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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Small Schools, Big Difference

By Michele Cahill & Robert L. Hughes — September 27, 2010 7 min read
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A recent study by the policy-research group MDRC brings encouraging news for those seeking to produce rapid progress at scale in high school reform.

In June, the group published an analysis of New York City’s small-high-schools initiative, which has been led by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel I. Klein. The initiative closed long-failing large high schools, typically graduating only one in three students, and replaced them with hundreds of new academically themed small high schools educating no more than 450 students.

MDRC found that students in these new small schools, which have no achievement screens, performed better and had higher graduation rates than did their peers in other schools across New York City. Small schools boosted the performance for all students, particularly students of color and underprepared students, immediately and consistently.

While enrolled, students in the new small schools performed better—had better attendance, greater credit accumulation, and higher passing rates on the state Regents exams—than students in other schools. By the fourth year of high school, the new small schools increased overall graduation rates by 6.8 percentage points—68.7 percent vs. 61.9 percent in other schools—which is roughly one-third the size of the gap in graduation rates between white students and students of color in New York City. More importantly, given the need to prepare students for college and meaningful jobs, small schools improved the chance that all students, regardless of class, gender, or minority status, would earn more-rigorous Regents diplomas.

New York City's is the only high school strategy out there that has produced significant graduation-rate gains at scale. But it doesn't need to work just in New York.

These results are significant because of the unusual rigor of the study, the large numbers of students involved, the students’ high poverty rates and academic challenges, and the extent of the improvement small schools conferred upon the students. Because New York City students gain admission to nonselective high schools through lotteries, MDRC was able to track students by random assignment—the gold standard in education research. Analyzing a sample of 21,000 students, the study held student demographic differences constant across schools so the impact of the small schools themselves on student achievement could be evaluated.

How is New York City’s achievement relevant to the national school reform debate? One study, no matter the level of rigor, needs replication for wide-scale adoption, and MDRC will continue to analyze data about the academic progress and outcomes of the remaining students in the study who are still in school.

But as two people who helped lead the initiative and who worked with hundreds of others on this high school reform, we believe the results reported by MDRC offer both hope and lessons for the many efforts taking place across the nation to turn around the lowest-performing high schools, dramatically reduce school dropout rates, and increase graduation and college readiness. What made New York City’s effort different from many other small-schools projects nationwide that have had mixed results? Here are our first principles:

&bull Be bold. From its inception, the small-schools effort was designed to improve the student experience at scale rather than create a single school model. We conceptualized a strategy that would reverse the situation for the lowest-performing 10 percent of high schools. We worked to mobilize hundreds of students, parents, teachers, community groups, and district and labor leaders to understand and own the failure of these schools and commit to action.

&bull Innovate using research-based principles of school design. The New York City Department of Education, along with New Visions for Public Schools and the local teachers’ and principals’ unions, supported a rigorous planning and approval process. Proposals for new schools needed to demonstrate the capacity to put in place many of the elements of successful change: strong and capable school leadership, high-quality teaching across disciplines, accountability for all students, an academically strong curriculum leading to a Regents diploma, parent and community engagement, and student voice. Only teams that met these criteria were approved by the department to open their schools’ doors—and significant numbers of groups did not meet these standards.

&bull Redefine community schools. As part of this process, community groups and service providers, many of which had formerly worked to improve the failing neighborhood schools, found new ways to contribute to student experience. Partnerships in every school focused on integrating youth-development services, high-quality curricula, and instruction and community resources into an extended school day. Partnerships stimulated and offered opportunities for increasing social capital in communities—the talent, caring relationships, opportunities for student involvement, and use of expanded learning environments too often marginal or established outside the school structure.

&bull Define success in terms of student outcomes. New York City developed new schools as “proof points” of what the system could achieve for the same kinds of students in the lowest-performing of its high schools. Rather than set a goal of mere improvement over the abject failure of the schools they replaced (26 percent to 45 percent graduation), the city set a goal of 80 percent graduation and 92 percent attendance. The idea was to spur accelerated change with very high expectations. We invited parents, community leaders, and elected officials from the affected neighborhoods to visit the first set of new schools and see evidence of promise.

&bull Change the district. New York City’s systemic Children First reform was critical to the success of these schools by targeting for improvement school leadership and teacher recruitment, and by deploying resources to high-poverty schools, student admissions, accountability, data management, and school-based budgeting. The department of education initiated cross-functional planning, with timetables for delivering on promises and plans and the use of data for planning, instructional improvement, and accountability. Similarly, union leadership joined senior staff in meeting with teacher groups from all the affected schools, helping implement the radical changes needed to overcome what had been intractable school failure. This process enabled the schools to attract good and committed teachers with high expectations for the students and match their expertise and interest with the mission and theme of a new school. We were also able to attract strong and capable principals. New York made use of resources such as the New Teacher Project, Teach For America, and the city’s own Teaching Fellows program to bring in new talent.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the reform is that these strategies worked in concert with one another, not in isolation. The impact of this comprehensive approach is clear. According to MDRC, when the small schools that students in the study attended reach their full capacity—they typically start with one grade and add another each year—they will educate 40,000 students. As the report’s authors write, “Imagine, for a school district the size of Houston, increasing the percentage of 9th graders who are eligible for on-time promotion by 10.8 percentage points, the percentage of black males in 9th grade who are on track to graduate by 8.5, or the percentage of high school graduates by 6.8 percentage points.”

That is the point. All the elements of New York City’s small-schools strategy can be replicated in other districts by strong leaders and smart practitioners of secondary reform. Every city in the country faces similar challenges in its high schools. Indeed, that premise informs the high priority given school turnaround by the Obama administration in its Race to the Top initiative. New York City’s record couldn’t be more germane to discussions across the states about how to implement the administration’s models for reforming the lowest-performing schools: New York’s is the only high school strategy out there that has produced significant graduation-rate gains at scale. But it doesn’t need to work just in New York.

In the same vein, as Congress works to hammer out a consensus around school turnaround language in a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, lawmakers need to be reminded of the success of small schools in improving the performance of disadvantaged children and work to reimagine what innovative agreement among states, districts, unions, and advocates could do to rapidly accelerate the change.

As a nation, we are late to enact meaningful high school reform; we lose students every day. The challenges remain difficult, but not insuperable. New York City has done it. There’s no reason it can’t happen with disadvantaged students in cities and states across the country.

A version of this article appeared in the September 29, 2010 edition of Education Week as Small Schools, Big Difference

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