Small schools mean big progress, says MDRC report

In the latest look at New York City’s small school strategy, which some argue is the special ingredient in the city’s efforts to improve its graduation rate over the past eight years, MDRC confirms past findings that kids in small schools do better than their counterparts in the rest of the school system.

The small schools had an effect on student achievement as early as ninth grade, and significantly higher graduation rates four years later. The report argues that the small schools are “more than just small.” They were able to find ways to help the neediest students, the researchers say. It also helped that the schools were a product of a “bottom-up, not a top-down process.”

New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein (courtesy of Rubenstein)

Some New Yorkers will vehemently disagree with this last assertion. Other research has raised concerns about disadvantaged students left high and dry when larger schools closed. And not all small schools have worked out.

This latest report, one in a series by MDRC on New York’s high school reforms, is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has provided millions of dollars to New York City to carry out these reforms. (Disclosure: the Gates Foundation also provides financial support to The Hechinger Report.) The study’s researchers say they avoided the pitfall of comparing kids who were motivated enough to apply for a small school to kids who weren’t as motivated (which could bias the results). They compared students who applied for and got in to small schools, which are often oversubscribed, to students who applied but didn’t get in.

To learn more about how New York City improved its graduation rate, look for the July/August issue of Washington Monthly, which will include a package of stories about high school dropouts in three cities written in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.

Read other coverage of the report at Gotham Schools, the Wall Street Journal,  and Education Week.

Sarah Garland