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Smaller is Better

In a new statewide ranking of public schools that we published yesterday, the Dallas Independent School District boasts seven of the top 25 high schools but also 18 in the bottom quartile. Not surprisingly, the best ones have a small student population, while the worst ones are megacampuses — an example of a larger trend in school rankings data.

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In a new statewide ranking of public schools, the Dallas Independent School District dominates the top of the list. Though long considered the state’s most troubled urban system, DISD boasts seven small high schools in the state’s top 25 — six of them housed in the same building, the Townview Magnet Center, and all of them with selective admissions.

And yet Dallas ISD dominates the bottom of the list, too, with 18 high schools in the bottom quarter of the state rankings, and 14 of those in the bottom 10th, including three of the state’s five worst schools. These schools — which serve nearly 25,000 students in Dallas ISD, compared to 3,200 in the top seven magnet campuses — are in many ways their opposite: large, comprehensive neighborhood high schools with abysmal test scores and high dropout rates.

The best-and-worst dynamic in Dallas in large part reflects the divisions of the city at large along racial and economic lines. But it’s also the extreme example of a larger trend in the school rankings data, compiled each year by Children at Risk, a Houston-based nonprofit research and advocacy group. (To find your school among more than 5,800 ranked, see our searchable data app and detailed pages on each school.)

“In big urban areas, the only thing that works is small, theme-based schools,” says Robert Sanborn, president and CEO of the group. “What is very clear is that big, comprehensive high schools in urban areas simply do not work where a majority of the students are disadvantaged.”

Dallas ISD’s reliance on selective admissions magnets — which screen out low-performing students on the front end — widens the performance gap between its small, specialized schools and its large, traditional campuses, which serve almost exclusively low-income black and Hispanic students. But the performance gap between small and large public high schools that don’t have such admission requirements holds statewide. A Texas Tribune examination of the Children at Risk rankings data reveals that the performance of larger high schools with majority low-income populations generally trailed far behind smaller high schools with similar demographics. (This despite the fact that the rankings methodology gives weight to student demographics, giving more credit to schools with high-poverty enrollments.)

Of the 1,018 public high schools in Texas, 394 serve enrollments consisting of more than half “economically disadvantaged” students, by the state definition. And among that group, the schools serving fewer than 1,000 students performed far better than those serving more than 1,000 students.

In the smaller schools group, just 19 percent of schools fell in the bottom quartile of the advocacy group’s rankings — compared with 58 percent of the larger schools group. (Children at Risk divided all the ranked schools into four tiers of performance, with tier one the best and tier four the worst.)

Here’s the full breakdown of how smaller and larger high schools for disadvantaged students compared.

TierSmall High Schools%Large High Schools%
One 58 23% 9 5%
Two 96 38% 28 15%
Three 49 19% 41 22%
Four 49 19% 106 58%
Total: 252  Total: 184  

Source: Children at Risk, Texas Education Agency

The proliferation of larger schools largely comes down to money: It costs more to run smaller schools, both in per-pupil spending and facilities costs. Looking only at per-pupil operating cost, the group of larger schools serving majority low-income students spent an average of $7,124 per student in 2008-09, compared with $8,853 per child in the smaller high schools. (The average for all high schools was $7,711).

“We’ve had superintendents in large San Antonio districts — Northeast and Northside — say they’d really like to create small high schools, but it’s too expensive,” Sanborn says.

In the context of performance, however, “we’re wasting taxpayer money when we do these big schools” for disadvantaged student populations, Sanborn says.

Money matters?

Money may be a factor in district decisions to open small and large high schools, but per-student spending appeared to play little role in how schools fared in the rankings generally. The average per-pupil spending in each of the four tiers of performance set by Children at Risk researchers hardly differed and hovered around the state average for all schools. The lowest-performing schools, in tier four, actually spent slightly more, $7,905 per student on average, than the highest performing schools in tier one, which averaged $7,576. But that’s not surprising, given federal money directed to schools with high-poverty enrollments.

The per-student spending for schools ranked closely together on the list is all over the map — again raising questions about whether money makes much difference in the performance of public schools. For instance, spending in the 20 schools occupying the middle of the rankings ranged from $5,981 per student, at Mesquite High School in Mesquite ISD, to $11,222 at Denver City High School in Denver City ISD. The other schools in the same performance range spanned every spending level in between. So for all the political fights and court actions devoted to creating an equitable school finance system in Texas, spending hardly guarantees school success.

“Money is relevant but not dispositive — it’s how it’s spent,” said Commissioner of Education Robert Scott, in an interview after attending a daylong session on school finance at the Capitol last week. “When you have a system largely driven by personnel costs, money is going to be a factor. But it’s execution that matters.”

Small school setbacks

Though the Texas rankings data appears to support a small-high-schools strategy, it would be a mistake to consider it a panacea. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation learned that lesson — at a cost of $2 billion — in its decade-long philanthropic drive to promote small public high schools.

Gates himself put it this way in a 2009 letter on the foundation’s impact, or lack thereof: “Nine years ago, the foundation decided to invest in helping to create better high schools, and we have made over $2 billion in grants. The goal was to give schools extra money ... to make changes in the way they were organized [including reducing their size]. … Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way. … We are trying to raise college-ready graduation rates, and in most cases, we fell short.”

Still, substantial improvements have been shown at select small schools, many of them charters that combined that strategy with intense teacher recruitment efforts, a longer school day and year, and a focus on continuous analysis of student data. And that trend is borne out in the Texas rankings, where not a single one of the top 30 schools serving majority low-income enrollments had a student body of more than 866. As a group, they averaged just 373 students. By contrast, the bottom 30 majority-low-income schools averaged nearly 1,200 students.

In that same low-income group, among the highest-performing schools without selective admissions requirements were campuses run by some of the leading charter school operators in the state: KIPP and YES Prep campuses in Houston and Harmony Science Academy in Austin. In fact, all three schools rank in the top 20 among all high schools — regardless of economic status. KIPP Houston High School, serving a population of 448 students, 88 percent of whom are low income, leads the pack with a rank of 14.

Yet in the rankings at large, chartering schools proves no more a singular solution than limiting enrollment size, underscoring the fallacy of looking to any one strategy as a public education cure-all. Neither are charters a perfect comparison to traditional public schools.

“Parents have to be motivated to find the best charter schools for their children, and many schools require them to sign a pledge to be involved” in their child’s education, Sanborn says. “What you see, though, is that some kids who might be mediocre students in large, comprehensive high schools become excellent students in schools like KIPP and YES Prep.”

Fighting failure in Dallas

In Dallas ISD, school officials are trying to expand models that work there — namely smaller, specialized schools and programs — while pursuing myriad strategies to reform the city’s large and long-failed high schools. Currently, those schools can be fairly categorized as “dropout factories.” The average graduation rate of Dallas’ tier-four high schools: 46 percent. Pinkston High, the lowest-ranked school in Texas, had a graduation rate of 35 percent.

“Obviously, it’s a concern,” says district spokesman Jon Dahlander.

But four of the city’s lowest-performing high schools — Seagoville, Kimball, Roosevelt and Pinkston, which ranked last in Texas — have new principals, Dahlander says, and have raised test scores to the “academically acceptable” level under state accountability. Because of still-high dropout rates, the state still rates them failing, along with four other DISD high schools. “But you can feel the difference at those campuses,” Dahlander says.

At the same four campuses, the district plans specialized magnet programs; they'll launch with just ninth graders next year and add a grade each year thereafter. The programs — under separate leadership, but still reporting to the principals — could accept students citywide as well as from neighboring districts, Dahlander says. The district hopes to mimic the environments that succeed in the city’s high-performing magnet schools. Those schools weed out academically struggling students; the new magnet programs likely would be less exclusive, perhaps drawing those rejected from existing magnets, Dahlander says.

“Part of the success of the magnets is that some students don’t get in,” Dahlander says. “Maybe some of the students that get turned away from the Science and Engineering magnet will come to the satellite magnet programs at comprehensive high schools.”

Separately, the system has started one early college high school and plans to open another in the fall. It’s all part of an effort to expand choice and create more intimate schools, moving away from the model that produced some of the state’s worst schools in some of Dallas’ poorest neighborhoods.

“We’re talking about schools that have been underperforming a long time, and students that have been underperforming a long time,” Dahlander says. “There’s no magic wand.”

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