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Are small high schools showing performance boost?
Students small
A multiyear study found that the smaller high schools boosted graduation rates by 9.4 percentage points, and college enrollment by 8.4 percentage points. - photo by

New York City’s small high schools apparently boost graduation rates and college admission rates, and do so at a lower per pupil cost than traditional high schools, according to a study just released by MDRC, a major nonprofit education policy research firm.

The multiyear study found that the smaller high schools boosted graduation rates by 9.4 percentage points, and college enrollment by 8.4 percentage points. They compared students at these schools, many of them low-income and minority students, to those randomly assigned to traditional high schools when small school slots were full.

“Our study confirms that New York City’s small public high schools are making a marked difference for a wide range of disadvantaged students, not only helping more of them to graduate with Regents diplomas but equipping them to actually take the next critical step into college,” said Gordon Berlin, president of MDRC, in a statement. “What is truly remarkable, though, about these results is that a high school reform has had a measurable effect on college-going and it has done so at scale -- across scores of public high schools.”

The study’s release comes just days after columnist Bob Herbert, writing in Politico, took a swipe at NYC’s small school movement. The concept of the small high school was initially promoted by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, Herbert noted.

“From 2000 to 2009, he spent $2 billion and disrupted 8 percent of the nation’s public high schools before acknowledging that his experiment was a flop,” Herbert wrote “The size of a high school proved to have little or no effect on the achievement of its students. At the same time, fewer students made it more difficult to field athletic teams. Extracurricular activities withered. And the number of electives offered dwindled.”

Herbert even quotes Gates admitting failure. “Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for,” Gates said on Nov. 11, 2008.

This is the fourth study cohort that MDRC has tackled, this one entering high school in the Fall of 2008, at the very moment that Gates made the remark. The first three cohorts entered school in 2005, 2006 and 2007. This is the first study, however, to follow the students into their post-secondary education.

At first blush, the MDRC studies appear to directly contradict both Herbert’s triumphalism and Gates chagrin. But looking more closely, it is clear that Herbert took Gates’ quote out of context. Gates was not admitting defeat on the concept overall. He was stating that reducing size, in and of itself, was not a sufficient intervention.

Gates’ very next paragraph says that very large gains were in fact seen in some of the smaller schools:

“On a more positive note, we saw encouraging successes in some of the new, small schools we supported, including some in New York City. Their graduation rates were nearly 40 percentage points higher than the rates in the schools they replaced. In 2006, the small schools’ graduation rates exceeded those of comparable schools in the district by 18 percentage points.”

In short, the New York City small schools movement may be bearing fruit after all, and Gates may have been right all along.