Smaller high schools appear to boost student success

Results demonstrate the impact of educational background on student success

A new study by nonprofit research group MDRC found that smaller high schools improved graduation rates and sent more students to college.

In 2002, New York City began an aggressive push to expand the network of small high schools available to students. Each school enrolled approximately 100 students per grade, emphasized academic rigor, and encouraged strong relationships with teachers. Students applied to join the schools and were selected by lottery—creating a natural experiment.

The researchers compared the educational outcomes of those who attended the smaller schools to those who did not. Students who attended the smaller schools achieved higher levels of academic success by several metrics:

  • Small school attendees were 8.4 percentage points more likely to immediately enroll in a post-secondary institution after graduation;
  • Among black males, those who attended small schools were 36% more likely to enroll in college.

Small school attendees also cost between 14% and 16% less per student over their high school career than larger schools. This reduced cost per student was largely the result of fewer students taking an extra year to graduate.

Gordon Berlin, president of MDRC, says the most notable thing about the findings is that "a high school reform has had a measurable effect on college-going and it has done so at scale."

The study mirrors existing research on smaller schools by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and others, which show they are beneficial to student overall. John Hutchins, a member of the MDRC research team, points out that New York's efforts to improve its schools system are "about much more than the just the size of the schools," but acknowledges that the findings "demonstrate the effects of a public school reform delivered at scale delivered at scale (in scores of high schools) for a mostly disadvantaged population" (Willens, NPR, 10/17).  

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