More Research Showing Small Schools Work, Gates Remains Silent

By 10/23/2013

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With the support of the Gates Foundation, New York City created 150 small schools of choice between 2002 and 2008. Five previous rigorous studies of this program and other small school initiatives have demonstrated significant benefits for students.  Now we have a sixth study from the School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative at MIT.

The authors, Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Weiwei Hu, and Parag Pathak, are economists at Duke and MIT.  They take advantage of lotteries to gain admission to these non-selective small schools of choice to conduct a random assignment experiment. The full study can be read here, but it does not allow me to cut and paste text  to summarize the results. According to the press release:

According to the press release:

The study follows cohorts of rising 9th graders for five application years from 2003-04 through 2007-08. For these students, small schools boost performance across all five major Regents exams: Math, English, Living Environment, Global History, and US History.  Students randomly offered a seat at a small school accumulate 1.4 more credits per year, attend school for 4 more days each year, and are 9% more likely to receive a high school diploma.

As the cohorts have aged, it is now possible to measure the effects of small schools on college enrollment and choice, outcomes that have never been examined before.   Compared to the college enrollment rate of 37% for those not offered, students at small schools are 7% more likely to attend college and 6% more likely to attend a four-year college.  Most of these gains come at four-year public institutions.  There is a marked 7% increase in the fraction of students who enroll in the CUNY system. Small schools cause students to clear CUNY remediation requirements in writing or reading.  The early evidence suggests that students are more likely to persist in college, as measured by attempting at least two academic semesters.  Students in the lottery study are too young to say anything definitive about college graduation.

A major innovation in the study is its use of information contained in NYC’s Learning Environment Surveys to characterize the small school environment for those in the experiment.  Small schools are rated higher than fallback schools by student survey respondents on the overwhelming majority of questions on engagement, safety and respect, academic expectations, and communication.  Surveys indicate that students feel safer and have closer interactions with their peers and teachers, despite reporting a smaller variety of course offerings and activities.  Teachers indicate greater feedback, increased safety, and improved collaboration.

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation. The research team includes Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Professor of Economics, Weiwei Hu, PhD Candidate at Duke University and Parag Pathak, Associate Professor of Economics at MIT and SEII Director.  The study uses data provided by the New York City Department of Education.  The findings are being released in the National Bureau of Economic Research working paper series this week.

The study uses an innovative research design based on admissions lotteries contained in the high school match.  The lottery-based research design relies on apples-to-apples comparisons: among those who apply to a given set of small schools, applicants who were randomly offered are compared with otherwise similar students who were not offered a seat.  The study covers more than 108 oversubscribed high school programs with 9th grade entry, which represent 70% of unselective small high schools opened between 2002-2008.

“These results indicate important possibilities for urban small schools reform,” said Pathak.  “The collaboration partnership between key stakeholders in New York City shows that within-district reform strategies can substantially improve student achievement.”

Despite more proof that the small schools of choice reform strategy pursued by the Gates Foundation before 2006 has been a clear success, the Gates Foundation has nothing to say about these positive results.  I can find nothing from their massive press machine touting the results — nothing on their web site, nothing on their twitter feed, no well-placed stories in the NY Times or LA Times.  Those efforts are reserved for their new, unproven and misguided strategy of top-down reform through Common Core and measuring and incentivizing teacher performance.

Let’s hope that the Gates Foundation and its followers are not impervious to evidence and reconsider their abandonment of the small schools of choice reform strategy.

-Jay P. Greene

Comment on this article
  • Tom Vander Ark says:

    Jay, it’s important to note that these studies dramatically understate the benefit of new schools because they compare current options. The big benefit was closing bad schools and replacing them with good schools.

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    Unfortunately, the way Gates went about his small school work made it unlikely to yield the same benefits that often occur when small schools develop out of shared vision and shared commitment.

    Superintendents go chasing these big carrots even when their teachers aren’t on board.

    Small schools have lots of potential, and in some ways, the web makes powerful small schools easier to pull off (can compensate for some of the traditional weaknesses of small schools through on-line classes and resources).

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    Good point, Tom. And even these under-stated benefits of small schools of choice are quite impressive.

    And Karl — if you are right that Gates implementation of the small schools concept was weak, then the benefits from a better implemented effort would be even larger.

  • Bill Bryan says:

    ? Bill Gates supported a voucher program for NYC kids?!!!

    Gates has been a major private source OPPOSED to Quality
    education reform via taxpayer grant or voucher programs
    for almost 20 years. i.e. Gates spent tens of millions along with the billionaires Buffet, Eli Broad, NEA, AFT and other
    Government School advocates to defeat voucher initiatives
    in Washington State and California and other voucher
    initiatives in other states; THEN provided massive funding to
    ACLU, NAACP, etc… to fight voucher bills that passed like the one in Milwaukee.

    Why? Another voucher advocate mentioned that Gates
    had two big reasons for opposing quality education reform
    via vouchers: #1. Microsoft makes beaucoup bucks selling
    remedial programs to Government Schools and Colleges and
    Universities AND #2. Mr. Gates despises the country that
    gave him the opportunity to get massively rich. Capitalism
    is Gates’ Enemy #1!? (PS. Watch Bill Gates, Sr., being
    interviewed by Brian Lamb on C-Span to see where Bill, Jr.,
    gets his hatred of America.) Anyway…

    Quality Government Education would cut into Microsoft’s
    bottom line.

    Bill Bryan, Quality Education Advocate since 1965.
    Quality Education Advocate via Taxpayer Funded Vouchers
    since 1993.

    Uh, maybe I misinterpreted the gist of this column. Could
    the author be advocating small class size as a way to increase
    quality? Most studies have show this to be a canard if the
    students are of average or above average intelligence.
    i.e. Jaime Escalante had Math classes with 50-80 students
    in each with Escalante acting as Lead Teacher and Advanced
    students acting as Teachers’ aides. Long Story Short:
    Escalante was fired—essentially—for having class sizes
    too large. See the movie: ‘Stand and Deliver’
    Escalante—if he’s still alive—started teaching Private
    schools where class size was not dictated by Union Rules.

  • Barbara Peterson says:

    This carefully drawn research will help those districts who have invested in implementing small schools to refocus on the promise of these public school initiatives.

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