Small school students show gains

New York City’s small public high schools are producing gains for disadvantaged students, according to a new MDRC study, Sustained Progress.

Students who win the admissions lottery to these schools are significantly more likely to earn a high school diploma (70.4 percent) than applicants who lost the lottery (60.9 percent) than lottery losers. Small schools  increased the graduation rates of special-education students by 13.8 percentage points and of English Language Learners by 4.9 percentage points, MDRC suggests, though the sample size is small.

‘Converted’ school fires activist teachers

Half the teachers at Crenshaw High in Los Angeles were fired this month as part of the latest plan to turn around the low-performing school, writes Dana Goldstein. The “conversion” got rid of Alex Caputo-Pearl, an activist teacher and reform leader. One of the first Teach for America recruits in 1990, Caputo-Pearl taught in high-poverty Los Angeles schools for more than two decades. He helped design the Extended Learning Cultural Model, which drew federal and philanthropic dollars to the troubled high school. He led Crenshaw’s Social Justice and Law Academy, a small school within the school with high expectations.

For their final project, (10th graders) had to analyze a data set that included test scores at various schools; neighborhood income levels; school truancy rates; and incarceration rates.

In math, students graphed the relationship between income and social opportunity in various south L.A. neighborhoods. In social studies, they read conservative and liberal proposals for school reform and practiced citing data in their own written arguments about how to improve education. In science, students designed experiments that could test policy hypotheses about how to improve education. And in English class, they read Our America, a work of narrative non-fiction about life in the Ida B. Wells housing projects on the South Side of Chicago.

Some Crenshaw students were placed in paid community-service internships. Others worked with local colleges to conduct research in their neighborhoods.

With 30 different administrators in seven years, Crenshaw relied on teachers to lead the reform effort. Test scores began to grow, especially for African-American and disabled students, Goldstein writes. But the district has rejected teacher-led reforms at Crenshaw.

Superintendent John Deasy announced in November that Crenshaw would be reconstituted with three new magnet programs on the arts, entrepreneurship, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). There will be more Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate offerings and no Social Justice and Law Academy.

Teacher had to reapply for their jobs. Cathy Garcia, the teachers’ union chair, charges the district targeted reform leaders, Social Justice teachers and experienced black teachers who live in the neighborhood. She lost her job too.

Cities are breaking up large comprehensive high schools across the country, Goldstein writes. In New York City, the small specialty schools are superior to the big high schools, according to research from the New School. But who gets to go?

. . . students whose schools close may not end up enrolled in those better schools; instead, a significant number of them will be enrolled by default in the nearest large high school that is still open, which itself has extremely low test scores. That school, in turn, will eventually be shut down, creating what the New School researchers call a “domino effect,” in which the most disadvantaged teenagers are shuttled from failing school to failing school, while those with more active, involved parents win spots at new schools.

. . . only 6 percent of students whose schools are shut down end up enrolled in a school within the top achievement quartile, and 40 percent of students from closed schools ended up at schools on academic probation.

Smaller, themed schools seem to be better for kids, Goldstein writes. But the transition may leave behind the students who need help the most.

At Crenshaw, a “politically and intellectually challenging” themed school-within-a-school reform was dumped and its leaders dispersed. That’s “discouraging,” Goldstein writes. It certainly doesn’t encourage the remaining teachers to become leaders.

Graduation rates are up, but is it real?

High school graduation rates are up, but why? Tonight, PBS NewsHour looks at charges schools are increasing numbers artificially by “labeling dropouts as transfers, encouraging home schooling for their most troubled students, or creating alternative systems such as computer-based ‘credit recovery’ courses.”

The show also examines small theme-based schools in New York City and early college programs in Texas that seem to be getting more students to a valid high school diploma.

Small-school students do better in NYC

Students at New York City’s small high schools earn higher test scores and are more likely to graduate in four years, according to a MDRC study.  The analysis compared students who won a lottery for admission to a small high school with others who applied but lost the lottery.

The latest findings show that 67.9 percent of the students who entered small high schools in 2005 and 2006 graduated four years later, compared with 59.3 percent of the students who were not admitted and instead went to larger schools.

. . . This increase was almost entirely accounted for by a rise in Regents diplomas, which are considered more rigorous than a local diploma; 41.5 percent of the students at small schools received one, compared with 34.9 percent of students at other schools.

Small-school students earned higher scores on the English Regents exam, but there was no difference on the math Regents.

Here’s a link to the policy brief pdf).

Gates: Was the $5 billion worth it?

After spending $5 billion on education grants and scholarships, Bill Gates tells the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley,  “It’s been about a decade of learning.”

The Microsoft co-founder’s foundation is worth $34 billion, more than the next three largest foundations (Ford, Getty and Robert Wood Johnson) combined.

Small schools, an early Gates Foundation initiative, didn’t improve achievement. I was impressed by the foundation’s willingness to admit that.

Small schools improved students’ attendance and behavior, but “didn’t move the needle much” on college attendance, which is a foundation priority, Bill Gates told Riley.  “We didn’t see a path to having a big impact, so we did a mea culpa on that.”

The foundation decided to focus on curriculum — Gates strongly backs a core curriculum — and teacher quality — the foundation is researching what makes good teachers effective.

Many worry that a multi-billionaire has too much power, even if his intentions are noble. (And not everyone thinks they are.) And Gates tells Riley he’s trying to use his money to influence how public money is spent.

 Instead of trying to buy systemic reform with school-level investments, a new goal is to leverage private money in a way that redirects how public education dollars are spent.

However, the foundation’s approach is scientific, not political, Gates say.

“I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.” Compared with R&D spending in the pharmaceutical or information-technology sectors, he says, next to nothing is spent on education research. “That’s partly because of the problem of who would do it. Who thinks of it as their business? The 50 states don’t think of it that way, and schools of education are not about research. So we come into this thinking that we should fund the research.”

Gates supports charters — he’s a KIPP fan — but not school vouchers.

. . .  the politics, he says, are just too tough right now. “We haven’t chosen to get behind [vouchers] in a big way, as we have with personnel systems or charters, because the negativity about them is very, very high.”

Gates’ approach is doomed to fail, responds Jay Greene. While trying to influence education policy is sensible, “education does not lend itself to a single ‘best’ approach.” The foundation invokes science “to advance practices and policies they prefer for which they have no scientific support,” Greene charges.

Attempting to impose particular practices on the nation’s education system is generating more political resistance than even the Gates Foundation can overcome, despite their focus on political influence and their devotion of significant resources to that effort.

Greene’s part 2 on the Gates Foundation is here.

In a new mini-book, Greene advocates school choice as the way to create incentives for school improvement.  Here’s his interview with Jason Riley.

Community College Spotlight, which I write for the Hechinger Institute, is funded, in part, by Gates money. Gates is funding almost every innovative idea involving community colleges, notably research on how to improve remediation and boost graduation rates. I think it’s money well spent, though the research isn’t likely to find a silver bullet.

California spends $400,000 for 2-kid school

California spends up to $200,000 per student annually to support tiny schools in remote parts of the state, according to a Legislative Analyst’s report. Some schools in the High Sierra, the Imperial Valley and along the coast have single-digit enrollments, notes California Watch.

Peculiarly, the state education code, which runs thousands of pages long, does not prescribe the minimum number of students a school needs to receive state support.

That is why Mountain High School in Pinecrest in the Summerville Union High School District in Tuolumne County – with a total enrollment of two – gets a “necessary small school supplement”  of $194,000 per student. So does South Fork High School in the same district. Cold Springs High, another district school in the hamlet of Long Barn in Stanislaus National Forest, has an enrollment of three. In addition to the supplemental funds, the state last year paid about $6,000 in base funding per student (generally referred to as “revenue limit” funding).

The state paid an extra $39 million last year to districts with very small schools. The report suggests setting a minimum school size of perhaps 20 students.

If it takes too long for students in remote locations to get to school, they could attend via video or enroll in a virtual school for less than $200,000 a year. For that matter, the state could pay for a personal tutor and have money left over.

The small schools myth

Did Bill Gates waste $1 billion because he didn’t understand standard deviation? Marginal Revolution links to Howard Wainer’s  Picturing the Uncertain World, which argues that small schools look better than they really are.

The problem is that because small school don’t have a lot of students, scores are much more variable.  If for random reasons a few geniuses happen to enroll one year in a small school scores jump up and if a few extra dullards enroll the next year scores fall.

Thus, for purely random reasons we would expect small schools to be among the best performing schools in any givenyear.  Of course we would also expect small schools to be among the worst performing schools in any given year!  And in fact, once we look at all the data this is exactly what we see.

. . . States like North Carolina which reward schools for big performance gains without correcting for size end up rewarding small schools for random reasons.  Worst yet, the focus on small schools may actually be counter-productive because large schools do have important advantages such as being able to offer more advanced classes and better facilities.

The Gates Foundation noticed that breaking large schools into smaller schools didn’t produce the hoped-for results and switched its focus to improving teaching.  Yet many people think small schools (with good teachers and well-designed curricula) can reach students who’d drift in a big, impersonal high school.

Students stay at new Locke High

Two years after turning LA’s low-performing Locke High School into a charter school, Green Dot Public Schools reports a dramatic improvement in the retention rate.  The new Locke is retaining 93 percent of students, compared to 69 to 84 percent retention rates when the district ran the high school. That means 800 additional students have stayed at the new Locke instead of dropping out or transferring.

Green Dot’s first freshman class has now completed two years, and the trajectory is looking much better, with 73 percent still enrolled. This compares to 43 to 44 percent of a cohort retained after two years under LAUSD.

A majority of Locke’s tenured teachers signed a petition to turn Locke into a Green Dot school in 2008-09. Green Dot broke the huge school into seven small schools, hired new teachers and principals, cleaned up the campus and created an alternative education program. The school serves the same attendance area as before.

My retention rate link isn’t working for some readers.  It should be up on Green Dot‘s site in the news section soon.

Students do better in NY small schools

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.

Searching for equity in all the wrong places

In response to the story about Berkeley High cutting extra science labs in the name of equity, Linda Seebach points out that the high school houses six component schools that let students “make different academic choices.”

Overall, more than 3,300 students are enrolled, ranging from the children of Berkeley faculty to low-income, minority students.

Enrollment this school year is 14 percent Latino, 26 percent African-American, 34 percent white, 16 percent in a category the district calls multi-ethnic, and approximately 8 percent in a variety of Asian groups.

A majority of students — and most whites — enroll in the academic program; the international school also is popular with whites. By contrast, “the Community Partnerships Academy, has 51 percent African-Americans and only 7 percent whites. Another, the School for Social Justice and Ecology, is 44 percent African-American and 20 percent white.”

These choices play out in the science classes as well. The AP science classes are only 10 percent African-American and 53 percent white, while the science classes without additional lab time almost exactly reverse the proportions, with 51 percent African-American and 9 percent white.

The small schools are separate and unequal in academic preparation. I wonder if the Social Justice and Community students understand that.