They increase options for school choice.

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But without adequate quality controls, these schools can be just as mediocre as the average large school, and can cause severe disruption to students in other schools. In a study by Policy Research Associates, funded by the Gates Foundation, New York City public schools in the first two years of the New Century High Schools initiative were generally found to be cherry-picking students and teachers, to have failed to innovate instructionally, to lack promised community partnerships, to have declining levels of discipline, and to show no improvement in student achievement. The New York Times divulged these secret findings after the report was bottled up by a not-for-profit group that acts as a conduit for the Gates funds. The reason, the Times reported, was that officials responsible for the initiative “questioned some of the findings” and wanted to “interview” partners and principals about their responses to researchers’ questions.

Before scaling up untested models, philanthropists are at least morally obligated to conduct research into the impact their programs will have on students outside the reform bubble.

Even this limited study failed to investigate the systemic impact of scaling up small schools. In researching this topic, I have found that reducing enrollment and establishing small schools in a dozen or more buildings deleteriously impacts tens of thousands of the system’s students. When a large, failing high school is restructured and total building enrollment is reduced, the “extra” students, sometimes numbering over 1,000, are left to transfer to other large schools of 3,000 or more. This adds to already severe overcrowding in the receiving schools.

When Prospect Heights High School in Brooklyn was restructured, enrollment plunged from 1,748 in 2001-02, to 791 in 2003-04. Similar stories occurred at the restructured Roosevelt and Taft high schools in the Bronx, Bushwick and Erasmus Hall high schools in Brooklyn, and George Washington and Seward Park high schools in Manhattan. Enrollment at Samuel J. Tilden in Brooklyn then increased by 22 percent; Norman Thomas in Manhattan was up by 26 percent; and DeWitt Clinton in the Bronx saw a 21 percent jump, all while citywide high school enrollment growth was slight.

Gross enrollment data do not tell the whole story. Who gets displaced? According to New York public radio’s Beth Fertig, fall 2004 enrollment data for 278 academic high schools (excluding academically competitive schools) show that “special education and English-language learners are, in fact, overrepresented in the city’s most violent and failing schools. At the same time, special education kids are missing out on one of the city’s leading education reforms—the creation of new small schools.” The data indicate that special education students are only half as likely as other students to attend small high schools. At comprehensive Lehman High School, though, students with individualized education programs increased by 50 percent between 2003 and 2004 because of the system’s failure to include these students proportionately in the new schools.

Safety in large schools also suffers when students are displaced and not admitted to small schools. According to data supplied by the city teachers’ union, Walton High School in the Bronx increased its enrollment by 439 last year because of nearby school reorganizations, and the number of violent incidents on campus increased by 125 percent over the previous year. At Midwood, a well-regarded high school in Brooklyn, enrollment increased by 260, and reported incidents increased 123 percent. Manhattan’s prestigious A. Philip Randolph High School witnessed a tripling of suspensions this school year, 117 through January, as new students from restructured high schools streamed into the building, leading to severe overcrowding.

None of these statistics finds its way into the small-schools literature generated by funders. To the degree that mistakes are admitted, there is a strangely dispassionate tone, as if the children harmed are little more than lab mice. Education Week reports that as a result of negative research findings, Tom Vander Ark, who heads the Gates schools initiative, says the foundation is now “shifting its grantmaking approach.” Moving on.

It is time that the foundations take greater responsibility for their work than tweaking the program design. Privatizing research is simply unacceptable. Freedom-of-information laws do not reach privately funded evaluations undertaken on behalf of a not-for-profit organization, even when the investigation is about public schools and public school students. But foundations have an obligation to publicize these research findings, good or ill, and enter into public debate about their consequences.

Big foundations’ history of imposing big ideas on American urban public education is littered with failure.

Similarly, before scaling up untested models, philanthropists are at least morally obligated to conduct research into the impact their programs will have on students outside the reform bubble. Practicing educational triage by offloading difficult-to-teach students to large high schools is unethical. The students affected do not have the luxury of walking away from failed social experiments.

Small schools show promise as one educational solution within a pluralistic system of scholastic offerings. But adherents of small learning communities, especially funders, need to come clean about their pros and cons. No one objects to grantmaking based on traditional models of proposal submission and acceptance. But when foundations enter into wholesale public-policy promotion using billions to lure tax-starved districts into scaling up untested models, they have a special obligation to act democratically. At this point in the small-schools movement, promoters have fallen short in this civic responsibility.

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as Come Clean On Small Schools


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