Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Testimony on the small schools initiative

My testimony Friday on the small schools before the City Council is below.
Bob Hughes of new Visions spoke before me. He made two statements that I disputed in my oral testimony -- and added to the footnotes below.
First, he said that the rooms taken over by the small schools at Kennedy HS had been mostly unused or underutilized. I pointed out that the space he was referring to was used by the Automotive repair program -- one of the best such programs in the city, which kept kids in schools and guaranteed them good paying jobs after graduation.
Despite pleas by students and staff and a great column by Sam Freedman of the NY Times, the program was ruthlessly eliminated to make room for the new small schools. (for this column see http://susanohanian.org/outrage_fetch.php?id=231)

After astute questioning from Robert Jackson, Hughes also admitted that despite the claim in the WestEd report that the method used to calculate their graduation rates was the same as the state uses, students who were discharged from the small schools to GED programs or alternative schools were not counted as dropouts. Therefore the figures in the WestEd report are as fundamentally unreliable as the city's claim of a 58% graduation rate.
Leonie Haimson
Class Size Matters
124 Waverly Pl.
New York, NY 10011
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Testimony on the small schools initiative

Leonie Haimson, Class Size Matters

February 16, 2007

The Department of Education and New Visions have been boasting about the success of their small school initiative, and the results of the first crop of small schools in the Bronx, called New Century High Schools, appear to bear them out, according to the recent report released by WestEd.[1]

But let us take a step back, to the independent evaluation of these same schools, completed in March 2005 by Policy Studies Associates, which New Visions attempted to suppress, until it was leaked to the NY Times nine months later. [2]

By gaining access to records for the entering high school class for which this new WestEd study examines outcomes, the PSA analysis substantiated what DOE officials to this day continue to deny: that these schools enrolled students with better scores, attendance, and grades than the students in the large schools who were left behind.

The students at the small schools had eighth grade math and reading scores significantly higher than their peers in the comparison schools; Only 10% of NCHS students scored below basic in their 8th grade ELA exams, compared with 35% at their host schools -- with a similar disparity in seen in math. Moreover, 97% had been promoted in the prior year, compared with only 59% of the students at the comparison schools.

They had better attendance records (91% compared to 81%), and were less likely to have been suspended. They were much less likely to need special education services. Only 6% of Bronx NCHS students had IEPs, compared with 25% at the comparison schools; and none of the NCHS students had the most serious disabilities.[3] Indeed, teachers at the new small schools praised their principals for "recruiting more high-performing students".

Moreover, since that study was released, more attention has been drawn to the fact that these schools are exempt from enrolling any special education or ELL students for the first two years of their existence. This led to a civil rights complaint by the Citywide Council on High schools, as well as recent reports by the Immigration Coalition, Advocates for Children, and the New York Lawyers for Public Interest, showing the discrimination against these students continues to this day .[4]

Our main concern, however, is the issue of class size, and that all students in NYC public schools receive the smaller classes they need to have a better opportunity to learn.

While class sizes at the larger high schools averaged 30 students or more, class sizes at most of the new small schools were between 13 and 20 students, as the first year PSA evaluation noted. As a result, according to observers, students were on task 82% of the time in any given time. [5]

The fact that these schools provided much smaller classes was observed by students to be their most valuable aspect: students “said that they liked the small class sizes, the willingness of teachers to provide extra help…” Another student said, “I like the close thing with teachers and that you can discuss your problems with them.” According to another, “I like that it’s small, and we each get attention. There’s not one person who doesn’t get attention from our teachers. And they treat us all the same. In a normal high school, they don’t talk to you when you have a problem. They don’t care.” [6]

This contrasted with the dreary picture of conditions at the large high schools. As a student interviewed for the second year evaluation pointed out, "the teachers I have had at other schools never knew me." Another: “My friends are in larger schools and have problems I don’t have, including the problem of teachers who are never available to give extra help.” Indeed, without smaller classes it's hard to see how these small schools could have succeeded in their mission at all. [7]

We now have official DOE class size data to confirm that class sizes are smaller at many of the new small schools than the large schools in which they sit. At Pelham Prep, for example, a school with an openly selective admissions process, most classes average 22-24 students per class, as compared to 27-28 at Columbus HS, in which it is located and has many more high-needs students.

The High school for Teaching and Professions provides classes that range from 20-25 students, as compared to its host school, Walton, which has classes of 29 in most subjects, even though it has been failing for many years.

Yet the small classes as well as the administrative and cluster spaces required by every new school put increased pressure on their host schools, as well as the system as a whole, already severely overcrowded. As noted by the PSA study, many of the host and neighboring schools began operating at 150% capacity as a result, since the “number of 9th graders entering the new schools did not match the number of nine graders being turned away from schools that were being phased out.”[8]

In the PSA report, both teachers and principals noted the hostility from staff and students at the host schools that followed: "According to them, the tension stemmed from host schools being overcrowded and resenting having to give up resources and space to the small schools...Another [teacher] said..."Our students fight with the students from the other schools --- that's the extent of [our relationship with them.]” [9] Clearly, the fact that most of the schools with smaller schools placed within them subsequently became Impact schools was not coincidental.

Many others noted the negative effects of the small schools initiative not only on their "host" schools but on nearby high schools as well -- as a huge influx of transfers, including many "at risk" and special education students who were being excluded from these schools flooded other schools nearby.

See for example, the comments of Robert Leder, principal of Lehman High school, who wrote that "one of the most serious negative results ”of the small schools initiative “ ....has been to transfer thousands of displaced students, often the most at-risk to other, already overcrowded schools."

He reported an increase in 50% of the number of special education students at Lehman, "because of the system's failure to include these students proportionately in the new school registers....In all candor, logic and reality, how can a school like Lehman be expected to absorb this tremendous increase in register and still remain a well-functioning, viable school?" [10]

Clearly, the smaller schools appear to have better graduation rates, though the actual figures cited in the WestEd report appear to be significantly inflated, just as DOE’s figures are.[11] But why should this be surprising? If, as we have seen, if the smaller schools enrolled stronger students and provided them with smaller classes, it should be obvious that their outcomes would be more successful than those of other schools.

The more meaningful questions one should ask are the following: is this initiative equitable, has it led to systemwide improvements, and is it sustainable?

I think we can now safely conclude that it is not equitable, if lower-achieving, special education and ELL students are unfairly excluded, and facing even more overcrowded conditions as a result.

Has it led to systemwide improvements? The evidence is not clear. Though the DOE claims graduation rates of 58%, the highest in 20 years, the State Education Department reports that the actual NYC graduation rate is closer to 43%. In addition, high school attendance continues to fall, and discharge and suspension rates have increased sharply over the last four years.

Is it sustainable? Indeed at this point, there is not even an explicit plan on the part of the administration to ensure that the smaller classes provided by these new small schools will survive. As a national evaluation of the Gates-funded schools observed, budget pressures and a lack of sufficient planning led to a sharp increase in class size at two thirds of the schools they studied nationwide in their second and third years, which severely undermined their chance of success.

According to this study, “In school designs dependent on close teacher-student relationships that enable personalized learning, these [class size] increases have a pronounced effect. Teachers frequently cited their ability to spend time one-on-one with students as what makes these schooling environments possible; with more students in each class, such personalized attention became much more difficult to deliver.”[12]

The DOE official class size data reveals that currently, in many of the new small schools, 9th grade classes are significantly larger than 12th grade classes, suggesting that the trend towards increasing class sizes may be occurring in NYC as well.[13]

And what about the majority of New York City students, who will continue to attend our larger high schools?

In a New Visions interim report, there is a timeline in which by 2010, "innovative educational methods from NYC's small high schools" are supposed to "improve teaching and learning at the city's traditional high schools." [14] This is critical, since even if its ambitious goal is achieved of 200 new smaller schools, fully two thirds of NYC students will continue to attend larger high schools.

As the class sizes of the small schools appear to be their most successful elements, without a plan to eventually provide smaller classes and more individualized instruction to all high school students, it is difficult to see how this will occur. And yet the administration has no plan to reduce average class size in any grade higher than third – even with more than $5 billion in additional funding. If there is no attempt to reduce class sizes in our large high schools, which average 30 students or more, the small schools initiative will continue to be a zero-sum game, with worse conditions for all of those students locked out and left behind.

I would be remiss if I were not to mention the fact that in the New York State legislature, a bill is about to be introduced by Assembly Members Nolan and Lancman, requiring that a minimum of 25% of the additional state funds our schools will receive over the next four years be used to phase in smaller classes in all grades to levels that exist in the rest of the state.

I hope that this committee, and the Council as a whole, supports this legislation, so that all our children, not just those who attend small schools, will eventually receive the smaller classes they need and deserve.

Thank you for your time.

[1] WestEd, Rethinking High School: Inaugural Graduations at New York City’s New High Schools, http://www.wested.org/online_pubs/gf-07-01.pdf

[2] Michael C. Rubenstein, Elizabeth R. Reisner et.al., “New Century High Schools: Evaluation Findings from the Second Year,” March 16, 2005.


David M. Herszenhorn, Study Raises Issues on Small High Schools

New York Times, November 4, 2005; http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/04/nyregion/04small.html

[3] None of the small school students had the most serious special education diagnoses (autistic, deaf, emotionally disturbed, or brain impaired) while 3% of them did in the comparison schools.

[4]Small Schools, Few Choices,” New York Lawyers for the Public Interest

http://www.nylpi.org/pub/High_School_Report.pdf and “So Many Schools, So Few Options”, a joint report by the New York Immigration Coalition and Advocates for Children, http://www.advocatesforchildren.org/pubs/2005/ellsmallschools06.pdf

[5] Elizabeth R. Reisner, et.al., “Evaluation of the New Century High Schools Initiative: Report on Program Implementation in the First Year,” December 15, 2003;


“Two classroom features emerging from the classroom observations offer promise for the schools’ future development, however. These are small classes and generally high levels of time on task. The English language arts classes observed for the evaluation averaged 16 students present per class, with most classes serving 13 to 20 students. The largest class we observed numbered 25 students and the smallest class served only one student. During the 249 instructional segments for which data were recorded, an average of 82 percent of students were on task in any given 10-minute segment.” (44)

[6] Ibid, 1st year report, p. 59. More comments from students about the class size at small schools: “Teachers listen to you and get your opinion.” “In a normal high school, they don’t talk to you when you have a problem. They don’t care.” Another student said, “Slipping through the cracks? Not at this school!”

[7] Second Year Evaluation, p.34 .

[8] Ibid., p.4.

[9] Second year evaluation, p. 44. There was good reason for the students at the large schools to feel resentful. Despite the claim made by Robert Hughes in his City Council testimony that there were many unused or underutilized spaces at Kennedy High School that provided space for the small schools, in fact there was a highly valued Automotive repair program at Kennedy, with a long waiting list. This program not only kept students in school but guaranteed them good paying jobs upon graduation. Despite pleas from students and staff at Kennedy HS, and even a column by Samuel Freedman in the NY Times about the situation, the program was eliminated to make room for a new small school.. See “As Cars Become More Intricate, Automotive Tech Class Is Junked”, June 2, 2004, posted at http://susanohanian.org/outrage_fetch.php?id=231

[10] See letter from Robert Leder, principal of Lehman HS, to Marlene Filewich, Local Instructional Superintendent, dated March 3, 2005. Deteriorating conditions were observed at many high schools throughout the city as a result of the way in in which the small schools initiative was implemented. See related article by David C. Bloomfield, Professor at Brooklyn college, “High School Reform: The Downside of Scaling Up,” Politics of Education Association Bulletin, Fall, 2005 at: http://www.fsu.edu/~pea/newsletters/pea_bulletin_fall_2005.pdf. Reportedly, many vocational schools have also suffered as a result, with their ability restricted from attempting to recruit students who were interested in their areas of specialization, as they were barred from HS recruiting fairs and the like, since DOE provides advantages to the small schools to recruit higher-performing students. As a result, the vocational schools have been flooded with students who have no interest in the fields in which they now are required to take courses and to pass special exams in order to graduate.

[11] In the WestEd report, there are many confusing and contradictory statements about the methods used to calculate the graduation rates of the small schools. At one point, the authors claim that “the calculations reported are for a four-year cohort as defined by NY State.” Yet according to the testimony of Robert Hughes of New Visions at the NY City Council hearings on February 16 , students discharged to GED programs were not counted in the cohort, which is contrary to the methods used by NY State, the US Dept. of Education, as well as every independent agency, and inflates the results.

[12] These researchers suggested that instead of continuing to establish more new schools, without a plan to sustain the features that make them successful, the Gates foundation and its grantees should instead “focus more of their energy and resources on protecting the schools that have already been started.” American Institutes for Research and SRI International, “Creating Cultures for Learning: Supportive Relationships in New and Redesigned High Schools,” April 2005; http://www.gatesfoundation.org/nr/downloads/ed/evaluation/Year%203%20Final%20Reports/Relationship%20Rpt%2010_21.pdf.

[13] The other possible explanation is that large numbers of students are dropping out or have been transferred out of these schools before 12th grade, putting into question their reported graduation rates.

[14] New Visions, “New Century high schools and the small schools movement in New York City,” Interim report, 2005; http://www.newvisions.org/downloads/NCHSinterimreport.pdf

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