Small High Schools are Better, Say Small School Advocates

Economists are the priests of capitalism, and education reform.

Economists are the priests of capitalism, and education reform.

Both the Daily News and New York Post touted a study carried out by researchers from MIT and Duke that found Bloomberg’s small high schools to be more successful than their larger counterparts. As someone who has worked in small high schools, the findings of this study do not have the ring of truth. So, I decided to slog my way through it to see what it says for myself.

The researchers at MIT measure “success” by Regents scores and college admissions. This means that they have a myopic focus on the core subjects. The fact that the arts have been disappearing from all high schools, especially the smaller ones, does not register a blip anywhere in this study. They also make no mention of the dearth of enrichment programs at smaller schools, a dearth caused by their small size. Smaller schools do not have the pool of talent and resources that larger schools used to have to build things like debate or football teams. The study makes much of the idea that smaller schools have “themes” but never assess whether or not these themes truly reflect what goes on in these schools. It is just taken as an article of faith that schools with “technology” in their titles teach students technology, or schools with “leadership” teach leadership and so on. While this faith is troubling, one must keep in mind this study was carried out by economists, probably the most faith-based of all the social sciences.

One glaring shortcoming of the study is that it does not measure the scores of students with special needs in smaller high schools. This includes English Language Learners. According to the paper:

“Students who were special education and limited English proficient were manually placed into programs that could accommodate them and were therefore  not always subject to assignment based on lotteries. As a result, no students who are special education and limited English proficient are in the lottery sample.”

The “lottery sample” to which they refer makes up the bulk of the small school students that are being measured. On the other hand, they did not exclude a similar proportion of special needs students and English Language Learners from their sample of students from larger schools. To say this might end up skewing the results of this study is an understatement.

One of the findings of the study is that students and parents felt safer in smaller schools according to the Learning Environment Surveys. They do not mention the percentage of students and parents who fill out these surveys, which is typically a very small amount of the overall population. Is it really reflective of the overall attitude towards the school if 5% of the families who attend it feel safe?

If the learning environment is so good in these schools, then how can this be explained?

“Small school teachers often had to take on administrative roles given the reduced staffing at small schools, and additional work requirements may have lead to higher turnover rates (Hemphill and Nauer, 2009). The estimate in Table 3 implies that 28% of teachers were not teaching at schools attended by offered complies in the following year, while 19% of teachers were not teaching at schools attended by non-offered compliers in the following year.”

So, the yearly turnover rate at these small schools is between 19 and 28 percent and the researchers backhandedly chalk this up to teachers at these schools having to take on administrative roles. This puts a shiny gloss on a much uglier reality. New teachers being unprepared for the classroom, systematic harassment, denial of tenure and expectations by administrators that teachers work overtime for free are not mentioned anywhere in this study, although they are pervasive problems throughout the system. This calls into question the rigor and objectivity of this study.

And what of the fantastic gains of the schools that were studied? According to the Daily News article:

” Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke University found that city students who attend small high schools established by Bloomberg are 9% more likely to receive high school diplomas and 7% more likely to attend college, compared with students who attend older, larger city high schools.”

Therefore, these schools in which the scores of special needs students and English Language Learners were not counted, were a whopping 9% more likely to graduate students and 7% more likely to have graduates who attend college. These numbers should be put into perspective.

First, many of the large schools to which these smaller schools were compared have become little more than dumping grounds for the Bloomberg administration. As is the case with Long Island City High School, many of the larger schools have much higher numbers of special needs students and higher rates of overcrowding. It has been the DOE’s tactic to set large schools up for failure in this way so that they have an excuse to close them down, chop them up and, in many cases, move in charter schools. Furthermore, as the study states, many of these smaller schools benefit from the largesse of philanthropic organizations like the Gates Foundation. The study did not take these funding disparities into account.

Therefore, after all of these advantages, and after all of the ways this study skews the playing field in the favor of small schools, they are still only 9% more likely to graduate students. They do this without providing the type of enrichment activities that were possible with larger schools. This makes these smaller schools little more than diploma mills, and not very effective ones at that.

Rising graduation rates or college admissions is in no way a measure of success. It is usually more indicative of lower standards, which we see in the increasing number of incoming CUNY freshmen in need of remedial classes. It is interesting that this study does not delve into which colleges the graduates of small schools are accepted. Are these two-year or four-year colleges? Are they being admitted to Hostos or Hunter? These are things that would have given a more accurate picture of the types of graduates coming out of the small schools.

The worst part of this study is not the obvious bias in favor of small schools. It is how the miniscule gains it finds in these small schools, gains in a very limited scope of categories, is seen as success. There is no attempt to put things into context. There is no attempt to ask the question: was killing off most of the large high schools, firing hundreds of teachers, shuffling around thousands of students and bringing in countless unqualified administrators all worth these 9% gains in graduation and 7% gains in college admissions? Or how about: was the destruction of the enrichment activities that came with larger schools worth it?

These are the types of questions that must be asked when assessing Bloomberg’s legacy for New York City’s public schools. Given the advantages heaped upon the small schools in this study, it is more likely the case that so-called “achievement” of New York City students is no different that it was 12 years ago. The study itself gives an indication of this when it mentions that SAT and PSAT scores, the only statistics not open to manipulation by the Department of Education, have remained stagnant.

That means the Bloomberg legacy is one of aimless destruction. It means that Bloomberg subjected the children of NYC to never-ending upheaval in their schools for what purpose? There are more administrators in the system than ever before. There is more teacher turnover than ever before. There are more no-bid contracts in the DOE than ever before. When all of these factors are put together, it means that Bloomberg oversaw the creation of a pliant teaching force under the thumb of unqualified administrators who helped institute a program of privatization in our public schools. He turned education in NYC into a gold mine for his billionaire friends.

The scariest part about all of this is that it only promises to get worse. Even if Bill de Blasio is the progressive white knight that many people think he is (which is quite doubtful), he can still do only so much to undo the damage of 12 years of Bloomberg. He still has to contend with reforms coming from the state and federal level over which he has very little control. Those reforms only promise to exacerbate the damage done by Pharaoh Bloomberg.

Economists all too often act as lickspittles for the moneyed elite. This study is just another example of that.

 

 

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4 responses to “Small High Schools are Better, Say Small School Advocates

  1. Michael Fiorillo

    Excellent analysis of this phenomenon, but I’d just add a quibble: Bloomberg/Tweed’s destruction is not aimless, but strategic. The overarching and conscious motivation is the destabilization and destruction of the neighborhood public school, and it’s ultimate replacement by private providers.

    Seen from that perspective – assuming these policies continue apace – the small schools are a way station on the way to a tiered system, with favored charter schools and public schools divided between a few showcase schools and a large number of stigmatized dumping grounds.

    In this model, these bogus “academies” – in truth, test prep factories with marketing-savvy names – will eventually be closed, as well, and because of their separation from the communities where they are located, will be less likely and able to fight. Churn and “disruption” being a goal of the so-called reformers, these schools will eventually be whacked, also.

    • As usual Mike, you are absolutely right. I really think the endgame here is to herd all public school students into online “academies”. Privatizers salivate over getting rid of so many teacher salaries and pensions so money can be freed up for no-bid contracts for them to sell computers and software. Joel Klein got into the game early and is cleaning up in North Carolina. “Digital learning” is growing faster even than brick and mortar charter schools. Of course, the children of the elite will continue to send their children to private schools.

  2. Even Gates who funded the breakup of the large comprehensive high schools in NYC found that the small schools overall showed no significant change in test scores over the large ones they replaced. Oops, damage done, UFT strongholds dismantled, kids shuffled around from school to school, even greater segregation by race and class, but no worry, lets just move on to the next ‘big’ thing; teacher evaluations and common core.

    The private money just keeps on setting the agenda, they find enough grad school whores to give their prescriptions for school reform a gloss of legitamacy, the UFT goes along (with reservations of course) to maintain their “seat at the table”, the new and improved ‘reform’ is put in place, critics go unheard by the corporate media, rank and file dissent is marginalized, parents are told its all about holding teachers feet to the fire so their kids can compete in the global marketplace and when that marketplace turns out to be a race to the bottom, presto, the privatizers are ready with a new campaign. The people are kept always one step behind, reacting, trying to catch up to the fraud. Educators and parents need to step back and see the pattern and demand an end to mayoral dictatorship and radical economic reform that secures needed revenue from the 1%, and I’m not talking about casino gambling. Keynes had it right when he called for the “euthanasia of the rentier class.”

  3. As an ATR I have been in many schools, small and large. Relatively few of these small schools are doing well, as measured by regents and grad rates. Note that these schools are likely to have experienced leaders and low < 15 % teacher turnover. Also, very few legitimately reflect any objectives their titles may imply. It's about whether the leader can inculcate a culture of learning and persistence. And that is true for both the students and faculty.
    But some of these schools do exist !

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