New York City’s experiment with small high schools helped students stay in college, study shows

Students who entered one of New York City’s new small high schools between 2006 and 2010 were much more likely to go to college and stick around, according to a new analysis of their progress.  

It’s the latest good news for the small-schools initiative pioneered by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which replaced large high schools closed for poor academic performance with schools that usually served just over 100 students per grade. Past research has shown that the schools increased students’ likelihoods of graduating from high school and boosted English test scores.

“We’re pleased to see some ongoing positive results and that there is something that’s carrying over,” said William Corrin, the deputy director of K-12 education at MDRC, the research firm that conducted the study. “This is a nice win, to at least be putting students on the path.”

But the new study, released last week, also comes with some less encouraging news. Even though more students were still in college four years out, most had still not earned a degree. In fact, the small schools had no clear effect on college completion, perhaps because some students will take longer than four years to graduate.

Small schools took root New York City in 2002, supported by a variety of philanthropies, most prominently the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The schools served predominantly low-income students of color, most of whom arrived in ninth grade scoring below grade level on state exams. The hope was that the more intimate environments would help students who might have fallen off track in a large traditional school, pushing them toward graduation.

(The latest MDRC study was funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Chalkbeat is funded by Gates and Walton.)

The MDRC researchers Rebecca Unterman and Zeest Haider compared roughly 10,000 students who won a random lottery to attend one of more than 123 small schools to similar students who didn’t win a spot. Across four graduating classes, small-school students were 9.5 percentage points more likely to finish high school and 7.4 percentage points more likely to enroll in some form of college.

That boost faded somewhat over time. But small-schools students maintained an edge even four years after high school — they were 4.6 percentage points more likely than their peers to be enrolled in college at that point.

The results are somewhat less encouraging when it comes to earning a college degree within four years of graduating high school. Completion rates were very low for both groups: 7.3 percent among small-school students and 5.3 percent among the comparison group. That difference was not statistically significant.

Those numbers reflect the low rates nationally of college completion among low-income students of color. But they also may be due to the limited timeframe of the study, which extends four years after the students graduated from high school. Students who take additional time or don’t enroll in college immediately after high school graduation may still earn degrees.

Still, the results do suggest that small schools caused a number of students to attend college who didn’t, or won’t, ultimately graduate. That means some could be left with debt but not a degree.

“There may be some students who have entered college who might not have otherwise, and they’re at risk of not completing,” said Corrin of MDRC.

The study also showed small schools didn’t have a clear effect on students’ earnings or employment as young adults. That could be because many of the students were still in school at the time of the study.

More encouragingly, the researchers show that small schools caused a nearly 5 percentage point increase in the share of students either working, in school, or both.

Other research has shown that as small schools grew, other types of high schools in the city also seemed to improve.

It’s not entirely clear why small schools have been successful — something that’s also been shown by a separate study of New York City, research in Chicago, and another analysis across four states.

In New York City, the schools may have benefitted from starting from scratch with a group of leaders, teachers, and students who chose to be there. In interviews with researchers, teachers and principals said that students seemed to benefit from the schools’ high academic expectations and their close relationships with staff.

The schools had other advantages: additional start-up funding; support from external organizations; and the ability to grow slowly, grade by grade. Small schools also served slightly fewer students with disabilities (12 versus 14 percent) and many fewer students learning English (6 versus 12 percent) than comparison schools, which faced additional challenges.

A separate study found that per-pupil spending in small schools was similar to spending in comparison schools, though this did not include philanthropic dollars.

“We ought to be careful about the takeaways if we conclude that small high schools ‘worked,’ the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess wrote in 2014 in response to one of the MDRC’s earlier small-school studies. “Unfortunately, it’s really hard to replicate the enthusiasm, foundation support, and intensive hand-holding from experts that accompany pilot efforts.”

This study doesn’t tell us how successful these small schools in New York City are today. Corrin of MDRC says the organization hasn’t done research on their effectiveness. Some of the small schools were in the city’s most recent turnaround program for struggling schools.

The results land around the same time as a rigorous study on that turnaround initiative instituted under current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who moved away from the strategy of opening new small schools and closing larger ones. The RAND study on de Blasio’s “Renewal” program, also released last week, found that the program improved students’ attendance rates but did not lead to clear gains in test scores or high school graduation rates.

“The MDRC study looks at characteristics beyond school size that we want in every classroom in New York City, like rigor, high expectations, and attention to student needs,” said Danielle Filson, a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Education. “We’re taking a closer look at the study’s findings.”

The Gates Foundation — which spent hundreds of millions of dollars across districts nationwide to promote small schools, including at least $135 million in New York City — also eventually abandoned the small-schools strategy.

“When we first got involved in U.S. education, we thought smaller schools were the way to increase high school graduation and college-readiness rates. In some places and in some ways, small schools worked,” Bill Gates noted in 2017. “Yet, over time, we saw that the overall impact of this strategy was limited — the financial and political costs of closing existing schools and replacing them with new schools was too high.”

The foundation has come in for some criticism for moving on too quickly. But one element of the foundation’s latest approach — supporting networks of schools that work together to improve — draws on how small schools grew in New York City. Gates’ director of K-12 education, Bob Hughes, ran New Visions for Public Schools, an organization that helped to create and support many of the city’s new high schools.

“The work currently being undertaken as part of the Networks for School Improvement is related to the small schools approach in that we did learn a lot about what made successful schools successful — large or small — and that was their support of their teachers, their relationships with students, and their high expectations for student achievement,” said a spokesperson for the Gates Foundation. “We’ve carried those lessons with us and they inform how we work with middle and high schools today.”