New Research Suggests Small High Schools May Help After All

October 17, 2014

Findings from a new long-term study of small high schools in New York City show the approach may not only boost a student’s chances of enrolling in college, but it may also cost less per graduate.

The city began an intensive push to create smaller learning communities in its high schools in 2002. That year, the city’s education department rolled out a district-wide lottery system for high school admission.

The study, by the research group MDRC, compares the academic outcomes of students in the small schools with a control group who sought admission, lost a lottery, and enrolled in other New York City high schools.

At the same time, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg started creating hundreds of high schools enrolling about 100 students per grade — enrollments much smaller than the comprehensive high schools that had been the norm for decades.

These small schools shared some key characteristics: academic rigor, personalized relationships with teachers and real-world relevance to the classroom lessons. Another key: outside funding, including from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Open Society Foundations. (Those three philanthropies are also supporters of NPR.)

The percentage of students who graduated from these high schools in four years and enrolled the next year in a post-secondary institution was 8.4 percentage points higher than the control group, 49 percent, the MDRC study finds. In particular, the researchers found that the schools boosted college enrollment for black males by 11.3 percentage points, a 36 percent increase relative to their control group counterparts.

The small high schools included in the multi-year study also cost less per graduate. Costs were roughly 14 percent to 16 percent lower, the study said, largely because students graduated in four years rather than staying for a fifth year of high school.

“What is truly remarkable about these results is that a high school reform has had a measurable effect on college-going and it has done so at scale – across scores of public high schools,” said Gordon Berlin, the president of MDRC.

MDRC’s study was funded by the Gates Foundation, which invested heavily in supporting small high schools across the nation, beginning in 2000. However, nine years later the foundation backed away from the initiative in New York and elsewhere, saying it “fell short” of expectations.

While critics have labeled the Gates effort a failure, other researchers have been monitoring small schools for decades, and have found generally positive impacts.

A review of studies published between 1990 and 2009 found “the weight of evidence … clearly favors smaller schools.” An MIT study of New York City public small high schools also found positive effects: higher graduation rates, better test scores and an increase in college enrollment.

This could be a clash between expectations and reality. Or is it merely that school size, all by itself, is not the decisive factor in student success?

New York City’s small schools efforts, “are about much more than just the size of the schools,” says John Hutchins of MDRC.

“But the findings are really robust — and demonstrate the effects of a public school reform delivered at scale (in scores of high schools) for a mostly disadvantaged population.”

Patricia Willens is the education editor at WNYC News in New York.

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