Small Schools, Large Districts: Small-School Reform and New York City’s Students

Sep. 15, 2008

Source: Teachers College Record, Volume 110 Number 9, 2008, p. 1837-1878


High school reform is currently at the top of the education policy making agenda after years of stagnant achievement and persistent racial and income test score gaps. Although a number of reforms offer some promise of improving U.S. high schools, small schools have emerged as the favored reform model, especially in urban areas, garnering substantial financial investments from both the private and public sectors. In the decade following 1993, the number of high schools in New York City nearly doubled, as new “small” schools opened and large high schools were reorganized into smaller learning communities. The promise of small schools to improve academic engagement, school culture, and, ultimately, student performance has drawn many supporters. However, educators, policy makers, and researchers have raised concerns about the unintended consequences of these new small schools and the possibility that students “left behind” in large, established high schools are incurring negative impacts.

Research Design

Using 10 years (1993–2003) of data on New York City high schools, the authors examine the potential systemic effects of small schools that have been identified by critics and researchers. The authors describe whether small schools, as compared with larger schools, serve an easier-to-educate student body, receive more resources, use those resources differently, and have better outcomes. Further, the authors examine whether there have been changes in segregation and resource equity across the decade contemporaneous with small-school reform efforts.


The authors find that, although small schools do have higher per-pupil expenditures, lower pupil-teacher ratios, and a smaller share of special education students than larger schools, their students are disproportionately limited English proficient and poor, and their incoming students have lower test scores. Thus, the evidence is mixed with respect to claims that small schools serve an easier-to-educate student body. Systemwide, the authors find that segregation is relatively stable, and although there have been some changes in the distribution of resources, they are relatively modest.


If small schools do eventually promote higher achievement (considering their student mix and other factors that differentiate them from larger schools), many more will be needed to house the 91.5% of the students still attending large schools. Otherwise, strategies that work for the vast majority of students who do not attend small schools will need to be identified and implemented.

Updated: Dec. 17, 2008