Could small schools be better?

Jake resized 600A new study by MDRC swims upstream from recent research suggesting that the small schools movement, largely fueled by the Gates Foundation, had a negligible impact on student academic performance. MDRC tracked long-term student outcomes from 123 small high schools in New York City, and found significant improved results for HS graduation rates, time to complete high school, and college English entry exams in comparison to students from larger high schools.

On one level, these findings seem intuitive. Small schools that can better attend to the needs of individual students and prevent many from ‘checking out’ or dropping out would be preferable to large ‘warehouse’ high schools that offer economies of scale. Yet at the same time this study begs more questions about the efficacy of small schools. In Boston and other cities, we’ve seen several small schools flounder.

So what exactly was it about these small high schools that helped students graduate or perform better on some tests? Were results equal across school models and cultures? Other than being smaller, how do these schools compare with larger schools in terms of the quality of instruction? How do they use data to drive instruction? And were there other variables that influenced outcomes, such as enrollment policies, the level of family engagement, or extended school hours or after school programs?

Hopefully, MDRC or someone else will expand upon this important study to uncover what’s ‘under the hood’ of these small high school that is driving success for their students in relation to students from larger high schools. We all would benefit from this insight.


This post was written in response to ” Sustained Positive Effects on Graduation Rates Produced by New York City’s Small Public High Schools of Choice “, an article published by MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan social policy research organization.  


Jake Murray is the Senior Director of Aspire Institute. He has over 20 years of experience in the education, health and human services fields, serving as a program leader, policy analyst, and strategic planner.