New Findings Show New York City’s Small High Schools Continue to Significantly Raise Graduation Rates

Graduation Rates at Small Schools, Which Serve Highly Disadvantaged Students, Are 9.5 Percentage Points Higher Than Other Schools for Comparable Students

(New York, August 26, 2013) — MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research firm, released new findings today from its multiyear study of small high schools in New York City. Those findings show that the schools, which serve mostly disadvantaged students of color, continue to produce sustained positive effects, raising graduation rates by 9.5 percentage points. This increase translates to nearly 10 more graduates for every 100 entering ninth-grade students. 

These graduation gains can be attributed almost entirely to Regents diplomas attained, and the effects are seen in virtually every subgroup in these schools, including male and female students of color, students with below grade level eighth-grade proficiency in math and reading, and low-income students. In addition, the best evidence that currently exists suggests that these small high schools may increase graduation rates for two new subgroups for which findings were not previously available: special education students and English language learners. Finally, more students are graduating ready for college: the schools raise by 6.8 percentage points the proportion of students scoring 75 or more on the English Regents exam, a critical measure of college readiness used by the City University of New York. 

“With the nation’s attention focused on turning around failing urban high schools, this study provides convincing evidence that large-scale transformation is possible in an urban public school system,” said Gordon Berlin, President of MDRC. “While more certainly needs to be done if all students are to be prepared for college and careers, the small school strategy as implemented in New York provides a blueprint for future reforms across the nation.” 

More Detail on the Study and the Findings

In 2002, New York City embarked on an ambitious and wide-ranging series of education reforms. At the heart of its high school reforms were three interrelated changes: the institution of a districtwide high school choice process for all rising ninth-graders, the closure of 31 large, failing high schools with low graduation rates, and the opening of more than 200 new small high schools. 

More than half of the new small schools created between the fall of 2002 and the fall of 2008 were small, academically nonselective, public high 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 and are located mainly in neighborhoods where large, failing high schools had been closed. 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 lotteries and enrolled in the small schools with those who sought admission, lost a lottery, and enrolled in other New York City high schools. 

Two previous reports by MDRC (in 2010 and 2012) showed marked increases in progress toward graduation and in graduation rates for the cohorts of students who entered these small high schools in 2005 and 2006. This report updates those findings with results from a third cohort of students who entered ninth grade in the fall of 2007. In addition, for the first time it includes a look inside these schools through the eyes of principals and teachers, as reported in interviews and focus groups. The study’s new findings include: 

  • Small high schools in New York City continue to markedly increase high school graduation rates for large numbers of disadvantaged students of color, even as graduation rates are rising at the schools with which SSCs are compared. For the full sample, students at small high schools have a graduation rate of 70.4 percent, compared with 60.9 percent for comparable students at other New York City high schools.
  • The best evidence that exists indicates that small high schools may increase graduation rates for two new subgroups for which findings were not previously available: special education students and English language learners. However, given the still-limited sample sizes for these subgroups, the evidence will not be definitive until more student cohorts can be added to the analysis. 
  • Principals and teachers at the 25 small high schools with the strongest evidence of effectiveness strongly believe that academic rigor and personal relationships with students contribute to the effectiveness of their schools. They also believe that these attributes derive from their schools’ small organizational structures and from their committed, knowledgeable, hardworking, and adaptable teachers. 

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 intermediary 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 Institute, and were implemented in collaboration with the United Federation of Teachers and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. 

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 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 were found 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, Sustained Progress: New Findings About the Effectiveness and Operation of Small Public High Schools of Choice in New York City, by Howard S. Bloom and Rebecca Unterman, are available on MDRC’s Web site

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Headquartered in New York City, with a regional office in Oakland, CA, MDRC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization with 40 years of experience designing and evaluating education and social policy initiatives.