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Encouraging News for Large-Scale High School Reform

August 25, 2013

Too many young people growing up in U.S. cities are not succeeding in public high schools: they graduate unprepared for postsecondary education and the workforce or do not graduate at all. While urban districts have tried an array of turnaround strategies, success on a large scale is rare. In part, this is because budgets, political pressures, or leadership changes preclude innovations that address fundamental issues, prevent them from being tried for long enough to succeed, or keep them from expanding to reach enough students when they do succeed. That’s why the story of high school reform in New York City is special.

In 2002, New York City embarked on an ambitious set of reforms. It instituted a district-wide high school choice process for all rising ninth-graders, closed large, failing high schools, and opened more than 200 new small high schools. More than half of the new schools created between 2002 and 2008 were intended to serve students in some of the district’s most disadvantaged communities. The schools were developed through a competitive proposal process designed with unions, philanthropy, and other stakeholders to stimulate innovative ideas for new schools. The resulting schools are more than just small; they emphasize academic rigor; strong, sustained relationships between students and faculty; and community partnerships to offer relevant learning opportunities outside the classroom. This reform effort represents innovation on a large scale, sustained for over a decade so far.

new update from MDRC’s rigorous, lottery-based study of this reform offers continued encouraging findings about these small schools, which the nonprofit, nonpartisan social policy research group calls Small Schools of Choice (SSCs) because they offer a real choice for low-income students with varying academic backgrounds. Earlier reports (released in 2010 and 2012) received wide attention for their findings that SSCs boosted graduation rates for a variety of disadvantaged students of color. This report, which includes results for a new cohort of students, confirms that students at SSCs are 9.5 percentage points more likely to graduate than are comparable students at other New York City schools, even as graduation rates at those other schools have risen. For the first time, this report also offers qualitative findings about what principals and teachers at the SSCs with the strongest evidence of effectiveness think are the reasons behind their success: they overwhelmingly cite dedicated teachers, academic rigor, and personal relationships with students.

Why are these findings important? With the nation’s attention focused on turning around failing urban high schools, this study provides convincing evidence that large-scale reform and student choice are possible within a public school system in a way that can reach all students. Serving low-income students of color, two-thirds of whom were far behind grade level when they started the ninth grade, SSCs are improving the lives and life prospects of many young people. With support from the federal School Improvement Grant program, districts around the nation have the opportunity to replicate New York City’s success.

But while these results are historic, and hold great implications for reforming failing high schools in other communities, more remains to be done. More than a quarter of SSC students fail to graduate high school within five years. The good news is that these small schools are establishing a sturdy platform upon which other reforms can be built.

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