Yesterday one of our grantees, MDRC, released an important study about high school graduation rates in New York City. The study specifically looked at teens who attend “small” public high schools – those with about 100 students per grade. The study showed these students were more likely to graduate than their counterparts at larger schools. And, I think it’s important to take a deeper look at some of the other things this study can tell us. It is, in fact, more nuanced than a first glance might suggest.
First, I have to congratulate New York City Public Schools on their outstanding work.
As a former superintendent, I understand how hard it is to show even modest gains in graduation rates among a population that has persistently struggled. I am proud of the Chancellor and of the principals in the schools for taking a comprehensive, holistic approach to improving student outcomes. At the outset of this work, they knew there were several factors that impact a student’s success. And, they focused not just on the physical structure but on the substance of what happens inside classrooms.
You can’t just move a few chairs out of the room and see results like this. There’s no magic number of desks that will equal success. I know that, and anyone who has toiled inside a school knows it too.
New York City small schools are showing these gains not just because they are “small,” but because they are highly effective. We believe the sustained positive effects as described in the MDRC study are directly related to specific actions taken by our partners:
- Setting the bar high, expecting all students to meet it, and helping them get there by implementing a curriculum based on college-ready standards for all students
- Providing teachers with direct support and professional development to implement a rigorous curriculum
- Refusing to take a “cookie-cutter” approach, and making personalized learning for students a top priority
- Making research-based decisions about accountability systems and changes in practice by using student, teacher, and school level data
I’m looking forward to the next phase of MDRC’s work, which will delve more deeply into the changes inside schools that had the biggest gains. I already know these high-performing schools have implemented many of the steps above, and that they have worked to recruit, develop, and retain highly effective teachers to a much greater extent than the large, low-performing schools that were closed down a decade ago. I am anxious to see the extent to which these specific changes have impacted their successes.
Several years ago, the foundation made significant investments in the small schools movement. We learned a great deal from that work – and the most important thing we learned is that while size matters, what matters most is who’s teaching the class and what’s happening inside that classroom. When you take all of those ingredients seriously then you get powerful results for students.