Smaller is, in Fact, Beautiful

Last year, the Washington Monthly published a special report on “Fighting the Dropout Crisis” that won a best education journalism citation from the Education Writers Association. The report looked at three cities, New York, Philly, and Portland, that all tried to implement roughly the same set of policies to improve high school graduation rates, with NYC showing the best results. One of those policies, heavily promoted by the Gates Foundation, is the strategy of breaking up big, under-performing high schools into smaller schools. Early results of that strategy were so poor that the Gates Foundation throttled back its advocacy of it. But one of the stories in our package, by Thomas Toch, argued that Gates shouldn’t have lost its nerve because the strategy can work if the new small schools are managed right, with real accountability for results.

A new study of New York City high schools, funded by Gates but carried out by the respected nonprofit research group MDRC, shows Toch was right:

The latest findings show that 67.9 percent of the students who entered small high schools in 2005 and 2006 graduated four years later, compared with 59.3 percent of the students who were not admitted and instead went to larger schools. The higher graduation rate at small schools held across the board for all students, regardless of race, family income or scores on the state’s eighth-grade math and reading tests, according to the data.

Here’s hoping the Obama administration, which, from this weeks’s SOTU, seems poised to do something big on high school graduation, is paying attention.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.