10/27/2014 11:51 am ET Updated Jun 19, 2015

Big School, Small School

A new study of the small high schools that New York City opened in the last decade seems to have re-ignited a debate about whether small high schools are better for kids than large schools and whether it's possible to really measure which is better.

The study, by MDRC, looked at 123 schools opened between 2002 and 2008 that had more applicants than seats and held lotteries to determine who got in. MDRC compared those students who were admitted with those who weren't, who mostly went on to attend the more traditional large comprehensive high schools. An earlier study by MDRC had revealed the small schools had a somewhat higher graduation rate (72 percent versus 62 percent), but the new study found that the small school grads also enrolled in college at somewhat higher rates (49 percent versus 40 percent).

I will leave it for others more knowledgeable about New York City schools to talk through the issues of whether the small schools were doing something different from the large schools beyond simply having fewer students and whether omitting the small schools which were not oversubscribed (presumably because they were less popular with students and parents, and perhaps less successful) skewed the study results.

Instead, I thought to share an experience I had in 2004 visiting a large comprehensive school that had been divided into four high schools. This was in the heyday of breaking up big schools, and this particular school had received a grant from the Gates Foundation to do so (as did the New York schools -- the foundation has since stopped funding the establishment of small schools).

The school I visited was in a depressed rust-belt city that had been losing population for years. When it broke into four schools, each had its own theme -- performing arts, career-tech (which mostly focused on computers), college-prep, and service. The original idea of the service high school seemed to have involved a whole range of public service options, but by the time I had gotten there had narrowed itself down to the military Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (Junior ROTC).

When I talked with teachers, they were very cynical about the reorganization. The cash-strapped district, they told me, was always applying for grants and would start something new and then when the grant ran out would drop it. Tremendous effort had gone into all the administrative requirements of breaking up one school into four, each with its own curriculum, right down to figuring out four mascots and school colors. And now, instead of one principal with some assistant principals, the school had four principals and one executive principal, meaning a fair amount of money went to additional administrative salaries.

One of the reasons the teachers were frustrated was because they felt they had finally gotten somewhere with developing collaboration and improving instruction in their departments before the school got the grant. After the grant, the departments were dismantled. Now that they were meeting with grade-level teachers across the disciplines rather than within departments, their agendas were no longer about improving instruction but about individual student issues.

When I toured the building with the executive principal, it was clear he was proudest of the fact that disciplinary issues had gotten a bit better with the small schools -- student attendance was up and suspensions were down. The problem was that I didn't see a whole lot of engaging instruction that day. In fact, I saw quite a few substitutes and several teachers actually reading the newspaper rather than teaching. Needless to say I saw a lot of bored kids.

One poignant effect of the school break-up emerged when I asked whether a student in the service high school would be able to participate in the band or the school play. The principal thought for a minute and then said, "It would be difficult." It made me sad to think that a 13-year-old who signed up for a high school because he was interested in serving in the military would be prevented from being able to participate in a school play.

All of which is to say that the experience impressed upon me the idea that the structure of a school is only important insofar as it promotes good instruction and good relationships among the students and faculty. Structure alone isn't a powerful enough force if the needs of the students aren't at the center of decisions made.

Oh, and by the way -- the teachers I talked with were right to be cynical. After the grant ran out, the district closed the high school altogether.