study says...

Small high schools send larger shares of students to college, new study says

Bard Queens student Omar Ferreira said he benefitted from the personal attention of a small school last year.

New York City’s small high schools are doing a better job than other schools at graduating their students, and they’re also sending more of them to college, according to a new study.

The research nonprofit MDRC found that 49 percent of students who entered a small high school between 2004 and 2007 enrolled in a four-year college, community college, or technical school, compared to 40 percent of similar students who attended other schools. Black males and poor students saw the biggest jumps in college enrollment.

The research enters an ongoing debate about the best model for high schools as the small-schools movement has recently lost much of its luster nationwide. The findings, celebrated by former city officials on Thursday, also became a proxy battle for the future of the city school system—now overseen by Mayor Bill de Blasio, a forceful critic of the school closures that made the small schools possible.

The findings come from the fourth installment of MDRC’s research on the city’s small-schools movement. The multi-year study examines a subset of 123 “small schools of choice” that opened between 2002 and 2008 with private funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and support from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration.

MDRC’s research focused on schools that were oversubscribed and admitted students through a lottery process, which in its first year included 105 schools. The lotteries enabled researchers to compare what happened to admitted students and similar students who “lost” the lottery and wound up attending mostly older, larger schools—a structure considered the “gold standard” in education research.

Earlier MDRC research has showed that the city’s small schools graduated more of their students than bigger high schools in their first years. Those findings spurred the growth of small schools in the city, even as similar experiments posted mixed or negative results in other cities. The Gates Foundation, which funds MDRC’s research, put $150 million into the city’s small schools before ending its small-schools giving in 2008, citing students’ low college-readiness rates. (Chalkbeat also receives funding from the Gates Foundation.)

The small schools also save taxpayer dollars by graduating more students within four years—about 15 percent per graduate less than other high schools, according to an associated paper.

Former schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott called the findings a “powerful validation” of Bloomberg’s strategy on Thursday. And critics of Mayor Bill de Blasio used the opportunity to point out that the current administration has not yet laid out a clear vision for helping the city’s struggling schools.

“This study could not be more clear,” Walcott said in a statement sent out by Bloomberg’s former chief spokesman Stu Loeser. “Our small schools initiative has been an incredible success.”

Not all small schools opened under Bloomberg were runaway successes, though. Some have already been shuttered for low performance, and even proponents note that a school’s size is no guarantee that it will thrive.

Robert Hughes, president of New Visions for Public Schools, an organization that opened and supported many of the schools included in MDRC’s study, said the schools succeeded because they had strong ties to the community, collaborated with the teachers and principals unions, and high-quality staffs that shared leadership responsibilities.

“I think it would be easy to assume it’s solely a victory of the prior administration,” Hughes said. “It’s certainly an endorsement of the small-schools strategy, but the report underscores how key factors that made them effective, and that are now promoted by Mayor de Blasio — particularly his focus on community schools with integrated services — are critical for every school’s success.”

Some researchers questioned whether the findings should be seen as a definitive endorsement of small schools in general. Because the research examined only small schools that had more applicants than seats — by definition, the popular small schools — the lowest-performing small schools may not have been included at all.

The study also didn’t look at all of the small schools opened during the Bloomberg administration. An additional 93 small schools opened from 2002 to 2008, but were left out because they were either academically selective, transfer schools, or combined middle and high schools.

“Would the same thing hold up if they looked at the whole small-school sector?” Norm Fruchter, a senior policy analyst for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and a mayoral appointee to the of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy. “I think if we were looking at all small schools, the outcomes might well be worse than what the MDRC study found.”

A city spokesperson did not dispute the study’s findings, but suggested that the Department of Education under Chancellor Carmen Fariña would look to offer greater support to larger high schools, which received less attention and were often targeted for closure under Bloomberg.

“We are committed to ensuring that all of our students — attending high schools of all sizes – graduate on time and are successfully prepared for college and career,” said the spokesperson, Devora Kaye.

Read the full report here:

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.