City Students at Small Schools More Likely to Graduate

Teenagers in New York City are more likely to graduate if they attend small public high schools with fewer than 100 students per grade, says an ongoing study conducted by MDRC, a nonprofit education research group based in Manhattan.

The study, which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is tracking the academic performance of around 21,000 students who were in the ninth grade in 105 small high schools, mainly in Brooklyn and in the Bronx, from 2005 to 2008, writes Winnie Hu at the New York Times.

The latest findings from the report have shown that 67.9 percent of students from small high schools graduated after four years compared to 59.3 percent of students who graduated from larger schools in the same time. The disparity in graduation rates was consistent across all races, family incomes or eighth-grade math and reading test scores.

When Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott saw the results, he said:

“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.”

However, Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, believes there may be more to the disparities than simply the size of the classes. He questions whether the smaller schools have fewer special education students or better attendance records.

 “I’m very happy for any school that is graduating students,” Mr. Mulgrew said.

“But a study that is trying to say that one particular type of school is better than the other without looking at all the relevant factors is disingenuous.”

Howard Bloom, a co-author of the study, believes that the answer could better be found in the overall structure of the schools. Many of New York’s small schools were created from scratch and therefore tended to share common traits such as a conservation-based curriculum and highly personalized relationship between students and teachers.

“It’s certainly not just size,” Mr. Bloom said.

“It’s how the size is used. These schools were organized from the ground up in ways that would be extraordinarily unusual.”

Richard Kahan, founder and chief executive officer of the Urban Assembly, a network of 20 small high schools and middle schools in the city, said:

“I wouldn’t even dream of getting these results if these schools weren’t small and structured the way they are,” he said.

Robert Hughes, the CEO of New Visions, a group that started about 60 of the schools in the study, said that organizations like his are trying to find ways to identify just what it was that led to the higher graduation rates at the small schools, writes Philissa Cramer at Gotham Schools.

“We’re constantly trying to take what we’ve learned in these schools and push it out and conversely try to learn from all schools,” Hughes said.

Sarah Garland at the HechingerEd Blog believes that the small schools movement may be able to stimulate more momentum now that these results are out:

“[A] few years ago, reducing the number of total students in a school was seen as a key weapon in the arsenal of urban school reform, and [this study] suggests that perhaps small schools shouldn’t have been so quickly abandoned as a reform strategy.”

However, she warns, we must also keep in mind the consequences of the “other side” of the small school movement’s effect — that of the closure of the big schools. Garland cites a report about New York City’s small schools that said they had a domino effect on larger schools.

“As big schools were shut down to make way for smaller ones, many students—often those with lower test-scores and less wherewithal to find their way to small schools—were funneled into the remaining large schools, which struggled and were then also slated for closure and replacement by new small schools.”

Henry M. Levin and Cecilia E. Rouse are economics professors teaching at Columbia University and Princeton University, respectively. They believe that there is a greater economic reason for tapping into what makes smaller schools more likely to yield graduating students and how we can apply that across the board.

They said:

“If we could reduce the current number of dropouts by just half, we would yield almost 700,000 new graduates a year, and it would more than pay for itself.

“Studies show that the typical high school graduate will obtain higher employment and earnings — an astonishing 50 percent to 100 percent increase in lifetime income — and will be less likely to draw on public money for health care and welfare and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.

“Further, because of the increased income, the typical graduate will contribute more in tax revenues over his lifetime than if he’d dropped out.”

They conclude that any strategy to increase graduation rates is a positive investment in economic growth and reducing inequality.