Panel Paper: Lessons from New York City’s Small Schools of Choice about High-School Features That Promote Graduation for Disadvantaged Students

Friday, November 9, 2018
Marriott Balcony B - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Rebecca Unterman1, Howard Bloom1, Pei Zhu1 and Sean Reardon2, (1)MDRC, (2)Stanford University

During the past fifteen years, New York City undertook a district-wide high school reform that is perhaps unprecedented in its scope, scale, and pace. At the heart of this reform are 123 small, academically nonselective, public high schools. Each with approximately 100 students per grade in grades 9 through 12, these schools were created to serve some of the district’s most disadvantaged students and are located mainly in neighborhoods where large failing high schools had been closed. MDRC researchers call them "small schools of choice" (SSCs) because of their small size and the fact that they do not screen students based on their academic backgrounds.

The positive effects of SSCs on students has been studied using an unusually large dataset and rigorous research design that takes advantage of lottery-like features in New York City’s high school admissions process and includes data on 21,000 students from four cohorts who entered ninth grade between fall 2005 and fall 2008. That report demonstrated that SSCs are markedly improving academic progress and graduation prospects, particularly for disadvantaged students. The present paper draws on recent methodological innovations in the analysis of impact variation and the unusually successful and varied experience of 70 SSCs to address two related questions: (1) what high-school features promote graduation for disadvantaged students? and (2) what high-school features helped to produce SSCs’ large positive impacts on graduation?

In this paper we develop a conceptual framework for the mechanisms through which differences in students’ lottery-induced school experience may affect their academic achievement and analyze these data using a multi-site instrumental variables approach. We find that high-quality school leadership, teacher empowerment, teacher mutual support, teacher evaluation and feedback and data-driven instruction are promising levers for increasing graduation rates for disadvantaged students. Our findings also suggest that high-quality school leadership and teacher empowerment helped to produce SSCs’ positive graduation effects. In addition, our findings indicate striking differences between SSCs and their counterfactual counterparts with respect to school features emphasized by their funders and founders.