October 25, 2016
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Small Schools In Big Apple Spell Success For Minorities

NEW YORK -- MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research firm in New York City, have released a new report showing that small high schools in New York City increase students' likelihood of earning credits, progressing through school, and graduating in four years with Regents diplomas. This unprecedented study provides convincing evidence that systematically replacing very big failing high schools with a large number of small public high schools can narrow the educational attainment gap and markedly improve graduation prospects, particularly for disadvantaged students.  

Since 2002, the New York City Department of Education, under the leadership of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and ChancellorJoel I. Klein, has closed more than 20 underperforming public high schools, opened more than 200 new secondary schools, and introduced a centralized high school admissions process in which approximately 80,000 students a year indicate their school preferences from a wide-ranging choice of programs. At the heart of these reforms lie 123 new "small schools of choice" (SSCs) -- small, academically nonselective public high schools for students in grades 9 through 12 that are the focus of this study. Open to students at all levels of academic achievement and located in historically disadvantaged communities, SSCs were designed to provide high-quality educational choices in the place of the failing neighborhood schools that were closing. At capacity, these schools -- which serve more African-American, Hispanic, and poor students than the average New York City high school -- will reach more than 50,000 students.

"When the nation's attention is focused squarely on turning around failing urban high schools, this study provides the first reliable evidence that transformation at scale within a large, urban public school system is possible," said Gordon Berlin, MDRC President. "Serving low-income students of color, two-thirds of whom were far behind grade level as entering ninth-graders, these small schools of choice are having important effects on student engagement, grade-to-grade progression, and graduation rates, nearly all of which was driven by an increase in Regents diplomas, and with scores that demonstrate evidence of college readiness -- something we haven't seen elsewhere. These results underscore the historic nature of the small schools work undertaken in New York City and its implications for reforming failing high schools in other communities."

The study's key findings are:

  • By the end of their first year of high school, 58.5 percent of SSC enrollees were on track to graduate in four years (as measured by credit accumulation and passed courses) compared with 48.5 percent of their counterparts in other schools, for a difference of 10 percentage points. These positive effects on students' graduation prospects were sustained over the next two years.
  • By the fourth year of high school, SSCs increased overall graduation rates by 6.8 percentage points (68.7 percent vs. 61.9 percent), which is roughly one-third the size of the gap in graduation rates between white students and students of color in New York City. Most of the effect on graduation was driven by an increase in New York State Regents diplomas.
  • SSCs' positive effects are seen for a broad range of students, including male high school students of color and students with lower academic proficiency, whose educational prospects have been historically difficult to improve.

What Are Small Schools of Choice?

Small schools of choice (SSCs) -- a term coined by the researchers to emphasize the fact that these nonselective schools are chosen by students of all academic levels -- are more than just small. They were developed and approved through a demanding and competitive proposal process administered by the New York City Department of Education and designed to stimulate innovative ideas for new schools by a range of stakeholders and institutions, from educators to school reform intermediary organizations, including New Visions for Public Schools, the Urban Assembly, Institute for Student Achievement, the College Board, and others. The resulting schools emphasize academic rigor; strong, sustained relationships between students and faculty; and community partnerships to offer relevant learning opportunities outside the classroom. Each SSC also received start-up funding as well as assistance and policy support from the district and other key players to facilitate leadership development, hiring, and implementation. These reform efforts were supported by a consortium of funders, led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Open Society Institute, and were implemented in partnership with the United Federation of Teachers and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators.

How Was the Study Conducted?

The study takes advantage of lottery-like features in New York City's high school admissions process. Each year, NYC eighth-graders are required to select in rank order of priority up to 12 high schools that they want to attend; when an SSC has more applicants than spaces, the district uses a randomized process to break ties and assign students to the SSC or to another school in the district from each student's list of preferences. These lotteries were found in 105 of the 123 SSCs and provide the basis for an unusually large and rigorous study of the effects of enrolling in SSCs on students' academic achievement; the study tracks more than 20,000 students in SSCs and other high schools in New York City. The study does not compare the SSCs to the large, failing high schools they replaced but, rather, to the other public high schools operating in the reform-rich atmosphere in New York City.

MDRC's report was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as part of a suite of studies conducted by MDRC, Policy Studies Associates, and the Academy for Educational Development.

MDRC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization with more than 35 years of experience designing and evaluating education and social policy initiatives: www.mdrc.org.



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