The New York education world is buzzing with the news of a study ostensibly showing that small high schools are better than big ones, carried out by Gordon Berlin and Howard Bloom of a nonprofit firm called MDRC, funded by the Gates Foundation, and "proving" the correctness of the path followed by the Bloomberg administration over the past ten years, of shutting down those awful old failure mills and then filling the buildings with these little boutique schools, the School of Armenian Studies, the Renaissance School for Future Hipsters, the Cupcake Academy, where all the math and science classes are keyed to understanding the life cycle of the cupcake, and so on.
And does it, actually? There's no telling in any proper sense, [jump]
since it hasn't in fact been published, but only delivered, apparently in oral form, to the New York Times reporter that got the byline, Winnie Hu. We don't know what schools were involved except that there were 105 small ones, "mainly in Brooklyn and the Bronx." The population studied was 21,000 kids who applied (i.e., whose parents applied for them) to these schools from eighth grade from 2005 through 2008 and were either admitted by lottery (about 40% of the total), or not admitted, in which case they went to one of the (unidentified) big ones.
Now these figures apply only to the cohorts applying in 2005 and 2006; the others haven't yet had their full four years. We don't know anything about the subjects except for the authors' assurance that the results hold "regardless of race, family income or scores on the state’s eighth-grade math and reading tests." We can guess that all of the students (or their parents) preferred the small schools in advance—because the students rank the schools in the application, and then get the highest-ranked one that accepts them.
We also know that nobody was optioned by any of the selective schools, but that there were such kids in the small schools they went to, because only a portion of the kids in such schools are selected by lottery. But they had won the lottery and were in a school that they had in a way chosen, and were with a cohort of students who actually were chosen; and they're new, as well, exciting, and focused on their weird little boutique themes. While the big schools in the sample were clearly those that are not selective at all, to which you go because nobody else wants you (most of the best public high schools in the city are among the biggest, but they are also the most selective). The former were set up by the study design to succeed and the latter to fail.
“This study shows conclusively that our new small high schools changed thousands of lives in New York City, across every race, gender and ethnicity — not only helping them graduate, but graduate ready for college,” [schools chancellor Dennis] Walcott said. “When we see a strategy with this kind of success, we owe it to our families to continue pursuing it aggressively.”What kind of success? It shows nothing of the kind. It shows that if you commission a report to give you the results you want, and have it reviewed by the officials who want them instead of by academic peers, you can get it.
Why does Bloomberg, why did his erstwhile chancellor Joel Klein, love the idea of the small schools so much that he's willing to perpetrate fraud for them? I think I know, as a matter of fact. The clue is in a famous remark by the playwright David Mamet, in an interview he gave to Leonard Lopate on WNYC in 2007 (the audio is here, with the particular passage at about 7:20 to 7:45):
What's wrong with the movie business is what's wrong with any successful business: General Motors starts out with 15 companies of guys in their garage making cars, some of them get successful and some fall by the wayside, the ones who are successful buy each other out and the original guys who were making cars are gone, and they start bringing in managers, and the managers say what managers always say: You know what we need? More managers.The same applies when a mayor decides that the city needs to be run like a business—it needs more managers too. So when you close down a high school of 2000 kids and replace it with four boutique operations, you quadruple the number of principals, the number of APs, the number of flunkies that report to them, and so on.
You also lose a little—economies of scale. You lose variety and richness and the chance to make friends with people different from yourself; you lose the range of different languages taught and different sports to play and different performing organizations to work in and electives in English and science and math.
I know of one very prestigious and selective little high school in Queens in a hideous office building with no gym, where kids have to walk blocks at lunchtime just to get someplace where they can have some exercise, and another on the Upper West Side where they couldn't afford the foreign language offerings required by the state Regents so decided that all the kids could take four years of Spanish online. But oy, do they have management!