School reform advocates are rightly excited about a persuasive new study showing that New York City's small, specialized high schools are outperforming larger, more traditional schools, significantly narrowing the graduation-rate gap that currently exists between white and minority students across the city.
The study validates the small school policies of the Bloomberg administration, which has shut down 20 large, failing high schools and replaced them with more than 200 small schools, about half of which were the focus of this study.
Some of the large, factory-style high schools that were closed had enrollments of 3,000 or more and graduation rates under 40 percent. The new small schools, overwhelmingly in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, typically serve a little more than 400 students each. These schools have several other things in common. They have a rigorous curriculum. They offer a personalized approach to education, with teachers responsible for keeping close tabs on the performance of their students.
They are organized around themes - law, science, social justice. They get valuable support from community partners - colleges, cultural organizations or social service groups - that give the students extensive experience with a world of adults outside their families.
The study, done by MDRC, a nonpartisan research group and paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, focused on about 21,000 students. Nearly half attended the small schools focused on in the study, and the rest attended schools that were mainly larger and older.
It found that the average graduation rate for students in the small schools was nearly 69 percent, nearly 7 percentage points higher than the rate for students in the traditional schools. That means that the small schools erased about a third of the 20-point graduation-rate gap that currently exists between white students and students of color in New York City.
These findings are especially encouraging given that most of the students studied entered the small high schools reading below grade level. The researchers plan to follow them through college into the world of work. The findings have breathed new life into the small-school movement. It should encourage Mayor Michael Bloomberg to replace more large failing schools and districts elsewhere to follow New York City's example.