Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Economist's Notebook: Schools, Big and Small

I am an interested party in the Portland high school redesign effort.  I will have children that I expect will attend Portland high schools.  In the case of my kids, they will most likely attend Cleveland, one of the high schools that seems to do reasonably well in various metrics.  The schools the district is worried about are schools like Jefferson, Franklin and Marshall that draw from lower socio-economic status areas and have worse performance metrics.  I understand the concern: you cannot sit idly by and let schools fail the students that depend on them most.

But I am very frustrated about what appears to be the following of the latest fads in educations causing new disruptions every few years.  Just a few years ago the miracle cure was small sized high schools that could provide needy students the personal attention they needed.  Of course, it sounds so obvious.  And yet, despite a mountain of educational research that suggested this was an established empirical fact, when the Gates Foundation spent lots of money promoting small schools and (to their great credit) carefully studying the result, they found that small schools were a complete failure.  Unfortunately, Portland was one of the great bandwagon districts that jumped on board wholeheartedly (and Vicki Phillips parlayed this experience into a job with the Gates Foundation).  Now, even PPS admits it was a failure - well, almost.  Here is their take:

Researchers have found that, other things being equal, the large size of many high schools is correlated with lower levels of student achievement, engagement and graduation rates, particularly among poor and minority students.

However, the small school reform movement that followed this research in such cities as Portland, Boston, New York, San Diego and Chicago, has shown mixed results. The Gates Foundation’s 2009 Annual Letter — after the foundation invested millions in converting large, comprehensive high schools into small schools — said those small schools did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way. Those that did were almost all charter schools that had significantly longer school days. The foundation noted that it had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school.

Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt, the Portland high schools that moved toward a small school model, whether into fully autonomous small schools (at Marshall and Roosevelt next year) or trying to create smaller “academies” within a school — were all attempts to convert a large, existing school with poor performance into more successful small schools. However, those campuses are still posting some of the higher dropout and absentee rates in the district, and many still are showing some of the lowest scores on Oregon assessment tests. In addition, community members say students do not have access to essential courses and electives.

However, the growth data tells a different story: Most of the schools are making significant progress is getting more students to benchmark, and individual students with low scores in eighth grade are making great gains by the 10th-grade assessments, even if they still might not meet benchmark. Our small schools have demonstrated the highest academic growth rates in both reading and math for four straight years. The Spanish-English International School on the Roosevelt Campus doubled its graduation rate between 2004 and 2008, and last year bested the district average. This school also has claimed the highest academic growth rate on state assessments in reading for three straight years.

So amusing as this is: 'research says small size is best, but experience says it is not, including Portland, except they seem to be getting better,' it is neither particularly helpful nor a particularly useful roadmap for where to go next. Yet this does not seem to deter PPS.

But what I have discovered is just how bad the education research is.  Some of the most basic themes in social science empirical research - correlation vs. causation, selection, endogeneity - appear to have escaped the attention of most researchers.  The common type of school size study I have found is the type that looks at small and large schools and compares them.  I would hope that most of my students could immediately spot about ten things wrong with drawing inference from such a study.  So it is no wonder that when the Gates Foundation studied the effects of downsizing schools it was dissappionted. 

There may be many things to complain about with Arne Duncan's new (or old depending on your perspective) education policies but the one I am extremely pleased about is the focus on the collection and careful study of real world data so that we can finally have some good answers to some basic education questions.  We should have evidence-based policy but to do so we need good evidence that is well understood.

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