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Saturday, June 30, 2007

Small schools success?

See articles from the NY Times and NY Post about the Gates-funded small schools boasting of much higher graduation rates than the larger schools that they replaced. A few points omitted or glossed over in these articles:

First of all, these comparisons assume that the students who attended both sets of schools were similar. Yet the independent evaluation done by Policy Studies Associates (in pdf) revealed that the students who were admitted to the small schools in all respects were much more likely to succeed. (This study was suppressed by New Visions until a copy was leaked by a critic to the NY Times in 2005.)

Not only were there far fewer English language learners and special education students among them, two groups with the worst graduation rates in the city, but on average, their students also had higher test scores, higher grades, better attendance, and were far less likely to have been held back than students at the large host schools. For example, only 10% of the students at the small schools scored below basic in their 8th grade ELA exams, compared with 35% at their host schools -- with a similar disparity in math. Moreover, 97% had been promoted in the prior year, compared with only 59% of the students at the host schools.

They had better attendance records in middle school (91% compared to 81%), and were less likely to have been suspended. Only 6% of Bronx NCHS students had IEPs, compared with 25% at the comparison schools; and none of the students at the small schools had the most serious disabilities. Indeed, teachers at the new small schools praised their principals for "recruiting more high-performing students."

The new small schools also had significantly more resources, more space, and much smaller classes than the large schools that they replaced. While class sizes at the larger high schools averaged 30 students or more, class sizes at most of the new small schools were between 13 and 20 students, as the first year PSA evaluation (in pdf) noted.

Students observed that their smaller classes were their most valuable aspect: “they liked the small class sizes, the willingness of teachers to provide extra help…” One student said, “I like the close thing with teachers and that you can discuss your problems with them.” According to another, “I like that it’s small, and we each get attention. There’s not one person who doesn’t get attention from our teachers. And they treat us all the same. In a normal high school, they don’t talk to you when you have a problem. They don’t care.”

I don’t think that it should be any surprise that if you take higher-performing students and give them smaller classes, they will be more likely to graduate on time than lower-achieving students with much larger classes.

Another important point to note that as the small schools take up more space, and exclude so many special ed, ELL, and low-performing students, large schools throughout the city have become even more overcrowded with "at risk" students, undermining their chance of success. Many affected high schools have since been put on the state failing list, including Murray Bergtraum, Washington Irving, Norman Thomas, Jane Adams, etc. etc.

The question is if this is equitable and sustainable, with so many of our large schools destabilized. Sadly, the administration has no strategy to improve these high schools, rather than close them down, exclude the neediest students, and cause more overcrowding and failure elsewhere.

As more than two thirds of our HS students continue to attend large schools, there needs to be some plan in place to increase the capacity of these schools so they can provide their students with some of the same sort of opportunities, including smaller classes.

Unfortunately, no such plan exists.

For more on these issues, see the recent Class Size Matters testimony to the City Council.

Also, Tilden HS teachers fight for their school’s survival. Though the school has one of the few bilingual programs for Haitian students, and a good record of graduating ELL students, the administration is determined to shut it down. Yet it is these very students who will be likely be excluded from the small schools taking Tilden’s place.

Even some of the older generation of small schools face the same fate --- being closed down prematurely so that the administration can establish yet another generation of small schools in its place: see the statement from teachers at the New School for Arts and Sciences, a small high school in the Bronx, that has improved results for its population of about 40% ELL and special ed students.

This just in: see Diane Ravitch's take on the media's unthinking acceptance of the administration's small school spin in Ed Week.

1 comment:

NYC Educator said...

I think this is a very important criticism, and as large schools are overloaded, and overcrowded, and overused, and undercared-for, the likelihood of their failure increases dramatically.

Sadly, that seems fine with those who run our system. Fixing them seems impossible, as they attempt to fix them with every conceivable method except those that are proven to work.

It's an odd approach, but it's been very popular in NYC for over thirty years now.