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Reading Between the Lines About Small Schools

(Second of a three-part series this week on innovative schools.)


Press releases are known for accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative in order to mold public opinion. So it came as no surprise when I received news marked for immediate release on Oct. 15 from the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Datelined Washington D.C., the Alliance reported on an MDRC study titled "Transforming the High School Experience: How New York City's New Small Schools Are Boosting Student Achievement and Graduation Rates." MDRC is a nonpartisan research group dedicated to improving programs that affect the poor. The study looked at 21,000 students, nearly half of whom attended small schools and the rest attended larger and older schools.

Despite the title of the study, the release focused almost exclusively on data about graduation rates. There was nothing about standardized test scores. Specifically, "graduation rates among students at the new small schools were 6.8 percentage points higher than those among similar students in other NYC schools ... ." The release went on to quote Gordon Berlin, president of MDRC, who claimed that there were implications for reforming failing high schools in other communities.

Let's hope so, but the glaring omission of data about test scores doesn't bode well for that goal. For example, in the last of a two-part series on July 1, the Philadelphia Inquirer addressed the issue of small schools ("Small schools still in flux"). It found that the results have been mixed. While students at small high schools were more likely to graduate, have positive relationships with their teachers, and feel safer, they performed no better on standardized tests than their peers at big schools.

This latter finding is crucial because reformers demand evidence of improvement on test scores as the single most important indicator of better schools. We can argue all day long about the flaws in this narrow approach to evaluation, but it cannot be ignored. Even The New York Times failed to note the lack of evidence regarding test scores in an editorial on June 30 ("Small Schools").

What is also overlooked is that innovators unwittingly set themselves up for criticism. In "Does School Choice 'Work'"? (National Affairs, Fall 2010), Frederick Hess writes that there has been "a tendency to vastly overpromise." Although he was referring specifically to school choice, by extension his assessment also applies to small schools. When the results fall short, as they invariably do, those affected very often feel betrayed.

Certainly, the improvement in the graduation rate in small schools is worthy of praise, as are other factors. But unfortunately taxpayers have been led to believe that they are getting their money's worth only if test scores show a similar jump. By sidestepping the question, innovators undermine their credibility. Full disclosure of all data is the best way to win the support of the public.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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