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.