Tuesday, December 9, 2008

No evidence of improved outcomes at NYC's small schools

Joel Klein and his friends at New Visions often trumpet the results of their small schools initiative, claiming these schools have improved achievement and graduation rates for their students, compared to those attending other NYC public schools. And in a recent speech, while Bill Gates admitted to the overall failure of the small school initiative, which he had funded to the tune of nearly $2 billion, he still claimed that the small schools in NYC had succeeded:

“Their graduation rates were nearly 40 percentage points higher than the rates in the schools they replaced. In 2006, the small schools' graduation rates exceeded those of comparable schools in the district by 18 percentage points.

The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), of the Institute for Education Sciences, the research arm of the US Dept. of Education, produces objective analyses of education research. In a recent report, the WWC summarized all the available research on dropout prevention programs and strategies, including 84 evaluations of 22 programs, and found only four that had positive results, in terms of helping students stay in school longer and/or progressing more rapidly. A few programs showed some evidence of helping students to graduate from school.

Guess which programs/schools had no convincing evidence of improved results? The NYC small schools funded by Gates. The WWC analyzed twelve different studies of NYC’s small schools, called “New Century High Schools” and found:

No studies of the New Century High Schools Initiative that fell within the scope of the Dropout Prevention review meet WWC evidence standards. The lack of studies meeting WWC evidence standards means that, at this time, the WWC is unable to draw any conclusions based on research about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of New Century High Schools.

Here is an excerpt from the New Visions press release, boasting about the results of these schools, as reported in the final Policy Studies Associates study, a supposedly independent evaluation that was also funded by the Gates Foundation:

New York, NY October 16, 2007 -- An independent research study of 75 New Century High Schools (NCHS) reports a significantly higher average graduation rate than the citywide average in the first schools with graduating classes. The study also notes higher rates of student retention, promotion, and attendance than in other New York City public high schools...…“We conclude that the NCHS intervention was notable with regard to dropout prevention and on time graduation,” the PSA researchers found. “Keeping youth in school earning credits and passing exams is a significant accomplishment, and it is a basis on which to build deeper accomplishments."

What did WWC say about this and the other PSA reports, as well as two West Ed studies, also funded by Gates?

These studies were rejected, because the intervention and comparison groups are not shown to be equivalent at baseline” – meaning that the students who attended the new small high schools were not shown to be similar to those to whom they were being compared.

Six other studies of the NYC small schools were rejected, “because [they do] not examine the effectiveness of an intervention,” including this one from the Carnegie Foundation, “Small schools in the big city: Promising results validate reform efforts in New York City high schools.

The Institute for Education Studies has concluded, by the way, that that class size reduction is one of only four, evidence-based reforms that through rigorous, randomized experiments have been proven to work – the "gold standard" of research. None of the strategies attempted by the NYC Department of Education under Joel Klein's leadership were cited.


ceolaf said...

Why do you support the What Works Clearinghous (WWC)? Why do you have any confidene that demanding the best medodolgy of medical research is appropriate for educational reasearch?

For example, by that standard, schools would never have been desegregated. Afterall, there were not randomized trials of desegreged compared to segregated schools to examine whether the reform had positive outcomes.

Look, I've never thought that school sizes makes a difference. And the most basic objection to claims that it does is that the sub-popuations being compared are not comparable. That is, there is a selection bias.

But we don't need randomized trials to correct for that. Regression analysis can account for background variables (i.e. family income, parents education, etc.), and such work has shows that when you do account for these factors that small schools are no better than large schools. (That is, there are great small schools, bad small schools and average small schools, which are no greater or worse or in difference proportions than large schools.)

There are severe methodological problems with studies that find small schools to be better, and they are easy to spot. And there are plenty of studies that show that there is no differene in outcomes. We don't need the WWC medical standard to understand the evidence.

Which takes us back to class size. There are fews studies that show that it makes a difference in outcomes. They do no address higher grades or the sustainability of the gains made. It is an expensive reform, and might not even be feasible. The fact that there is a study that does meet medical standards does not make the reform a good idea, and certainly not the only good idea.

NYC Educator said...

Yet oddly, I'm able to give more attention to individual students in classes of 25 than classes of 34. Odder still, in classes of 15 I can give even more attention to individual kids and their problems. In fact, I don't need a study to see what is plainly before me each and every day.

It's certainly laudable that Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein emphasize "differentiated instruction." Yet they pointedly refuse to enable it by saddling city kids with the highest class size in the state.

There's a good reason why neither Mayor Bloomberg nor Joel Klein chose to place their kids in classes of 34. And there's a good reason why, in nearby suburbs, active parents don't allow it in their public schools.

They don't need "randomized trials" either.

Anonymous said...

How are Bloomberg's large schools doing?