School and class size are one of those areas in education where the research and common sense can diverge. Parents and teachers feel at an organic level that fewer students in a class or a school building enable more attention to all students. But the research has been murky at best on the relationship between size and performance.
So, a new study on the positive impact on graduation rates from New York City’s experiment with small high schools is getting a lot of attention, including a gleeful statement this morning from Ed Secretary Arne Duncan:
This new, rigorous study by MDRC of New York City’s ambitious experiment with small public high schools underscores the great potential to replace failing schools for disadvantaged students with schools that instead narrow achievement and attainment gaps. MDRC’s study is important and encouraging on several fronts. It shows that school reform can achieve success at scale, district-wide, and not just in isolated islands of success. It 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.
MDRC’s rigorous, scientific findings – that New York’s non-selective, small high schools are far outperforming the high schools they replace – are one more sign that the Administration’s SIG program is on the right track. For too long, educators have tinkered around the edges in low-performing schools, consigning generations of students of color to receiving an inferior education. It’s time to transform chronically low-performing schools. It’s time to put an end to the tireless tinkering.”
There is a good New York Times story this morning on the study. Here is an excerpt, but take a look at the entire piece if you have time:
The latest findings show that 67.9 percent of the students who entered small high schools in 2005 and 2006 graduated four years later, compared with 59.3 percent of the students who were not admitted and instead went to larger schools. The higher graduation rate at small schools held across the board for all students, regardless of race, family income or scores on the state’s eighth-grade math and reading tests, according to the data.
This increase was almost entirely accounted for by a rise in Regents diplomas, which are considered more rigorous than a local diploma; 41.5 percent of the students at small schools received one, compared with 34.9 percent of students at other schools. There was little difference between the two groups in the percentage of students who earned a local diploma or the still more rigorous Advanced Regents diploma.
Small-school students also showed more evidence of college readiness, with 37.3 percent of the students earning a score of 75 or higher on the English Regents, compared with 29.7 percent of students at other schools. There was no significant difference, however, in scores on the math Regents.
But Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, questioned whether there were other factors that might explain the higher graduation rate in the small schools, like fewer special education students or better attendance records for those entering the small schools, since attendance rates have been shown to be an indicator of on-time graduation.
Gordon Berlin, president of MDRC, said the lottery process ensured that there were comparable numbers of special education students and English-language learners represented in both groups of students being tracked. He said attendance records for the students prior to high school were also comparable, and would not have affected the results.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog