New Journal Article Examines What Factors Account for the Success of Small High Schools in New York City


The Journal of Policy Analysis and Management recently posted an article, “Lessons from New York City’s Small Schools of Choice about High School Features that Promote Graduation for Disadvantaged Students,” by Howard S. Bloom, Rebecca Unterman, Pei Zhu, and Sean Reardon, that offers new findings from MDRC’s long-term study of small high schools in New York City. Using a rich dataset based on naturally occurring lotteries, the article addresses two related questions:

  • What high school features are promising levers for increasing graduation rates for disadvantaged students?
  • What high school features helped to produce the positive impacts on graduation rates seen in small high schools in New York City?

In 2002, the New York City Department of Education launched a series of major school reforms. At the core of these reforms were: (1) a new high school choice process for incoming ninth-graders, (2) the closure of 23 large high schools with graduation rates below 45 percent, and (3) the creation of over 100 new small high schools that were academically non-selective and located mainly in disadvantaged neighborhoods. This large-scale transformation of New York City’s high school landscape provides a unique opportunity to explore the experience of students attending new “small schools of choice” (SSCs) that were shown to increase high school graduation and college-going rates substantially for a large population of disadvantaged students while reducing school costs per graduate.

The SSCs were clearly distinguishable from other New York City schools that served as the counterfactual comparison in the evaluation in terms of key school features emphasized by SSC funders and founders. Although a large portion of the average SSC effect on high school graduation rates remains unexplained, the findings provide suggestive evidence that the following are important levers for increasing graduation rates for disadvantaged students:

  • the quality of school leadership (for example, leaders clearly and effectively communicate their vision and expectations for the school);
  • a school’s teaching culture (teachers have a voice in the operation of the school, teacher mutual support, regular evaluation of and feedback for teachers, and teacher professional development);
  • a school’s teaching practices (teacher use of data-driven instruction and communication between teachers and parents);
  • a school’s academic rigor; and
  • personal relationships (adults support students’ learning and development, and teachers and students respect one another).

The largest observed effect comes from school leadership with values that suggest the quality of school leadership can increase graduation rates by 4.6 percentage points.

The Journal of Policy Analysis and Management has generously made the article available for free download until the end of February.