A new study finds further evidence that students at the city's small high schools are more likely to graduate on time than students at more traditional large schools, affirming the Bloomberg administration's small schools initiative. The city created more than 200 small high schools since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office while closing many low performing comprehensive high schools.
The report, by the research group MDRC, looked at a cohort of students who entered ninth grade in the fall of 2006 to see how many of them graduated on time.
On average, the four-year graduation rate for students in the small schools was 74.6 percent compared to 65.1 percent in the control group. The researchers also looked at students entering small high schools in the fall of 2004 and 2005. When all three groups were averaged, with 12,000 students attending 85 small schools, the total graduation rate was 70.4 percent compared to 60.9 percent for students attending other schools. The results build upon a previous study released last year.
"It seems pretty clear now that these small high schools are much, much stronger than some of the traditional high schools," said MDRC president Gordon Berlin. "So we came away very impressed by the size of the result."
Berlin said this performance was especially noteworthy because the city's overall high school graduation rate went up during that time period, yet the small schools continued to do better than average. (However, not every small school included in the study was a star pupil. For example, the Manhattan Theatre Lab High School is being closed for poor performance.)
Students graduating from the small schools were also more likely to be ready for college, in terms of having higher scores on their English Regents exam. Forty percent of the small school students attained a score of 75 or better, compared to about one third of the control group. But the two groups had virtually the same percentage of students scoring at least a 75 on their math regents. Berlin said he wasn't sure what could explain this difference.
For the first time, the researchers found special education students had higher graduation rates in the small schools, and so did English language learners although their gains were not considered statistically significant, because of limited sample sizes.
In the past, the president of the teachers union, Michael Mulgrew, questioned whether small schools "cream" their students by taking fewer kids with special needs. But Berlin said the two types of schools had similar attrition rates and that small schools took a proportional share of special education pupils, including the neediest ones who require segregated classrooms. He acknowledged, however, that the schools tend to enroll fewer English language learners.
The study also interviewed principals at 25 of the schools to see what factors contributed to their high performance. The principals cited smaller and more personalized environments. On the downside, they acknowledged tensions with other schools in the same building over sharing space.
As independent researchers, Berlin said it was not appropriate for his team to weigh in on whether the city's strategy of replacing large schools with small schools should continue. Several mayoral candidates have said they want to spend more resources turning around struggling schools than replacing them. But Berlin said the evidence grows clearer with each new report.
"Right now, if you are basing your decision purely on the evidence, what we know is that the small school strategy is effective and what we hope is that we can do better on school turnaround. That's the difficult choice that faces high school reform."
One other big question is whether small schools continue to show gains over time, or if their graduation rates will decline. James Kemple, executive director of the Research Alliance for NYC Schools at New York University, said "it is important to keep following the schools because they have been difficult to start and sustain at a high level of performance, particularly in attracting and keeping strong principals and teachers."
Berlin said future studies will look at students entering ninth grade in 2007 and 2008 to see if the graduation rates at small schools continue to hold up.