Small schools, which went from hot to not when results were disappointing, could be getting warmer. New York City’s small high schools raised graduation rates, according to a MDRC study reported in Education Week. Small-school students were more likely to get on the graduation track by the end of ninth grade, stay on track and earn a diploma in four years, the study found.
The Gates Foundation, which funded the study, spent $1 billion on small schools nationwide before changing course in 2008. Students didn’t seem to be learning more in small schools.
The study looks at 123 “small schools of choice” that primarily enroll disadvantaged students in Brooklyn and the Bronx. All eighth graders choose 12 possible high schools. When too many want the same school, a lottery decides who gets in and who goes elsewhere. The study compared students who got their top-choice school via lottery with a control group of lottery losers who went to large high schools or to lower-ranked small schools.
While the schools incorporated a variety of themes, such as coastal studies, sports management, and media studies, all were required to offer features common to the small-schools movement. Such features include an “advisory” period to provide for closer attention by a teacher to a small group of students, partnerships with the local community, and common planning times for teachers.
After four years of high school, 68.7 percent of small-school students earned a diploma compared with 61.9 percent of the control group. Small-school graduates also were more likely to earn a Regents diploma.
The difference in graduation rates is large by the standards of most education research, but “relatively small for all the attention that has been lavished on these schools,” said David C. Bloomfield, a professor of educational leadership at City University of New York. The small schools all received $400,000 in startup grants plus technical assistance.
The study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program for low-income students found a much larger rise in graduation rates: Lottery winners who used the voucher to attend private school were 21 percent more likely to earn a diploma compared to lottery losers.
Update: Chicago students in non-selective small high schools also had higher graduation rates than similar students in regular high schools, concludes a study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Attendance and grades were slightly better; test scores were the same.
Chicago researchers weren’t enthusiastic, writes Ed Week’s Debra Viadero.
“Our findings show that this initiative did accomplish much, but not all, of what it was intended to do,” they write. “However, being ‘slightly better’ than similar students does not mean that these students are college ready.”
The small-school students averaged less than a C in academic courses.