research report

Report finds lasting graduation rate gains at city's small schools

The Bloomberg administration has long touted the small high schools it created as outperforming large schools closed to make way for them. But a new report finds, for the second time, that the schools also post higher graduation rates than other city schools that stayed open.

Being randomly selected to attend small high schools opened under the Bloomberg administration made students significantly more likely to graduate, even as the schools got older, according to the report, conducted by researchers at the nonprofit firm MDRC.

The researchers updated a 2010 study that examined “small schools of choice” that opened between 2002 and 2008 and did not select students based on their academic performance. Of the 123 schools that fit that bill, 105 had so many applicants that the schools selected among them randomly, through a lottery.

The lottery process enabled the researchers to compare what happened to two groups of students that started out statistically identical: those who were admitted to the small schools and those who lost the lotteries and wound up in older, larger schools. That type of comparison is considered the “gold standard” in education research.

The original study found that the small high schools had positive effects on their students — but it looked only at the schools’ very first enrollees. The new report looks at those students in the fifth year after they enrolled and also at the second set of students who enrolled at the schools.

It finds that the higher graduation rate — 67.9 percent, compared to 59.3 percent for students who were not admitted — continued for the second group of students who enrolled and cut across all groups of students, regardless of their race, gender, family income, or academic skills upon enrollment. Students at the small schools were also more likely to meet the state’s college readiness standards in English, though not in math.

“Small schools for a variety of reasons, I always felt, were going to succeed in certain ways,” said Richard Kahan, the head of Urban Assembly, a nonprofit that started a handful of schools included in the study. “But I would not have predicted the impact.”

Together, the 105 small schools served more than 20,000 students when studied and will ultimately enroll about 45,000 students every year — a number, the report notes, that rivals the high school enrollment of all but a handful of school districts across the country.

The report is part of a series funded by the Gates Foundation, which put $150 into the city’s small schools before ending its small-schools giving in 2008, citing lackluster college readiness rates. The new report does not track students into college to see whether they succeeded or even remained enrolled. But it does find that the graduation rate boost for the first two cohorts of students in the city’s small schools was driven largely by receipt of Regents diplomas, considered more rigorous than the local diploma option that is being phased out.

The report does not conclude that it was size alone that made a difference for the small schools. Instead, it suggests, the schools shared specific design elements that might have driven their impact on students.

“New York City’s [small schools] were developed through a demanding proposal process that was designed to ensure specified conditions and to stimulate innovative ideas from a range of stakeholders and institutions,” the report notes.

That process is no longer in use, although the city’s current new schools proposal process shares some characteristics and approaches.

Robert Hughes, the CEO of New Visions, a group that started about 60 of the schools in the study and now works to support a range of schools, said some efforts were underway to identify just what it was that led to the higher graduation rates at the small schools.

“We’re constantly trying to take what we’ve learned in these schools and push it out and conversely try to learn from all schools,” Hughes said.

MDRC will continue to produce reports chronicling the small schools’ impact and will turn its attention next to looking for distinctions among the small schools, according to the report. One open question is whether a change in city policy, to require the schools to admit students with special needs and English language learners from the start, affected the schools’ impact on students. The schools were not required to admit those students to the cohorts the new report examined.

MDRC’s complete report is below.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.