MDRC report: New York City’s small schools raise graduation rates for disadvantaged students

19 Oct

The Wisconsin Department of Education has a succinct description of what makes a successful school in Characteristics of Successful Schools Chpt 1 – Overview:

Successful Schools Have a Vision That:

  1. is accompanied by other strategic planning. Strategic planning is a data-driven process that guides decision making, as well as program implementation components such as:
    • goal statements
    • means to accomplish the goals
    • timelines
  2. links education standards to teacher expectations and student performance
  3. fosters district wide expectations and experiences that result in all students mastering challenging standards at proficient or above levels
  4. engages the entire learning community to take responsibility for all students’ learning
  5. includes carefully defined terms that are known and supported by all constituents
  6. is developed with representation from a wide variety of publics and demographic groups
  7. drives resource allocation in the learning as well as the broader community
  8. allows the societal, academic, and organizational components of education to operate in a seamless manner
  9. articulates the learning community’s commitment to both excellence and equity in the organization
  10. embraces the dual mission of creating in each student solid and rigorous academic achievement and civic caring and responsibility

MDRC, with a grant from the Gates Foundation, has been studying small schools in New York City for the past several years. Disadvantaged students are enabled in the small school setting, according to their findings.

Patricia Willens of NPR reported in the story, New Research Suggests Small High Schools May Help After All:

Findings from a new long-term study of small high schools in New York City show the approach may not only boost a student’s chances of enrolling in college but also cost less per graduate.

The city began an intensive push to create smaller learning communities in its high schools in 2002. That year, the city’s education department rolled out a districtwide lottery system for high school admission.

The study, by the research group MDRC, compares the academic outcomes of students in the small schools with a control group of students who sought admission, lost a lottery, and enrolled in other New York City high schools.

At the same time, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg started creating hundreds of high schools enrolling about 100 students per grade — enrollments much smaller than the comprehensive high schools that had been the norm for decades.

These small schools shared some key characteristics: academic rigor, personalized relationships with teachers, and real-world relevance to the classroom lessons. Another key: outside funding, including from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corp. of New York, and the Open Society Foundations. (Those three philanthropies are also supporters of NPR.)

The proportion of students who graduated from these high schools in four years and enrolled the next year in a post-secondary institution was 8.4 percentage points higher than in the control group, 49 percent, the MDRC study finds. In particular, the researchers found that the schools boosted college enrollment for black males by 11.3 percentage points, a 36 percent increase relative to their control group counterparts.

The small high schools included in the multiyear study also cost less per graduate. Costs were roughly 14 percent to 16 percent lower, the study said, largely because students graduated in four years rather than staying for a fifth year of high school….                 

Here is the press release from MDRC:

New Findings Show New York City’s Small High Schools Boost College Enrollment Rates Among Disadvantaged Students

Higher High School Graduation Rates Translate into College Enrollment; College-Going by Black Males Up by 36 Percent


(New York, October 16, 2014) — MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research firm, released new findings today from its rigorous multiyear study of small public high schools in New York City. The findings confirm that these schools, which serve mostly disadvantaged students of color, not only raise graduation rates by 9.4 percentage points, but they boost college enrollment by 8.4 percentage points. In addition, the small high schools achieve these gains at a lower cost per graduate than that of the high schools attended by students who had applied to these schools but were randomly assigned to other public high schools when small school slots were full.

Nearly all of the increase in high school graduation rates can be attributed to a rise in Regents diplomas attained, and the effects are seen in virtually every student group attending these schools, including male and female students of color, students with below grade level eighth-grade proficiency scores in math and reading, low-income students, and students in special education. The effects on postsecondary enrollment are seen for most student subgroups, including low-income students and students of color. For example, the schools boosted college enrollment by 11.3 percentage points for black males, a 36 percent increase relative to their control group counterparts.

“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.  “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.”

More Detail on the Study and the Findings

The creation of small schools by the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) began in the 1990s. In 2002, the NYCDOE instituted a district-wide high school admissions process that emphasized student choice and began establishing over 100 new academically nonselective small public schools. Each enrolling approximately 100 students per grade in grades 9 through 12, these schools were created to serve some of the district’s most disadvantaged students. Besides being small, they emphasize academic rigor, personalized relationships among strong teachers and students, and real-world relevance of learning. MDRC’s study takes advantage of the lottery-like features in New York City’s high school admissions process that kick in when schools have more applicants than seats available to compare over time the academic outcomes of students who won their first lottery and enrolled in the small schools with those who sought admission, lost a lottery, and enrolled in other New York City high schools.

Previous reports by MDRC (in 2010, 2012, and 2013) showed marked increases in graduation rates for the cohorts of students who entered these small high schools in 2005, 2006, and 2007. This new report updates those findings with results from a fourth cohort of students who entered ninth grade in the fall of 2008. For the first time, the study also follows students into postsecondary education. A separate working paper contains a cost analysis. The study’s new findings include:

  • For all four cohorts of students, small high schools in New York City markedly increased high school graduation rates for large numbers of disadvantaged students of color, even as graduation rates were rising at other New York City high schools. For the full sample, students at small high schools have a graduation rate of 71.6 percent, compared with 62.2 percent for students in the control situation. The higher graduation rate was driven by students earning Regents diplomas. These effects were seen among nearly all subgroups of students who attended the small high schools.
  • Attending a small high school increased the percentage of students who graduated from high school in four years and enrolled the next year in a postsecondary institution by 8.4 percentage points (to 49.0 percent). Most subgroups, including black males, black females, and students eligible for free/reduced-price lunch, experienced these effects. Small high schools modestly increased enrollment rates in postsecondary schools at every selectivity level, including competitive and very competitive schools, as defined by Barron’s ratings.
  • The small high schools achieved these gains at a lower cost per graduate than that of the high schools attended by their control group counterparts — roughly 14 percent to 16 percent lower. This is in large part because more students successfully graduate from small high schools and fewer need to attend an expensive fifth year of high school.

What Are Small Schools of Choice?

Small schools of choice (SSCs) — a term coined by the researchers to emphasize the fact that these nonselective schools are open to and chosen by students of all academic levels — are more than just small. They were developed and approved through a competitive proposal process administered by the New York City Department of Education and designed to stimulate innovative ideas for new schools by a range of stakeholders and institutions, from educators to school reform organizations, led in part by New Visions for Public Schools and including the Urban Assembly, the Institute for Student Achievement, the College Board, and others. The resulting schools emphasize academic rigor; strong, sustained relationships between students and faculty; and community partnerships to offer relevant learning opportunities outside the classroom. Each SSC also received start-up funding as well as assistance and policy support from the district and other key players to facilitate leadership development, hiring, and implementation. These reform efforts were supported by a consortium of funders, led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Open Society Foundations, and were implemented in collaboration with the United Federation of Teachers and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. Prior research by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools suggests that teachers and principals at SSCs strongly believe that academic rigor and personal relationships with students contribute to the effectiveness of their schools.

How Was the Study Conducted?

As noted above, the study takes advantage of lottery-like features in New York City’s high school admissions process. Each year, NYC eighth-graders are required to select in rank order of priority up to 12 high schools that they want to attend; when an SSC has more applicants than spaces, the district’s High School Application Processing System uses a randomized process to break ties and assign students to the SSC or to another school in the district from each student’s list of preferences. This analysis examines lotteries that occurred in 84 of the 123 SSCs and provides the basis for an unusually large and rigorous study of the effects of enrolling in SSCs on students’ academic achievement; the study tracks more than 12,000 students in SSCs and other high schools in New York City. The study does not compare the SSCs to the large, failing high schools they replaced but, rather, to the other public high schools operating in the reform-rich atmosphere in New York City.

MDRC’s study is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. All publications from the study, including the new one, Headed to College: The Effects of New York City’s Small High Schools of Choice on Postsecondary Enrollment by Rebecca Unterman, are available on MDRC’s website.

Contact: John Hutchins, Communications Director, 212-340-8604,, or Farhana Hossain, 212-340-4505,                                                                                     

There are pros and cons to attending a small school.

Kristen Bevilacqua wrote about Pros and Cons of Small High Schools:


Class sizes are usually smaller at small high schools. With fewer students in a class, students get more personal attention from their teachers. Shy students may feel more comfortable participating and asking questions and in more intimate class settings.

Fewer students equal fewer cliques. The atmosphere at small schools encourages close friendships since classmates get to know each other better than they would with thousands of peers in the same building. There is no opportunity to be anonymous, so students are more accountable to themselves. I knew the name of every student in my graduating class and the classes below me when I graduated from high school.


Large high schools tend to have a more diverse student body. While smaller schools may foster an atmosphere for close friendships, it is less likely that their students will be exposed to as many different ethnicities and cultures as their large school counterparts.

With diversity comes differences. A small and less diverse school does not introduce students to various and opposing opinions. For students’ budding minds, the exploration of all ideas is important for their development and self-discovery.

Although there may be less competition for Editor of the school newspaper or yearbook, the choices for extra curricular activities are more limited at a small high school. For example, my high school did not have any sports teams. If one of my classmates would have liked to play competitive sports, she would have had to join a league or group not affiliated with our school – not as convenient as playing on your school team.

The facilities can also be limited as a small school. They may not have a gymnasium, or functioning cafeteria; if there is a science lab it is probably shared by all grades studying different sciences…..           

The MDRC study emphasizes there should be no one size fits all in education.

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