The real lesson from NYC small schools

Smaller isn’t better; personalized is better

An MDRC study that came out in June reporting on the impact of New York City’s small schools of choice initiative has recently appeared in the spotlight again, thanks to a September 27 commentary in Education Week from Michelle Cahill of the Carnegie Corporation and Robert Hughes of New Visions, a public education network affiliate in New York City. It was also picked up in this morning’s Public Education Network newsletter.

The title of the Ed Week commentary, “Small Schools, Big Difference,” may raise some eyebrows, though, especially for those who remember the Gates Foundation’s $1 billion misadventure with small schools.

The disappointing results of this effort eventually prompted then-director of the Foundation’s education programs, Tom Vander Ark, to tell Education Week that, “I visited 100 great schools and made the observation that they were all small, autonomous, and assumed that was a path to school improvement. It turns out that giving a failing school autonomy is a bad idea.”

Yes, the small schools in New York City are showing promise—their students (the vast majority of whom are poor and minority) have a 6.8 percent higher graduation rate than a similar group of students in the city’s mostly large, comprehensive high schools.

All of that is good news and worthy of further examination and, probably, replication.

The headline given to Cahill and Hughes’ Ed Week commentary, however, is only partially correct. The authors of the MDRC report actually caution against concluding simply that small schools are better. They write,

Students enrolled in SSCs [small schools of choice] did not just attend schools that were small. SSC enrollees attended schools that were purposefully organized around smaller, personalized units of adults and students, where students had a better chance of being known and noticed, and teachers had a better chance of knowing enough about their charges to provide appropriate academic and socioemotional supports.

In other words, saying that smaller schools lead to higher achievement is sort of like saying wearing sneakers leads to weight loss. What’s more important is what you do in the schools (or your sneakers). (In fairness to Cahill and Hughes, their commentary is more nuanced than the headline given to it).

The real takeaway of the MDRC report is that creating learning environments where students know their teachers and pursue studies that interest them (most of the small schools are designed around career themes) is what has shown promise, not the size of their student population.

Indeed, the same could be said of the Gates’ small schools initiative; as David Marshak, a professor of education at Western Washington University, observed in a February 19, 2010 commentary in Education Week, many of the small schools funded by the Gates Foundation did show gains in student achievement; the key to their success was “a culture of personalized education.”

Incidentally, this finding mirrors a key conclusion of the McREL report, Changing the Odds for Student Success: What Matters Most, in which we observe that a key principle for curriculum design is to provide students with multiple, intrinsically motivating, pathways to college and career readiness.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications.

4 Comments

  • Heather says:

    The analogy to wearing sneakers and weight-loss really had an impact on my thinking. So often we tend to dream of new shoes, finding everything wrong with the pair we have to justify buying that brand-new pair. Will they really make us jump higher? Lose weight? Run faster? No. It’s all about what we do in the shoes we have. If our purpose is to teach students and for them to learn, then we need to make it happen regardless of the shoes we have.
    I can run just as fast in a dirty pair of shoes as I can in a new pair. It’s what I, the teacher, do in those shoes that counts. I may not have the power to change everything but I must make an effort to do to be successful in the shoes I have.

  • Nicely stated, Heather. By the way, your sentiment echoes the underlying message of our report, Changing the Odds for Student Success (www.changetheodds.org). Research points to many powerful ways that teachers and schools CAN influence student achievement without waiting for Superman, some new innovation, or a new policy to save the day.

  • Esther says:

    We always look for more, and, frequently, the answer is less.
    As we distill teaching and learning in the 21st century, layers of authority are stripped, jobs are redefined and uneasiness…. well, you get the picture.
    We can google how to lose weight. We can order our sneakers online and still we struggle to lose weight.
    Our more has created a cacaphony of consumption. And highlights our need to have less and DO more….
    Thanks for your insight and analogy, Bryan.

  • Brittany Stuller says:

    What’s funny about this smaller school concept is that yes, in theory this is what we might need. However, budgets continuously get cut and they continue to take away from education. If they continue to take away then class sizes will go up and they won’t higher more teachers. So, really in theory the smaller schools sound nice, but it’s not going to happen.

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