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James Kemple: Personalization and High Expectations Are Key

The physical landscape of high schools in New York City has changed dramatically over the past 12 years.[1] While the total number of high school students remained about the same, the number of high schools nearly doubled and the average enrollment per high school declined by almost half. This reduction in school size occurred primarily because of the opening of 183 new small schools of choice, which enrolled 110 or fewer first-time 9th graders each year.

The small schools movement in New York City is one of the few large scale reform efforts anywhere that has truly rigorous evidence that shows positive and sustained impacts on student outcomes. An ongoing evaluation being conducted by MDRC shows the following:[2]

  • Small schools in NYC increase high school graduation rates by 8 to 10 percentage points compared to the other high schools available to their students. Most of this impact has occurred on the receipt of Regents Diplomas. Small schools have also increased the rate at which students meet the New York State standard for college readiness in English.
  • These effects have persisted even as graduation rates have continued to rise at the schools with which SSCs are compared. The effects accrue to a wide range of student subgroups, including Black, Latino, White and Asian students, young men and young women, students who enter high school with high and low levels of middle school achievement, English language learners and native English speakers, and special education and general education students.
  • Principals and teachers from effective SSCs strongly believe that personal relationships with students and high academic expectations contribute to the effectiveness of their schools. Importantly, the principals and teachers are able to point to very concrete and specific structures that have been put in place with the express purpose of promoting greater personalization and higher expectations. They also believe that these attributes derive from their schools’ strong leadership and committed, hardworking, and adaptable teachers.[3]

In spite of these impressive outcomes, principals and teachers also cited challenges to the successful creation and ongoing operation of SSCs. These include limited and shrinking financial resources; initial problems with space when schools were being created; problems recruiting and keeping high-quality staff who can withstand the many taxing demands of their jobs; and problems maintaining high academic expectations when many students enter high school operating well below grade level.

Overall, these findings present encouraging evidence that small schools can produce substantially better outcomes for students. However, much more needs to be learned so we can continue and accelerate improvements in educational outcomes in NYC (where almost a third of students still do not graduate). Likewise, we need to do more to translate these findings into clear recommendations for education policy and practice. In a nutshell, how can we expand on and reproduce the success of these small schools?

First, it is essential to learn more about what makes SSCs effective, so that these strategies can be built into other initiatives. What organizational resources (such as past experience creating new schools), human resources (such as the existing labor pool for teachers and school administrators), financial resources (such as those provided by philanthropic donors), and political resources (such as the decision-making structure of a school district) are necessary to create effective SSCs? What must faculty and administrators in these schools do to sustain their effective operation? What has enabled some small schools to be more successful than others?

Second, there are questions about what might be missing from the small schools experience. Are there trade-offs associated with the size and structure of SSCs (for example is there a tradeoff between depth of personalization and expectations and breadth of course offerings or extracurricular activities)? If so, how might they be ameliorated? In addition, it is important to note that these new small schools typically replaced a number of larger low-performing high schools that were closed? How have these school closures impacted students and communities?

Finally, we must take a rigorous look at the potential to scale up the success of NYC’s SSCs. Are there strategies being implemented in small schools that could be effectively replicated in other settings, including larger zoned high schools?

These are critical questions that we look forward to exploring, in collaboration with the incoming administration.


Dr. James J. Kemple serves as the Executive Director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools and Research Professor at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University.

[1] Information about NYC’s high schools can be found in Kemple, J. J. 2013. The Condition of New York City High Schools: Examining Trends and Looking Toward the Future. New York, NY: The Research Alliance for New York City Schools.

[2] The material in this section is taken from Bloom, H. and R. Unterman. 2012. Sustained Progress: New Evidence about the Effectiveness and Operation of Small Public High Schools of Choice in New York City. New York, NY: MDRC, and from  Bloom, H. and R. Unterman. 2012. Sustained Positive Effects on Graduation Rates Produced by New York City’s Small Public High Schools of Choice. New York, NY: MDRC.

[3] These themes are explored in more depth in a forthcoming Research Alliance report.