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Why Has the Education Press Missed the Boat? The Case of Small Schools

With the release of Scott McClellan's tell-all, everyone's been asking whether the press did its due diligence on the Iraq war. Closer to home, last week's Newsweek article provides similar occasion for us to reflect on the press coverage of small schools over the last six years.

Let me first throw in my prejudices about small schools - I like them. I followed the first wave of small schools that opened in the 1990s, and was thrilled when the Gates Foundation put up millions of dollars for the second wave. And I am willing to believe that students will be more attached to school in smaller schools.

All that said, what should we make of the endless parade of glowing stories about how much better small schools are doing than their predecessors? If any of these reporters had perused the basic stats, they would have uncovered that these schools are not serving the same population. (Needless to say, in my excitement about the Gates Foundation's grant back in 2003, I did not anticipate that small schools would have the effect of clearing out the old students, replacing them with higher achieving ones, and pushing the leftover students into increasingly crowded large schools.)

Over the course of the year, I've made tables comparing the new and old populations at three different NYC high schools that have been converted into small schools: Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, Bushwick High School in Brooklyn, and now Morris High School in the Bronx, the subject of the Newsweek article. As stunning as the differences between the old large and new small school populations is the fact that few reporters covering small schools (save Sam Freedman, who sadly wrote his last column this morning) have bothered to ask if these populations were different, and if so, why.

Why has the press missed the boat? I'm not sure. Here are some ideas:

* Math is Hard: Reporters are trained to write and report, not to analyze data. It's unsurprising that they've avoided the city's statistical treasure troves. But that answer is unsatisfying to me - these are all bright people.

* Positive Story Starvation: Jay Mathews offers a different answer in reflecting on reporting about KIPP, "I understand why we education reporters try to make KIPP sound like more than it is. We are starved for good news about low-income schools. KIPP is an encouraging story, so we are tempted to gush rather than report. We don't ask all the questions we should." Maybe this explains some of the puff pieces, but still falls short of a full explanation.

* All City Kids are the Same: Perhaps the problem runs deeper than training and optimism. Too many people assume that because the kids in the old school were black and brown and poor, and those in the new school are as well, they must be the same.

* Everyone Loves Individualization: skoolboy weighs in with this thought: "The small school model is so appealing because it taps into a variety of modern narratives. Small schools are personal, provide more customized (i.e., middle-class) educations, and therefore can compensate for the breakdown of families and other social institutions in central cities. In this view, whoever is served by these schools is better off than they were before, and those who were in the schools before just get ignored."

* Power and Money Talk: Small schools are backed by big foundations. Money buys, and helps to influence, evaluations conducted by firms that are contract dependent. Money also buys PR - and a lot of money buys the best PR money can buy.

Any thoughts?

The table below shows the characteristics of the entering 9th graders at Morris High School before small schools started opening there, and the characteristics of 9th graders at the new small schools: the School for Excellence, the High School for Violin and Dance, Bronx Leadership Academy, Bronx International High School and the Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies. Particularly notable are the lower concentrations of full-time special education students, students qualifying for free lunch, students who were below grade level in reading and math, and English Language Learners (with the exception of Bronx International, which is a school specifically for ELL students). If you click over to the links above, you'll see this was also the case with Evander Childs and Bushwick High School.

Characteristics of Entering 9th Graders, Morris High School and New Small Schools


Scott McClellan does admit, late in his book, that he had no idea what "soft bigotry of low expectations" meant, even though he repeated it endlessly. Too bad, because I actually think that was the money phrase of what is salvageable in NCLB. Sorry, digressing.

I like small schools, too--and I think that most of us who do are thinking "Debbie Meier/Central Park East" rather than "small-size franchise" when we think of school size that permits careful teacher hiring, development of a targeted mission, and paying attention to individual kids.

The small-schools argument mimics the class-size argument. Given two good teachers, smaller classes will permit some more differentiated, targeted, effective instruction. But without two equally good teachers, class size just boils down to workload. Small school size is nice, but insufficient, to guarantee or even predict significant upticks in achievement. And sometimes, re-organizing big schools into small schools-within-schools is a whole lot of trendy organizing for very little outcome.

I think your five points (skoolboy's, especially, from the teacher POV) cover the myth-making and lack of data analysis around the issue very thoroughly. The scary thing is the fact that those who aren't scooped up into small schools further dilute core human capital in the leftover schools. We ought to be very afraid of that.

I seriously love the fact that there's a school called "HS for Violin and Dance."

To quote Peter Parker: "With great power comes great responsibilty". The NYC abdicator of responsibility award should probably go the New York Times. Its coverage of mayoral control of education has been stunningly one-sided. When the Times is not busy rushing to editorialize on miniscule sample size(vide your take on TFA success), publishing Eduwonk's op-eds, giving short-shrift to the opinions of Diane Ravitch and filling their news stories with pronouncements from Joel Klein, it is working very hard indeed to keep Bloomberg alive in the news pages. When did the Times ever print anything on the incompetency of the top DOE reformers in running that place?

Another possibility to think about. eduwonkette has amassed convincing data on small schools in NYC, in part because data on the entering characteristics of kids are available, and she knows how to access the data. The small schools movement isn't limited to NYC. Is there evidence from other cities of the same phenomenon going on? If not --- either due to the lack of available data, or because it isn't happening -- it may be that reporters are particularizing the situation -- the classic NYC exceptionalism. By this logic, we might expect NYC-based reporters such as Sam Freedman to be paying attention, but not national reporters, such as the Newsweek scribe.

Oh Nancy - we have much better names than that. Schools for Hospitality, Sports, Construction...

GP - Yes, the NY Times has some questions to answer - particularly around an op-ed they wrote last year about the schools having higher grad rates that in no way addressed the different underlying populations.

Skoolboy - I think your explanation makes sense. Perhaps we can track down data in other cities - it would be interesting to know if this is happening in NYC alone.

A couple years ago Brookings held a conference that looked at the state of school size and class size research.

BPEP publication link:

This might be of interest to your readers. My takeaway from that conference (and papers) was that public policie prescribing school size and class size present very big trade-offs in terms of financial costs and opportunity costs.

I haven't kept up with the research, but as of 2005, the evidence was mixed (at best) in terms of effects on academic outcomes.

I'm curious: Have their been any articles on the results of having a variety of small schools in one building? Being in a position where I venture into a variety of schools, I have seen that this often produces conflicting school cultures. (In the first school I worked in students from one school-on the top floor- had to go to the nurse (second floor) with two buddies. I thought this was ridiculous until one of my students was jumped in the stairwell because the buddies who had accompanied him were a stairwell above). I can remember articles on the NEST parents protesting the placement of another school in their building but not much else. I would imagine this vantage point would be a reporter's dream. I was in a school today that had a K-8, a 6-8 and a KIPP school (5-8) in one building. I think it is interesting how these schools interact with each other (if at all). I have only been to two schools that have a governing body that requires the schools to sit down and talk to one another and "build a culture together," and both were in Brooklyn and seemed much more progressive.

Paul, Thanks for that link. Your understanding of the current state of research on school size is mine as well - once you address non-random sorting to smaller schools, the academic outcomes don't look as good (see the Schneider et al paper at the Brookings link).

Marnie, I have not seen studies of the effects of these overlapping cultures, but in my experience, it creates tremendous problems, especially when the large school remains and small schools kids are easily identifiable via uniforms. As of a few years ago, the campuses in NYC that were converting to small schools were required to have a building council, though this has worked better in some places than others.

There is a huge difference between the small schools of 20 years ago that were providing a different kind of education, and those that were used to replace the large comprehensive high schools, esp in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

These mass-produced small schools violate the creation of community that the small schools movement was all about.

But they do foster higher teacher turnover. From my, UFT-ish point of view, these schools are organizing disasters. New teachers come in, know nothing of their rights, principals abuse them, U some new folks, teachers run away, and a new crop comes in the next year to start the cycle again.

Any idea what the turnover rates are in most of these places? In the worst of them?

I hear a bunch in the Bronx have turned over 50% of staff, 3 years running...

So, yes, my thought is that the twisted, NYC version of the small schools movement, is essentially aimed at increasing teacher turnover and weakening the union.

I don't think kids enter into their equations at all.


I'm late joining this discussion but I have often wondered about Eli Broad's Green Dot "Public" Schools in Los Angeles. They have stellar graduation rates and test scores. It would be interesting to know if the same thing is happening there. Is there a way to find out?

In response to the report on graduation rates. West Virginia has reported a graduation rate of 84.3% and said it is preparing its students for life beyond high school.

Unfortunately, in my high school, our principal goes around the last two weeks and "encourages" teachers to let students make up delinquent work, some missing from months before. This is how we achieve our AYP for graduation - passing students who did not earn their right to graduate.

I vote for "Power and Money Talk."

Consider the small schools story as part of the overall assault on public education by the Gates/Broad interests who in essence get make basic decisions for the nation's urban schools (Suburbs are exempt.) I reported on my blog the comments from Bed-Stuy's PS 3's Lisa North at how the school (with a decent rep) is being undermined as their top performing students are siphoned off to charter schools. Even so-called "failing" schools often have between 25-35% of their students who do fairly well. These are the ones being drawn away because parents know they will find a more homogeneous setting without the problem kids in a charter school.

What jumped out to me in the Newsweek article was the author's citation as one piece of evidence of MACS' success the fact that "attendance hovers around 80 percent." While that might be higher than the old Morris, it's still several points below the average daily attendance in NYC's high schools. This isn't a "math is hard" issue -- it's more like "fact checking's lame." A reporter who fails even to doublecheck the stats the school provides can't be expected to grapple with the reality that at least here in New York, small schools are educating a different set of students from the large high schools they replaced.

My favorite example of the press getting it wrong was last spring when the Times reported that the new small schools at Brooklyn's huge Erasmus Hall had a 92% graduation rate, compared to the old rate of 50 or 60%. I knew these numbers had to be phony, so I did a quick check and learned that only one of the 5 new schools had graduated its first class - about 100 kids. That school happened to be the one early-college school in the building.

In April of last year I wrote a column on education reporters in edbizbuzz.

"The reason reporters don't understand education research is not so much because education reporters don't take the time to understand - although they don't. It is because education research has not been important to education reporting - in the sense that covering it well has not been important to the sale of newspapers or the field's trade publications."

See more here:

I found the line about the 'starvation' of positive news stories about low income schools to be really telling. There are many, many positive things happening in such schools, but they do not have public relations people or enough media savvy to get the message out.
I think that all public school leaders should be better schooled in p.r. and the importance of community outreach.
I know that they are often overwhelmed, but unless they do so, the public will never see the positive things that they are doing.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • avoiceinthewilderness: I found the line about the 'starvation' of positive news read more
  • Marc Dean Millot: In April of last year I wrote a column on read more
  • Mike: My favorite example of the press getting it wrong was read more
  • Philissa: What jumped out to me in the Newsweek article was read more
  • Norm: I vote for "Power and Money Talk." Consider the small read more




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