Study: Smaller Schools More Effective Than ‘Dropout Factories’

January 26, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Eagle

BROOKLYN — A study released late Wednesday shows that New York City students attending new, small public high schools show higher graduation rates and improved academic performance than similar students attending other schools. These 105 small high schools studied replaced large, low-performing high schools. Out of these 105 schools, 30 are in Brooklyn.

The report is positive news for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose school reform efforts in New York City have centered on replacing traditional large public high schools with small schools.

The study, conducted by the non-profit MDRC and financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, followed the progress of more than 21,000 mostly disadvantaged students in the small, city-run schools. The schools, many with specific themes such as law or the environment, operate in partnership with dedicated philanthropic and community organizations. Charter schools were not included in the study.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested more than a billion dollars in small schools across the country but slowed its investment recently after results were inconclusive.

Student graduation rates rose by 8.6 points, to 67.9 percent, and most of the increase resulted in Regents diplomas, which have higher standards than local degrees. The percentage of students passing the English Regents test at 75 and above, said to be indicator of college success, increased by about 7 points, or 25 percent. Students attending the smaller schools showed no improvement in math scores.

In 2010 MDRC published the results of a smaller study which gave similar results.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said yesterday in a statement that the study 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.”

The study, conducted by Howard S. Bloom and Rebecca Unterman, compared a group of students who were chosen by lottery to attend the small schools with lottery losers who went on to attend schools that varied widely in size, age, programs and effectiveness.

The study is not necessarily a condemnation of large public schools. According to the non-profit Hechinger Report, as big schools are shut down to make way for smaller ones, many students — often those with lower test-scores and less motivation — are funneled into the remaining large schools, which in turn are also slated for closure and replacement by new small schools.


The researchers emphasized that the schools in the study are not just small in size, but are also funded and organized differently than typical public schools. Some of these differences include: start-up funding from philanthropic organizations; technical support from organizations with experience in launching new schools; special allowances for the first two years for Special Ed and English Language Learner students; an emphasis on “small learning communities,” and regular staff discussion about each student’s needs.  

The researchers point out that while the schools in the study may resemble charter schools in size and organization, they are fundamentally different from charter schools in several ways. Unlike charter schools, they are overseen by the Department of Education with unionized teachers and principals; are open to all students regardless of academic proficiency; and engage all entering ninth-graders, not just the most motivated families that might seek out charter schools.

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