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Small Schools Give Graduation Boost in Big Apple, Study Says

Students in New York City's small high schools are more likely to graduate than other students, and perhaps are also better prepared for college-level reading afterward, according to the latest in an ongoing longitudinal evaluation of the schools.

Since 2002, the city has closed 31 large, struggling public high schools and replaced them with more than 200 new "small schools of choice," designed to be academically nonselective but in many cases centered around community or academic themes. All of the schools that were closed graduated 40 percent or fewer of their students.

Since the new schools first started, researchers Howard S. Bloom and Rebecca Unterman of MDRC, a New York-based research group, tracked more than 12,000 students who did and did not win a lottery-based admission to one of the city's more than 80 small schools in three cohorts from 2004 to 2007.

This latest annual study shows continuing trends of higher graduation rates in the small schools versus other schools. Moreover, more than 40 percent of students in small schools graduated ready for college-level English, compared to only 33.4 percent of their peers who had not gotten into the schools.

"One of the most important things is to show reform at this scale is possible and has happened," Unterman said. "A district can do it."

"Our assessment was the personal relationships and academic rigor were very tightly woven together for people in these small schools and really enabled by their small structures," Unterman said.

The researchers have started to gather more detailed data comparing school climate, safety and instructional practices in the small schools and other schools in New York, to provide more detailed information about differences among the schools.

English-learners and Students with Disabilities

The report also noted that the schools show promise of improving graduation rates for students with disabilities and English-language learners, but the samples of these student groups are too small to show significant differences. The small schools serve a slightly larger proportion of students with disabilities than the district as a whole, 15.4 percent versus 13.9 percent, but only special education students served in regular classrooms were counted in the MDRC study.

By contrast, small schools have a lower proportion of English-language learners, 8.3 percent, versus 11.2 percent in New York City schools as a whole.

Unterman noted that ELLs may be congregating at a few schools that specialize in language programs, but other studies have criticized the small schools, alleging that immigrant students (who are more likely to be ELLs) have been funneled into the remaining large schools even as more small schools opened.

The full study, "Sustained Progress: New Findings About the Effectiveness and Operation of Small Public High Schools of Choice in New York City," will be posted at the MDRC website.

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