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High School Reform: The Downside of Scaling-Up

Susan Notes: The Politics of Education Association, a Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association, is devoting its Fall 2005 issue to the topic of small school reform in New York City. In the Bulletin, Patrice Iatarola (Florida State University) examines the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of small schools and the impact small schools are having on the school district in terms of segregation, outcomes and costs. David C. Bloomfield (Brooklyn College, CUNY) provides an editorial piece focusing on Mayor Bloomberg’s implementation of small school reform and the systemic impacts small schools are having on students in larger New York City high schools. Here is Bloomfield's piece.
Both articles are available in pdf file at the url below.

David C. Bloomfield

In scaling-up small high schools, New York City
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is betting his reelection hopes in part on a successful transition away from large comprehensive high schools. The
good news is that small schools are getting their
first large-scale test as a way out of urban high
school failure. The bad news is that Bloomberg's
implementation strategy seems to be doing more
harm than good for the vast majority of city
students attending large high schools and, perhaps,
creating a reaction that will give small schools a bad
name despite their promise.

As the National Governors Association and others
call for widespread high school reform, New York's
is a cautionary tale of scaling-up without adequate
planning and lack of focus on systemic
consequences. When the state legislature
established mayoral control of the city's public
schools in 2001, Bloomberg explicitly connected
his re-election efforts to education reform. In a
series of bold moves, he announced a radical
reorganization of the system's administrative
structure, an end to social promotion in elementary
and middle schools, a unified curriculum policy,
and the restructuring of failing large high schools
into new themed mini-schools. No question exists
that a new high school strategy was needed with
graduation rates in many schools under 50% and
only 16% of students graduating in 4 years with a
high-standard New York State Regents diploma.

The Case for Small Schools
The literature on small schools is positive. In
addition to treatises by movement founders like
Theodore Sizer(16) and Deborah Meier(17), a
preliminary body of research supports the
effectiveness of small learning communities in
improving student engagement, positive student teacher interaction, increased time on task, and high
teacher morale.(3) Graduation rates also appear to
gain.(4) It is possible that these effects are the result
of generally smaller class size in small schools(5) but,
if small schools accomplish this task, there is reason
to support methodical transition of large failing
schools to smaller entities. (Of course, transition
from any failing environment to one with more
promise makes sense, whether the new school is
large or small.)

With grants in excess of $100 million from the Bill
and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bloomberg and his
hand picked Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein, have
embarked on an ambitious mission to open over 150
new high schools over 5 years. Many of these
schools are being carved out of existing
comprehensive schools with enrollments in excess
of 3,000 students. To accomplish this, the large
school is eliminated (with the happy collateral
benefit of end-running designation of failure under
No Child Left Behind) and replaced by up to 7 new
small schools within the same building (which restarts
the NCLB clock for each).
16 See, e.g., most recently, The Red Pencil: Convictions from
Experience in Education by Theodore R. Sizer (Yale Univ.
Press, 2004)
17 See, e.g., In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of
Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization by Deborah
Meier (Beacon, 2002)
3 WestEd., Rethinking High School: Five Profiles of
Innovative Models for Student Success (Bill & Melinda Gates
Foundation, 2005) and WestEd, Rethinking High School: An
Introduction to New York City's Experience (Bill & Melinda
Gates Foundation, 2005); Ready, Douglas D., et al.,
"Educational Equity and School Structure: School Size,
Overcrowding, and Schools-Within-Schools," Teachers
College Record. vol. 106, no. 10 (October, 2004)
4 Leanna Stiefel, et al., The Effects of Size of Student Body on
School Costs and Performance in New York City High
Schools (New York University, April, 1998)
5 Deutsch, Francine M., "How Small Classes Benefit High
School Students," National Association of Secondary School
Principals Bulletin, vol. 87 (June, 2003)
PEA Bulletin, 30 (1) 7

Systematic Impacts
But while this early literature is largely positive, it
may not be predictive of the scaled-up Bloomberg
version. Mini-schools in larger buildings have
notoriously difficult relations with other programs
in the same facility.(6) Pioneers often succeed through
passion, vision, and Herculean drive that successors
lack. Able, self- nominated principals were
available when small schools were a rarity but the
national principal shortage will have a major impact
as Bloomberg seeks to open dozens of schools even
before leadership is identified. Accountability for
over 100 new schools further strains administrative
staff and depletes the ranks of school-based
supervisors. Already observers are noting signs of
trouble, including staff turnover, inexperienced
leadership, failure to address student learning needs,
and security issues. In the end, the sheer
magnitude of Bloomberg's commitment to small
schools without an adequate research base seems a
huge short-term political bet (with students as the
ante) on a promising yet untested reform.

Even these arguments over the effectiveness of
small schools do not tell the whole story. Like a 3-
card monte player in pre-Disney Times Square,
Bloomberg's re-election spiel only draws attention
to small schools, creating a favorable impression of
innovation. But a look at his other cards shows a
significant downside. By partially emptying large
schools and transferring thousands of displaced
students -- often the most at-risk -- to other, already
overcrowded schools, Bloomberg has harmed more
students than he's helped.

The system-wide impact is not on the side of
reform. The multiplier created by reducing
enrollment and establishing small schools in a
dozen or more buildings impacts deleteriously on
tens of thousands of the system's students. When a
large, failing high school is restructured and total
building enrollment is reduced, the "extra" students
numbering as many as 1,000 are left to transfer to
other large schools of 3,000 or more. This adds to
6 See, Gootman, Elissa, "Dismissal of School's Security Manager Points to Problems With Mayor's Crackdown
Efforts," New York Times, January 11, 2005

already severe overcrowding in the receiving
schools. When Prospect Heights High School in
Brooklyn was emptied, enrollment plunged from
1,748 in 2001 to 791 in 2003-04. Similar stories
occurred at Roosevelt and Taft High Schools in the
Bronx, Bushwick and Erasmus Hall High Schools
in Brooklyn, and George Washington and Seward
Park High Schools in Manhattan. According to the
New York Times, "In the last two years [the period
of Bloomberg's small school initiative], enrollment
has soared at big schools like Samuel J. Tilden in
Brooklyn, up 22 percent; Norman Thomas in
Manhattan, up 26 percent; and DeWitt Clinton in
the Bronx, up 21 percent, while high school
enrollment citywide has grown only slightly."(7)

The effect on remaining large high schools that
receive most of these students has been disastrous. According to its principal, Lehman High School in
the Bronx went from 3,700 students in 2003 to
4,205 in 2004, and is projected to increase to 4,601
in 2005 with an additional 300 students in a minischool
within the building. Students at Lehman
with I.E.P.s increased 50% between 2003 and 2004
because of the system's failure to include these
students proportionately in the new schools.

Even older small high schools created by previous
Chancellors have suffered. A principal of one
stated that these schools had seen a sizable increase
in enrollment, especially among students with
learning disabilities who have not found places in
the restructured schools. Many new students
arriving as a result of other schools' closure have
not acculturated to the older small schools, leading
to deterioration in school climate and challenges to
maintaining former attendance and graduation rates.

According to data supplied by the city teachers
union, because of nearby school reorganizations
Walton High School in the Bronx increased its
enrollment by 439 last year and the number of
violent incidents increased by 125% over the
previous year. At Midwood, a well-regarded high
7Herszenhorn, David, "In Push for Small Schools, Other
Schools Suffer," New York Times, January 14, 2005

school in Brooklyn, enrollment increased by 260
and reported incidents increased 123%.
Manhattan's prestigious A. Phillip Randolph High
School witnessed a tripling of suspensions this
school year, 117 through January, as new students
from restructured high schools streamed into the
building, leading to severe overcrowding.

While it is surprisingly difficult to link a single
school closing to a corresponding increase at a
single other school (factors of student mobility, high
school admissions practices, and multiple school
reorganizations cloud the data), there is no doubt
that severe overcrowding of large high schools and
older small schools has occurred with little attention
from the Chancellor while he concentrated on his
new small schools efforts.(8)

The negative impacts of this precipitous scaling up
are even more extensive than overcrowding and
safety. The strategy drains other schools of
leadership, funding, and high performing students.

Cannibalizing School Leadership
If you were a good assistant principal in a large high
school of 3,000 students or more and Chancellor
Klein offered you tens of thousands of dollars more
to become the principal of a 125 student school
(most small schools start with a entering class of
fewer), what would you do? In this way, dozens of
effective administrators are being lured away from
jobs serving thousands for jobs serving hundreds,
even as far too many schools of all types find
themselves with inexperienced administrators at the
helm. Again, the math doesn't add up.

Funding Inequities
Funding, too, favors new small schools. A study by
the city's Independent Budget Office found that per
capita instructional funding for large schools of all
types is greater than for small schools "not only
because they have more students, but also because
so many large schools are high schools and the per
capita funding formula for high schools is greater
8 See "Overcrowded Schools," letter from Chancellor Joel
Klein, New York Times, January 29, 2005 responding to
Herszenhorn, supra.

than for elementary and middle schools."(9) But, the
IBO found, small schools gained though
disproportionate increases in overhead funding for
non-classroom personnel such as principals,
librarians, and guidance counselors.

The Independent Budget Office concluded that,
"while a percentage point decline in the overhead
allocation for large schools appears modest, for
schools with more than 1,200 students the dollar
loss averaged over $92,000 – roughly the cost of an
assistant principal."10 Funding for small high
schools received the largest budget allocations
while large elementary schools received the

Student Selection
Cherry-picking by small schools is also a problem
for larger schools. While many small schools are
nominally "unscreened" (though many others
require tests, auditions, or portfolios), the
widespread use of interviews and other application
strategies limit the pool to at least the strongly
motivated. Similarly, small schools' institutional
constraints concerning education of students with
disabilities, English language learners, students
seeking technical training, and the like translate into
a more favorable instructional demographic.

An analysis of fall 2004 enrollment data for 278
academic high schools (excluding competitive
schools such as Stuyvesant High School and the
Bronx High School of Science) led New York
Public Radio Station WNYC to conclude that,
"special education and English language learners
are, in fact, over-represented in the city's most
violent and failing schools. At the same time,
special ed kids are missing out on one of the city's
leading education reforms – the creation of new
small schools."(11) The data indicate that special
9 Madrick, Martina, "Go Figure: How a Bigger Education
Budget Became Less Money for Schools," Inside the Budget,
no. 134 (New York City Independent Budget Office, October
26, 2004); see Andratta, David, "Small Schools Beat Big Ones
in Battle for Bucks," The New York Post, October 27, 2004
10 Madrick, supra.
11 Fertig, Beth, "Neediest Students Crowd Worst Schools:
WNYC Investigation," WNYC, New York Public Radio,
March 14, 2005

education students are only half as likely as other
students to attend small high schools.(12)

Scaling Up Solutions
The issue is not small schools vs. large schools. A
slower, better-planned transition would avoid many
of these problems. Lack of adequate funds for new
school space is the biggest obstacle to a smoother
transition. If new schools occupied new facilities,
the problem of displaced students would be largely
resolved but Bloomberg's rush to add programs has
increased the problem. Similarly, if new leadership
was given time to develop, the system would not be
forced to cannibalize large schools for small school
principals. If small schools were better planned and
required to address the learning needs of more
challenging populations such as students with
disabilities and English language learners, the
remaining schools would not have to do more with

For a Mayor seen as a non-ideological tactician,
more interested in "what works" than political
correctness, his monomania for small schools seems
particularly ill considered. Some big schools fail, as
do small ones. No one believes that only size
matters. In addition, the sheer size of New York's
public school system means that most students will
continue to attend large schools. But rather than
rigorously monitoring school quality so that all
students are helped by his reforms, the startups
seem to be given a free ride while larger schools are
ever more burdened. If the Mayor ran on a platform
of better schools of every size, there would not be
the kind of educational triage that damages the
reputations of large and small schools alike.
12 Ibid.

David C. Bloomfield is a professor and head of the graduate program in Educational Leadership at Brooklyn College, CUNY and former Vice President of the Citywide Council on High Schools in New York.

— David C. Bloomfield
High School Reform: The Downside of Scaling-Up
The Politics of Education Association: American Educational Research Association,



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