New Study Gives Small Schools Initiative a Thumbs Up

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11:59 p.m. | Updated With reaction.

The small schools initiative that has been the hallmark of the Bloomberg administration's schools policy seems to be working, a new study has found.

Winnie Hu reports in The New York Times on Thursday that the study found that students who attend public high schools that have about 100 students in each grade were more likely to graduate.

The continuing study is described as "one of the largest and most comprehensive reviews of the impact of small schools on learning." Its $3.5 million cost is covered by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the study is conducted by MDRC, a nonprofit education research group based in Manhattan.

The study found that students at small high schools were more likely to earn a diploma than students who attend larger schools, The Times reports.

The findings are part of a study that tracked the academic performance of more than 21,000 students who applied for ninth grade admission at 105 small high schools, mainly in Brooklyn and in the Bronx, from 2005 to 2008. The study appeared to validate the Bloomberg administration’s decade-long push to create small schools to replace larger, failing high schools.

Specifically, The Times's report says:

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. The higher graduation rate at small schools held across the board for all students, regardless of race, family income or scores on the state’s eighth-grade math and reading tests, according to the data.

Perhaps more importantly, almost all of those additional students who graduated received Regents diplomas, meaning they met higher state graduation standards. The Times reports:

Small-school students also showed more evidence of college readiness, with 37.3 percent of the students earning a score of 75 or higher on the English Regents, compared with 29.7 percent of students at other schools. There was no significant difference, however, in scores on the math Regents.

City officials are crowing. Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott told The Times: “This study shows conclusively that our new small high schools changed thousands of lives in New York City, across every race, gender and ethnicity — not only helping them graduate, but graduate ready for college. When we see a strategy with this kind of success, we owe it to our families to continue pursuing it aggressively.”

Translation: expect more big high schools in the city to be phased out.

The president of the United Federation of Teachers, Michael Mulgrew, was more skeptical, raising a frequent criticism of both the small-schools and charter-schools movement in the city: the suspicion that they skim the cream of the student crop, with fewer special education or other high needs students. But, reports The Times:

Gordon Berlin, president of MDRC, said the lottery process ensured that there were comparable numbers of special education students and English-language learners represented in both groups of students being tracked. He said attendance records for the students prior to high school were also comparable, and would not have affected the results.

Is this a model to be replicated everywhere? Perhaps, but the authors of the study, Mr. Berlin and Howard Bloom, acknowledge that the city's small schools were all newly created and share common characteristics, including central themes and rigorous curriculum. Further, they usually offer hands-on learning experiences through partnerships with community groups and businesses.

“It’s certainly not just size,” Mr. Bloom told The Times. “It’s how the size is used. These schools were organized from the ground up in ways that would be extraordinarily unusual.”

The study elicited national reaction Thursday. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the study “important and encouraging on several fronts.”

“It shows that school reform can achieve success at scale, district-wide, and not just in isolated islands of success" he said in a statement. "It shows that, with community partnerships and dedicated follow-through, high school dropout factories can be closed and replaced with smaller schools that substantially boost graduation rates. And it shows that much of the conventional wisdom about the impossibility of turning around chronically low-performing high schools is either mistaken or badly exaggerated.”

And the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University found fault with the way the survey was conducted.

"Historically, students with the lowest test scores -- self-contained special education students -- are admitted to the mayor's new small schools at a lower rate than the old large high schools they replace," said Norm Fructer, director of the Community Involvement program there, and the author of a report on New York's middle schools. "This major factor, not noted in the M.D.R.C. study, artificially improves performance at the new small schools."

He continued: "We also know that when high needs students are admitted at a comparable rate at new schools, then those schools do no better than the ones they replace. In fact, those those schools are amongst those the Bloomberg administration is seeking to close this year after just a short time in operation."

Also in the news today, a report out of one of the city's largest -- but one of the nation's best -- high schools, Stuyvesant: two young female students are among the 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search. Post your congratulations to Huihui Fan and Mimi Yen on SchoolBook's page for Stuyvesant High School.

Another female city student, Danielle Goldman of Bronx High School of Science, was also among the finalists, The Daily News reports -- good news for a school that has had its share of controversy this year. Post your congratulations to Danielle on Bronx Science's SchoolBook page, too.

Gotham Schools' Rise & Shine post has a more complete roundup of what's in the news this Thursday.

Here's a couple of things happening in the schools on Thursday:

More hearings on school closings, at 6 p.m. at Wadleigh Second School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Manhattan and Brooklyn Collegiate.

A charter school, Peninsula Preparatory Academy Charter School, will be holding a news conference and a rally at noon at the city's Education Department headquarters on Chambers Street. The school is fighting its closing.

And in happier news, at 9 a.m., students at the Urban Assembly School for Applied Science & Mathematics in the Bronx will participate in Siemens Science Day, a day of hands-on learning for the school's 100 sixth graders.