Small High Schools versus Large High Schools: Burnishing and Tarnishing Reputations or Creating/Supporting School Structures That Work for Kids, Families and Teachers

“In the three decades since the release of the Nation at Risk report, the U.S. education reform effort has failed to achieve lift-off. Why is that so? Regardless of the reform strategy—whether new standards, or accountability, or small schools, or parental choice, or teacher effectiveness—there is an underlying weakness in the U.S. education system which has hampered every effort up to now: most consequential decisions are made by district and state leaders, yet these leaders lack the infrastructure to learn quickly what’s working and what’s not. They launch new initiatives with no detailed analysis of their effects. At best, they track aggregate measures such as overall proficiency and graduation rates, which can hide the consequences for the specific schools, or grades or subjects actually affected by their initiatives … For their part, philanthropists fund new initiatives in their local schools, and never know whether their funds have made a difference for children.

We are not lacking innovation in U.S. education. We lack the ability to learn from our innovations.” (Thomas J. Kane, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University)

A prime example of the paucity of meaningful analysis is the “small high schools of choice” (SSA). Small high schools, primarily created through the closing of large high school were not “invented” by the Bloomberg administration; in fact, small high schools have their roots in the 60’s. City as School, a collaboration between the Board of Education and the teachesr union was called an alternative high school and, it has flourished for half a century. Over the ensuing decades other small high schools opened and the Department created an alternative high school superintendent to service the atypical needs of these new models of schools. The Performance-Based Assessment Consortium was formed and the State granted a waiver from state exams for many of the alternative schools – in lieu of state exams (Regents and RCT) students were assessed by a portfolio of student work and a demonstration of proficiency at a roundtable – a group of teachers, critical friends and outsiders.

In the late eighties the Department began to close large high schools, Andrew Jackson High School became Campus Magnet and in the nineties the Department created the Chancellor’s High School District, a process to close dysfunctional large high schools and replace with small schools tied to community organizations. The seventeen small schools replaced four large high schools (Eastern District, George Washington, Taft and Theodore Roosevelt). A superintendent oversaw the schools and with a common school design. Each campus had a teacher center with an intensive emphasis on staff development. The Bloomberg administration ended the Chancellor’s District.

The Gates-funded New Century initiative invested $50 million into a large school closing/small school creation model. The grant was managed by New Visions for Public Schools and concentrated in the Bronx superintendency.

The Bloomberg team accelerated large high school closing under the portfolio model and there are now hundreds of small schools and education option programs in large schools around the city.

MDRC, a national organization, has released a succession of reports praising the so-called Small High Schools of Choice (SSC) initiative, their latest reports are equally praiseworthy,

… small schools of choicer have markedly increased graduation rates for disadvantaged students of color, many of whom start high school below grade level … it is widely accepted that enrollment and success in postsecondary education is necessary for young people to be prepared for the world of work.

New York City’s SSC’s are well positioned to meet this challenge because of their focus on providing academically rigorous curricula and personalized learning environments for their students. As noted above, this approach has led to success: SSC enrollees have experienced large, positive effects on high school graduation rates compared with their control group counterparts, regardless of students’ family income, race/ethnicity, or prior academic achievement. … students who enrolled in SSC’s consistently outperformed their control group counterparts in each of the years studied. Furthermore, SSC’s achieve these gains at a lower cost per graduate than that of the high schools attended by their control group counterparts, in large part because more SSC enrollees successfully graduate from high school and fewer SSC enrollees need to attend a fifth year of high school.

The MDRC reports suffers from the fatal flaw referenced by Thomas J. Kane in the intro quote, the lack of a detailed analysis: why are the small high school graduation rates higher than the control group? More personalized instruction, widespread use of faulty credit recovery, sympathetic state exam grading, etc. Are the SSC graduates more “college ready,” as measured by the State college and career readiness metric? Are graduates of small high schools more likely to succeed in college than the control group? Were the student bodies of the small high schools comparable to large high schools as far as English language learners and student with disabilities? All unanswered by the MDRC report.

The MDRC has published a number of research reports supporting SSC, are the MDRC Reports examples of “advocacy research,” research with the predetermined goal of supporting a specific program or initiative?

Diane Ravitch, in a blog post entitled, “Are Small Schools the Magic Bullet?” begins the post explaining that she is neither for nor against small high schools. An anonymous Department of Education employee (Think “Deep Throat”) from time to time sends Diane detailed accounts of Department programs, he/she is sharply critical of MDRC reports,

Is there any truth to these claims? Does the data support any of this? The answer is “no.” The papers self-published by the MDRC are shoddily researched with clear biases and poor grounding in reality. It order to keep the size of this essay to a manageable length let’s limit ourselves to a Top 10 list of the paper’s flaws. (Read all 10 flaws here)

The two flaws listed below are serious enough to question the entire report,

1. The Gates Foundation provides the funding for these papers. The Gates Foundation also funded many of the new small high schools in New York City. What we have here is a circular process of self-congratulation. The peer-review process might be expected to uncover the biases produced by this unholy alliance. But these papers have, of course, never been peer reviewed. They are self-published by MDRC on their website and then touted in press releases and newspaper editorials.
2. It is becoming standard practice for researchers to publicly post data-sets used in such studies. MDRC has refused to release the data-set. This makes it impossible for their results to be independently verified or questioned.

The most interesting report assessing the small high schools was published five years ago by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, “The New Marketplace:
How Small-School Reforms and School Choice Have Reshaped New York City’s High Schools
” (Read report here)

The authors visited numerous small schools and interviewed scores of students, parents, teachers and school leaders, the findings,

* Attendance and graduation rates are higher at new small schools than at the large schools they replaced. Principals and students report the new schools are safer. Yet many small schools remain fragile, with attendance and graduation rates declining

* As the city closed the lowest-performing large schools to make way for small schools, thousands of students, including many new immigrants and children with special education needs, were diverted to the remaining large schools. Many of those schools suffered overcrowding and declining attendance and graduation rates. Some were subsequently closed

* Twenty-six of 34 large high schools in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx saw their enrollments jump significantly as other high schools were closed. Of these, 19 saw their attendance decline and 15 saw their graduation rates decline between the fall of 2002 and the spring of 2007. Fourteen saw both attendance and graduation rates decline.

* However, the school-choice system depends on well-informed adult guidance. Many students lack adequate support in choosing and ranking their schools, and guidance counselors are under-equipped to support them. Special needs students and children of immigrants have a particularly difficult time getting the information they need to make an informed choice.

* Thousands of students have been assigned to schools they did not choose or that are not appropriate for their educational needs. Students are assigned to schools up to 90 minutes from home, each way, by bus or subway. The more extensive the system of school choice, the more it sorts children into those who can navigate the admissions process and those who cannot.

The Report concludes with three reasonable recommendations,

* The city should not limit its high school reform efforts to the creation of small schools. Midsize and large schools can be effective and should be supported.

* The DOE should recognize that large high schools still serve the majority of students in New York City, and support them accordingly.

* The city must ensure that the “default schools”—schools where kids who are not picked by the school choice process wind up—get the support they need to be successful.

In an interview in 2013 Bill Gates was asked whether the education reform movement was changing American schools for the better, he answered,

“If you said to me, are we making progress on [U.S. education reform] or not, I could talk for a long time, but I wouldn’t be able to give you a number.” –Bill Gates

Are small high schools better? Better than what? Some are better than low functioning large high schools while high functioning large high schools are better than many small high schools? Personalization versus extended course offering and after school activities, neighborhood schools versus extended travel across the city, experienced counseling staffs versus newer untried staffs; the models offer a wide range of pros and cons.

The Department should be supporting small, medium size and large high schools, and, primarily offering all schools the supports that they need to be effective. Too many small schools have had inexperienced school leaders and distant school support, too many large schools were reservoirs for English language learners and students with disabilities: credit accumulation and scores on state exams rule, dooming large high schools.

For too long we have had an unrecognized triage system, allowing schools with “difficult” populations to fail so that we can replace them with small high schools. Basically the prior administration accepted that cohorts of kids would not be supported and accepted the dropping out, or, the pushing out of kids with academic challenges. A former superintendent in a comment on a prior blog got it right,

“Past administrations have failed to provide schools with the most essentials: credible curricula, instructional guidance, meaningful professional development, and encouragement … If you want an organization structure that makes sense, first define explicitly what great instruction looks like, be willing to design curriculum and long term training to support the vision by competent personnel who have some successful experience under their belts and who can actually do the work, and then figure out the most efficient and effective system to support schools in improving their craft.”

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3 responses to “Small High Schools versus Large High Schools: Burnishing and Tarnishing Reputations or Creating/Supporting School Structures That Work for Kids, Families and Teachers

  1. Eric Nadelstern

    It’s a class size issue. If principals are really instructional leaders than the number of teachers in the school should not exceed optimal class sizes. To my mind, class size should ranger from 15 to no more than 25. 20 teachers times 20 students results in a school size of 400.

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  2. Let there be no misunderstanding, Bloomburg &Klein saw the creation of small HSs as a means to improve and maintain puil control. The gang activities in the larger HSs were unmanageable and in some casers were the governing body in some of the large HS. In the small HSs every mi9ni HS within the hosy building had its own color coded designated stairwells, hallways and pupi;s program caeds. The school programmers worked closely with local police pcts to establish off setting times am arrivals and pm dismissals. If your schools color scheme was orange and their reporting time was 7:30 then no one with another color scheme was expected to be on the perimeter at that arrival time. Dismissals were staggered, with sufficient time intervals for each dismissal so that police and OSS could clear the perimeters prior to the next schools dismissal. This strategy was key in cutting down bewfore and afternoon student violence. Any educational gains that may have been made during those years of mini sizing, were a secondary bi product to the original purpose…A bi product that no one talks about was the financial burden, every mini school had its own Principal 1 or more Assistant Principals and countless other administrative personnel. In many cases the new administrators were political appointees who were abs clueless in how to establish a positive academic environment, but that didnt matter as long as the number of incident rerports were lessening. The aim was always about control. In some schools where the leadership excelled as academics as well as disciplinarians, positive learning curves could be found.

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  3. Pingback: The Tragedy at Bays and Girls High School: “Saving” a School and Sacrificing Children | Ed In The Apple

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