Michele Cahill: Accelerating Adolescent Learning Through High School and Beyond


Researchers at MIT and Duke University just released a study entitled Small Schools and Student Achievement: Lottery-Based Evidence from New York CityThe findings add to the available evidence about New York City’s success. They show that students who attend small, nonselective high schools earn more credits, score higher on Regents exams, and have a significantly better chance of graduating and attending college than comparable students in schools that have not been explicitly designed to give them the supports they need. The results are striking for several reasons.

Watch a video about the The Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice, one of more than 200 small public high schools in New York City. The school emphasizes literacy across the curriculum, extensive collaboration to improve teaching and learning, and strong community partnerships that enrich the curriculum. Children who won a place in the lottery to attend a school of choice have higher graduation rates and test scores than those who applied but did not gain enrollment.

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First, the researchers used gold-standard research methods that relied on New York’s lottery system for assigning students to schools that are over-subscribed. This random selection allowed the researchers to overcome a common objection raised by small school skeptics: that even among the predominantly poor, minority, under-prepared students who attend these high schools, those who opt for and are accepted by small schools are inherently different from those who do not. Matching students precisely by key characteristics, including academic performance, demographics, and a host of other factors—for example, whether or not they attended a school open house—the researchers achieve a true “apples-to-apples” comparison among applicants.

Second, the new study extends earlier work by researchers at MDRC, whose 2010 and 2012 reports documented the positive impact of “small schools of choice” on high school graduation rates. For this new study, funded by the National Science Foundation, MIT and Duke economists followed five cohorts of students through high school and into the years beyond. Their findings show clearly that students who attended these small schools were not only more likely to graduate but also substantially more likely to go to college, place out of remedial courses once they got there, and stay in college for at least two semesters. (Students in the study are not yet old enough to have completed college.) The new study also used a slightly different randomization methodology, strengthening the authority of the earlier results. This is precisely the sort of exhaustive, long-term, cross-validating research that school leaders need in order to justify important policy decisions regarding the design of schools.

Third and most important, Small Schools and Student Achievement proves that it is indeed possible to provide adolescents—even those who enter high school substantially behind—with accelerated learning of an academically challenging curriculum that lets them catch up, get on track, and graduate ready for college. A crucial key, as revealed by the researchers’ review of standardized school survey results, is a school environment where students feel safe, respected, and engaged with adults, and in which adults hold students to high expectations. The implications of these findings are immense as our education system prepares for the challenge, now acute in the face of Common Core implementation, of educating all students—including those who are already struggling and already in high school—to much higher standards.

On a personal note, I acknowledge that I did not read this new study, or the earlier ones by MDRC, with an unbiased eye. I was an architect of New York City’s initiative to replace its lowest performing large high schools in high poverty neighborhoods with new small high schools, first at Carnegie Corporation in 2001 when I joined with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Open Society Institute and New Visions for Public Schools to launch the New Century High School initiative, and then from 2002-2007 during my tenure as senior counselor to Chancellor Joel Klein. During this period, the NYC Department of Education undertook a full-scale secondary school reform, phasing out long-failing large high schools, phasing out long-failing, large high schools where only one in three students typically graduated.  They were replaced with hundreds of new, academically-themed small high schools educating no more than 450 students.

It’s gratifying to see these affirmative results and to know they were produced through such rigorous research; honestly, it’s also a relief. The truth is, when we started in 2002, we hoped, like so many school reformers before us, that small schools would have even greater impact on student achievement than they had so far achieved.  We were working largely on the basis of our experience, assembling proven practices into an unproven whole. Fortunately, that’s no longer necessary.

Today, thanks in part to research like this latest study, we know much more about what it really takes to redesign schools, and systems of schools, to serve all students. At Carnegie Corporation, we are building on the lessons from New York City through our Opportunity by Design initiative, funding four urban districts —Cleveland, Denver, Philadelphia and New York City — to advance new high school designs and system reforms.  And we are looking for more districts to add to this initiative.  For all schools and school systems aiming to accelerate adolescent learning for college and career success, this new study will strengthen the knowledge base that undergirds the challenging work ahead.

An analysis of New York City's small-high-schools initiative, which has been led by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel I. Klein, is instructive. How is New York City’s achievement relevant to the national school reform debate? The results reported by the MIT-Duke study and the prior MDRC studies offer hope and lessons as districts work to enable high school students to reach more academically demanding standards while simultaneously reducing school dropout rates, and increasing college readiness. What made New York City’s effort different from many other small-schools projects nationwide that have had mixed results?  Robert Hughes, President of New Visions, and I have distilled some key lessons:

• Boldness. From its inception, the small-schools effort was designed to improve the student experience at scale rather than create a single school model. We conceptualized a strategy that would reverse the situation for the lowest-performing 10 percent of high schools. We worked to mobilize hundreds of students, parents, teachers, community groups, and district and labor leaders to understand and own the failure of these schools and commit to action.

• Innovate using research-based principles of school design. The New York City Department of Education, along with New Visions for Public Schools and the local teachers’ and principals’ unions, supported a rigorous planning and approval process. Proposals for new schools needed to demonstrate the capacity to put in place many of the elements of successful change: strong and capable school leadership, high-quality teaching across disciplines, accountability for all students, an academically strong curriculum leading to a Regents diploma, parent and community engagement, and student voice. Only teams that met these criteria were approved by the department to open their schools’ doors—and significant numbers of groups did not meet these standards.

• Redefine community schools. As part of this process, community groups and service providers, many of which had formerly worked to improve the failing neighborhood schools, found new ways to contribute to student experience. Partnerships in every school focused on integrating youth-development services, high-quality curricula, and instruction and community resources into an extended school day. Partnerships stimulated and offered opportunities for increasing social capital in communities—the talent, caring relationships, opportunities for student involvement, and use of expanded learning environments too often marginal or established outside the school structure.

• Define success in terms of student outcomes. New York City developed new schools as “proof points” of what the system could achieve for the same kinds of students in the lowest-performing of its high schools. Rather than set a goal of mere improvement over the abject failure of the schools they replaced (26 percent to 45 percent graduation), the city set a goal of 80 percent graduation and 92 percent attendance. The idea was to spur accelerated change with very high expectations. We invited parents, community leaders, and elected officials from the affected neighborhoods to visit the first set of new schools and see evidence of promise.

• Change the district. New York City’s systemic Children First reform was critical to the success of these schools by targeting for improvement school leadership and teacher recruitment, and by deploying resources to high-poverty schools, student admissions, accountability, data management, and school-based budgeting. The Department of Education initiated cross-functional planning, with timetables for delivering on promises and plans and the use of data for planning, instructional improvement, and accountability. Similarly, union leadership joined senior staff in meeting with teacher groups from all the affected schools, helping implement the radical changes needed to overcome what had been intractable school failure. This process enabled the schools to attract good and committed teachers with high expectations for the students and match their expertise and interest with the mission and theme of a new school. We were also able to attract strong and capable principals. New York made use of resources such as the New Teacher ProjectTeach For America, and the city's own Teaching Fellows program to bring in new talent.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the reform is that these strategies worked in concert with one another, not in isolation. That is the point. All the elements of New York City’s small-schools strategy can be replicated in other districts by strong leaders and smart practitioners of secondary reform. New York City’s is the only high school strategy out there that has produced significant graduation-rate gains at scale. In the coming years, it needs to push further and reach more students.  But it doesn’t need to work just in New York.