MDRC in the News

Small Schools Work in New York

The New York Times Editorial


Mayor Bill de Blasio has been critical of the signature education strategy of his predecessor, Mike Bloomberg, a strategy that involved closing large, failing high schools and replacing them with smaller specialized schools that offer a more rigorous curriculum and a more personal brand of instruction. But over the last few years, the Bloomberg approach has been vindicated by an innovative, multiyear study showing that the poor, minority students who attend small specialized schools do better academically than students in a control group who attend traditional high schools.

The latest installment of the study, released this week by the nonprofit research group MDRC, contains even more impressive news: The disadvantaged students who make up a vast majority of the small-school enrollment are also more likely than those in the control group to enroll in college.

The challenge facing Mr. de Blasio and his advisers is how to build on this impressive foundation.

New York City started talking about small schools in the 1990s, but it did not begin translating this into actual policy until the early 2000s, when Mr. Bloomberg began aggressively closing down large, factory-style high schools. Some of these big schools had enrollments of 3,000 or more students and graduation rates of less than 40 percent.

By contrast, the new smaller high schools, typically in black or Hispanic neighborhoods, serve about 100 students per grade. More than 90 percent of the students attending these schools are black or Hispanic. Nearly 85 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunches. Three-fourths of them began their high school careers performing below grade level in reading or math. These smaller schools have several other things in common. They have a rigorous curriculum. They offer a personalized approach to education, with teachers responsible for keeping close tabs on the performance of their students. They are organized around themes — social justice, law or science. They get valuable support from community partners — colleges, cultural organizations or social service groups — that sometimes assist with funding, the hiring of new staff members or providing ways for students to connect their schoolwork with the world of work.

The multiyear study is tracking more than 21,000 students through their high school careers and into college. Among the startling results are these: Students at small high schools have a graduation rate of 71.6 percent, compared with 62.2 percent for their peers in larger schools. The small-school students are also more likely to graduate in four years and go straight to college. The gains are especially impressive among young black men, 42.3 percent of whom enroll in college as opposed to 31 percent of their peers in the control group. Young black women and young Hispanic men and women also matriculated at higher rates than their large-school peers.

The small high schools managed to achieve these gains at a lower cost per graduate than the traditional schools, partly because more students graduated on time and did not need a costly fifth year of education.

The teachers union supported the school closure strategy at first, even though it requires teachers to reapply for their jobs and, in many cases, move elsewhere. But it withdrew support when it decided that Mr. Bloomberg was unnecessarily ramming through closures. The de Blasio administration has said that it will first pursue an as yet undefined strategy to help improve schools before deciding to shut them down.

The administration is right when it says that every school can’t be a small one. But given the clear benefits that have accrued to the city’s most vulnerable students, Mr. de Blasio should not shy away from the option of shutting down big schools and remaking them from scratch, particularly in cases where the school has been failing for a long time and its culture is beyond repair.

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