New study out of New York: Smaller high schools graduate more and better prepared students

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

22 comments Add your comment


January 26th, 2012
9:45 am

You need a ridiculous study to tell you this? I smell bureaucrats justifying their paychecks.


January 26th, 2012
9:51 am

When they said small, they meant tiny. I do agree that small schools are better, but 100 students per grade in high school is not financially feasible for many if not all districts.

Good Mother

January 26th, 2012
10:00 am

Yes, small schools are better. Children know one another. The teachers know all the kids. The parents are familiar with the families. Kids are “somebodies” and don’t get lost in the crowd. When kids feel as though they matter, they stay in school.

Maybe we can make big schools into what feels like small schools by giving them an internal identity as a school within a school similar to a college within a university. There is a charter school in Atlanta that does this and we also have a fictional one at Hogwarts.

When children feel connected to their school, when they feel like they belong, when they feel like people care about them, they succeed, just like adults.


Atlanta Mom

January 26th, 2012
10:00 am

The last time a study like this was done in NYC, students moved from large HS to small, they lost some incredible number of students. Students simply did not show up at the new HS. So, if you slice off the bottom layer before you even start, you will get better results.


January 26th, 2012
10:37 am

From story post to “bureaucrats suck!” polemic in 16 minutes? People, you’re not posting fast enough. I know that enjoying your retirement involves having 15 tabs of news stories on your browser to contribute valuable anonymous commentary at 9 in the morning, or that you have to work in some more Call of Duty before your shift at Domino’s at 2, but we’re jonesing for our put-downs here! Democracy depends on how much barely-informed invective you can put on our screens, and frankly you guys need to be quicker about it.

Dr NO / Mr Sunshine

January 26th, 2012
10:52 am

gleeful – Arne Duncan…that sounds about right.

Beverly Fraud

January 26th, 2012
11:33 am

Arne Duncan? Isn’t he the same guy who came down here a while back to sing the praises of Beverly Hall?

another comment

January 26th, 2012
2:31 pm

Small is best, outside of NYC, the school districts are only one or two high schools big. Then they share a VoTech school between school districts. These small school districts with $150,000 Supt. and no asst. Supt. are much better than these massive districts down here with their Administrative Staffs and Palaces.

Surprise, Surprise, people in these small districts don’t lie and fill out the free lunch forms either. The high school that I went to and the neighbooring one in the next town, still only show 3-5% Free lunch. Yet they are in area’s that have alot of farms, in one, where folks would qualify. But the going with your neighbor, keeps pride alive. No annomity for everyone to say they make under $22k for free lunch.

Just like how does the Sandy Springs Middle school have over 70% free lunch when even the dumpy apartments are over $1,200 month. Houses are $3,000 and up. In Smyrna, the Middle Schools both say they have 99% free lunch. But people again live in $900 + appts and houses over $250-300K in value. Seems like some people are pushing the Free Lunch application scam, as a means to justify Title 1 and them keeping their jobs at Central Offices. It is worse in Atlanta and Dekalb. I don’t get how you can have an I-Phone (not free phone tax payer rip off) and qualify for free lunch. Because not only does the parent have, but so do the kids, even in Middle school. Of course their kids wear designer brands and shoes that aren’t close to my budget. But I wouldn’t think of false swearing on a free lunch application.


January 26th, 2012
3:30 pm

Are high schools that are small mostly in places that value education–places that don’t begrudge the money that a good education takes?

BTW, my dissertation findings suggest that for students at risk, a small school makes a great deal of interest in success.

Joy in Teaching

January 26th, 2012
3:54 pm

Wow. I’ve got 35 seventh graders in one Language Arts class. The teacher with gifted students down on the other end of the hall has 15 during the same class period.

It shouldn’t take an expensive study to figure out which group of students will make greater gains on a standardized test. Even Arne Duncan should be able to figure that out.

Captain Obvious

January 26th, 2012
6:13 pm

Yes, wonderful. But you see, this is GA, where you with have a district with 15,000 students and 1mammoth high school so the football players are all in one school.

HS Math Teacher

January 26th, 2012
9:09 pm

“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.”

The “tireless tinkering around the edges” sounds familiar.


January 26th, 2012
10:45 pm

“For too long, educators have tinkered around the edges in low-performing schools, consigning generations of students of color to receiving an inferior education.”


Back in the 60’s, when I was in grade school, whites and “students of color” sat in the same classrooms, used the same textbooks, had the same teachers, etc, etc.

Fast forward to 2004 when my oldest graduated from that same high school. However, when you looked at the demographics of the Honor Graduates, you saw they were disproportionately white.

If “students of color” are receiving an “inferior education”, it is their own damn fault.

It is time to put this politically correct excuse making propaganda to rest. “Students of color”, the opportunity is there – you just have to put forth the effort.

another comment

January 26th, 2012
10:59 pm

I just went to Open House at my daughter’s high school, and simply put the students of “Color” their parents don’t even bother to show up. I noticed on one teacher’s sign-up only 7 of her 90 or so students bothered to come. I don’t get it.

HS Math Teacher

January 27th, 2012
6:51 am

To clarify: My post above was aimed at the “tinkering” that has been going on for the last ten years by policymakers & politicians. NOTHING is going to change as long as you reward kids for no earned merit. Having to teach kids who aren’t on grade level is killing teachers who have to teach in the 9th & 10th grades. It’s time to end this charade. Put real teeth in promotion policies, and figure out a way to make them enforceable statewide. Once this happens, you would see just about every problem that schools and kids have go away.

drew (former teacher)

January 27th, 2012
7:07 am

So…I guess size does matter,eh?

And HS Math Teacher…tinkering is all that can be done. Schools CAN’T be “reformed”. We’re in too deep, the bureaucracy is too big, parents don’t care, political correctness rules, and politicians haven’t a clue.

So…let’s tinker…

And how did this thread go from “smaller schools” to “students of color” anyway?


January 27th, 2012
9:09 am

Sounds like the obvious answer for the difference is in the study:
“…compared with 59.3% of the students who were NOT ADMITTED and instead attended larger school.”

Sounds like a selection process where certain students applied or were selected to attend the smaller schools. That means you have a different type of population. If that’s the case, this study is totally meaningless and Duncan is sure grasping at straws.

Leonie Haimson

January 27th, 2012
9:35 am


January 28th, 2012
6:34 am

“And how did this thread go from “smaller schools” to “students of color” anyway?”

Gee, I don’t know, maybe because the author of the article talked about it?

[...] recent study from MDRC on small high schools in New York City has captured attention (see here, here and here). The results are encouraging. Students who attended the small schools, for example, had a [...]

Terry Krugman

January 30th, 2012
12:27 pm

It was not too long ago that another ’study’ showed the opposite: large, consolidated schools better served students and communities. This is one of the problems with the ‘education industry’- studies are commisioned with the results invariably justifying the ideology or polcies of those underwriting the study.
My 25+ years teaching tells me that rhere are three concrete measure we could take to improve schooling:
1) change the school calendar ( shorter summer- breaks spread out during the year)- Not likely- athletics are opposed, as is the travel industry
2) reform and streamline education certification and training ( not likely- too many vested interests at stake)
3) reduce class size ( never happen- too expensive).

Smaller = Better...

February 1st, 2012
7:56 am

…but only if you have kids who will work under those circumstances and parents who support what you are doing (even if “support” means leave you the hell alone to do your job instead of whining about how hard it is or bailing Junior out every time something is difficult).

Kids can’t hide in a small setting, and this highlights whatever issues they were having; some parents and kids can’t handle it and want them to go back to the anonymous corner of a large school. Not everyone values what they say they value when it comes to education.