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New Findings on the Effectiveness and Operation of Small Public High Schools of Choice in New York City

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January 10, 2014 12:26 pm

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On December 17, the Alliance conducted a webinar to review the findings of the latest MDRC report on the New York City “small high schools of choice” and to facilitate a conversation among education leaders about the design and implementation of  large-scale high school reform. Panelists included Rebecca Unterman, Research Associate in K–12 Education Policy Area for MDRC; Robert Hughes, President of New Visions for Public Schools; Mark Ossenheimer,  Principal at Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx; and Jim Shelton, Acting Deputy Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education.  If you missed the webinar, you can watch the archived video.

MDRC, a non-profit, nonpartisan social policy research organization, issued a 2010 report and a 2012 report on the impact of NYC’s small schools of choice (SSCs) initiative that provides high school students and their parents with equitable access to an extensive portfolio of high-performing schools.

This year’s report, Sustained Progress: New Findings About the Effectiveness and Operation of Small Public High Schools of Choice in New York City, shows that these SSCs continue to markedly increase achievement and high school graduation rates for large numbers of disadvantaged students of color and may likely have positive effects for special education students and English language learners as well. The MDRC findings are impressive.  SSCs, serving low-income students of color, two-thirds of whom were far behind when they started ninth grade, dramatically improve the life prospects of thousands of young people.

In the context of educating all students to achieve much higher levels of skill and knowledge, nowhere is the need for redesign greater or more urgent than in American high schools. Beginning in 2002, New York City closed more than twenty large failing high schools, and opened more than 200 new small high schools serving mostly disadvantaged students of color. Faced with stunningly low graduation and achievement levels, the NYC educational leadership implemented sweeping changes with the goal of creating a system of great schools.  At the time of the program’s inception, in SY 2001–02, only 41 percent of all NYC students, and even fewer black and Hispanic students, graduated within four years.

The results from a third cohort of students who entered ninth grade in the fall of 2007 are consistent with previous findings. Overall, graduation rates increased by 9.5 percentage points—
70.4 percent versus 60.9 percent in other schools. These graduation gains can be attributed almost entirely to a greater number of students earning the New York State Regents diploma by passing examinations in core academic subjects. The effects of the SSCs were seen in every subgroup, including male and female students of color, students with below grade level eighth-grade proficiency in math and reading, and low-income students. This gain reduced the size of the gap in graduation rates between white students and students of color in NYC by roughly one third.

The schools were created through a demanding competitive proposal process that emphasized the role of empowered leaders and effective teachers in designing new schools around the common design principles of academic rigor, personalization, and community partnerships. While demanding strict accountability for progress in improving student outcomes, the district provided systemwide support for new principals and teachers in developing innovative instructional practices to engage students and accelerate their learning. See page 59 of the third report for the list of the ten design elements.

The district infused design capacity and resources by working through education intermediary organizations. Nonprofit organizations such as New Visions for New Schools, the Institute for Student Achievement, and the Urban Assembly provided central sources of experience and technical support, largely in the areas of leadership development, instructional innovations, and college-ready services.

Bob Hughes from New Visions for Public Schools noted that the New York City Department of Education only approved about 40 percent of start-up proposals. “The New York strategy created an organic application process whereby community groups, teachers, and parents could actually come together; think about how they wanted to change the relationship between students, the curriculum, the community, and the school; and then put together a proposal to meet the design specifications in achieving that vision,” Hughes said.

SSC enrollees attended schools that were purposefully organized around smaller, personalized units of adults and students where principals supported a learner-centered culture; where there was a well-defined approach to instruction; and where teachers knew enough about their students to provide appropriate academic and socioemotional supports. “This was a human capital strategy for the poorest neighborhoods,” said Michele Cahill, vice president of national programs and program director of urban education at Carnegie Corporation of New York. Cahill played a central role in shaping the high school reform strategy, which included a new and rigorous organizing process that allowed teachers and school leaders to do something different in schools serving the most vulnerable and underserved students.

For the first time, the 2013 MDRC report offers findings about what principals and teachers at the twenty-five small high schools with the strongest evidence of effectiveness believe contributes most to the effectiveness of their schools. They overwhelmingly cite academic rigor and personal relationships as the major factors for improvements in students’ graduation rates.

Educating all students to achieve higher levels of skills and knowledge is an immense challenge. In the context of college and career ready standards, American high schools must do a better job of providing students with a course of study that allows him or her to learn in a deep, meaningful, and practical way. In addition, high schools must meet the diverse learning needs of students, many of whom enter ninth grade significantly below grade level. In order to illuminate important elements of high school redesign, future MDRC research will examine:

•    the variation in effectiveness among SSCs and the factors that predict this variation — essentially, describing the factors that make the most successful SSCs effective;
•    what organizational  resources are necessary to create effective SSCs;
•    what must faculty and administrators in these schools do to sustain their effective operation;
•    the  backgrounds, recruitment, and turnover of SSC teachers relative to that of teachers in other NYCDOE schools;
•    data about the environment of the SSCs and other NYCDOE high schools obtained from annual surveys of teachers, students, and parents conducted by the district; and
•    whether the observed gains in high school graduation produced by SSCs translate into observable gains in students’ success in postsecondary education and the world of work.

Jim Shelton, Acting Deputy Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education, emphasized the importance of using the kind of disciplined approach modeled by MDRC in its successful studies of New York City’s high school reform. He said, “We need to inject into the conversation the importance of learning from the educational experimentation taking place across the country. States can and should create an infrastructure for investigating what policies and programs are working and how well before taking any one reform further.”

Mariana Haynes is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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