High School Struggles

MDRC has done a comprehensive evaluation of New York City’s new small high schools. I think the findings are quite important. Mainly because NYC under Joel Klein – who recently left as school chief – is considered to be the best and most comprehensive of the school reform efforts in central cities across the country.

Basically the study compares students who enrolled in one of 123 new small, open enrollment high schools and those who wanted to enroll in one of the schools but lost the lottery and ended up in the rest of the city’s high schools. So this is the gold standard of evaluations. A control group that looks like the treatment group. In terms of demographics both group were roughly 90% Hispanic or African American and 85% free and reduced lunch. In terms of freshmen being academically ready for the 9th grade, roughly a quarter of both groups was proficient or above.

The study followed four cohorts, but only one year of graduates. The class of 08. In that class 69% graduated in four years from the new small high schools, compared to 62% in the control group. Good, but not great, news on high school graduation.

In terms of academic achievement NYC has a way of measuring “able to enter college without remediation” that is not available here. It is the standard we all want to meet. Scoring a 75 on the Regents exam exempts one from remediation at the City University of New York. There the news is less encouraging. 22% of student in both the treatment and control groups scored 75 or higher in math. In English it was 33% in the treatment group and 30% in the control group.

So in New York high school reform is making real and important progress on high school graduation. I continue to believe, as do the folks in NYC and MDRC, that high school graduation is an important milestone and needs to be part of any measurement system. We seem to keep forgetting that graduating from high school in and of itself changes life outcomes. But in terms of entering college without remediation they are not close. And what is troubling is, so far, their reform schools at best are only marginally better than the remainder of the system.

We need to be very careful in assuming that school reform efforts and their leaders have figured out how to meet academic standards just because they get good press. The evidence is that no one – including  all the ed reformer stars – has figured out how at any scale to take urban kids and have them academically ready for college.

And yet our rhetoric – both here and in Washington – is we have figure it out and all you have to do is get rid of bad administrators and/or educators and all urban kids will be ready for schools like CUNY. There is no evidence that that is a successful strategy. NYC appears to have done everything right – including better and empowered principals and teachers – in their small high schools and got almost no gains in math and small gains in reading in readiness for college over their old system. Urban high school reform is not primarily about execution, it still is about product development.

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