New York City’s Small Schools of Choice

Updated: Jan 25, 2018
Evidence Rating:
Near Top Tier


  • Program:

    Small public high schools in New York City, created citywide in mostly high-poverty communities to replace large, low-performing high schools. The small schools compete for students through the city’s system of school choice.

  • Evaluation Methods:

    A large, well-conducted randomized controlled trial (RCT) with a sample of 18,000 rising 9th graders.

  • Key Findings:

    Four years after random assignment, a 6-10 percentage point increase in the four-year high school graduation rate, and a 4-6 percentage point increase in the rate of four-year graduation with a New York State Regents diploma (requiring proficiency on each of five state Regents exams in various subjects).

  • Other:

    (i) The small schools’ operating cost is approximately the same as that of the larger, more traditional high schools attended by control group students. (ii) A study limitation is that it evaluated the program in a single city that was concurrently implementing other system-wide education reforms. Replication of these findings in a second trial, in another setting and different conditions, would be desirable to confirm the initial results and establish that they generalize to other situations where the program might be implemented.

Between 2002-2008, New York City created Small Schools of Choice (SSCs) to replace large public high schools with graduation rates below 45 percent located in disadvantaged communities. SSCs are small (roughly 100-120 students per grade, as compared to the usual 350 or more in traditional city high schools), academically nonselective, and designed to ensure students receive individualized attention from teachers. The schools were newly created through a competitive process, in which the city invited applications from prospective school leadership teams.

Additional SSC features include: (i) new principals and teachers (as opposed to transfers from a large high school that the SSC replaced); (ii) start-up funding from the city’s Department of Education and philanthropic organizations (such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation); (iii) assistance with leadership development, staff hiring, and program start-up from intermediary organizations (such as New Visions for Public Schools); and (iv) partnerships with local businesses or nonprofit organizations that offer students learning opportunities inside and outside the classroom.

SSCs operate in the context of the city’s high school choice system, under which all rising 9th graders rank order their preferences for high schools to attend, and then are placed in their most preferred school with an available spot. Researchers call these high schools “small schools of choice” because they are small and they are open to all students who choose them regardless of the students’ past academic performance. SSCs’ operating cost is about $61,200 per student over five years (in 2017 dollars), which the study described below found to be approximately the same as that of the larger, more traditional high schools attended by students in the control group.1

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1 This cost estimate is based on the sample of students who applied to SSCs during the first two study years, for whom five-year outcomes were available. One reason SSCs did not cost more than the schools attended by control group students is that a greater percentage of SSC students graduated in four years, and thus fewer stayed in high school for a fifth year requiring an additional year of school expenditures. The cost estimate for SSCs does not include the one-time start-up costs of creating an SSC, the ongoing costs of facility usage (e.g., gyms, science labs), nor the cost of resources contributed to SSCs by external partners to support ongoing operations. However, a careful analysis found that these factors are unlikely to change the cost estimate substantially because (i) the one-time start-up costs are relatively small when amortized over many years; (ii) the difference in facility usage costs between SSCs and other schools is minimal; and (iii) external partners’ funding contributions for ongoing operations are relatively small, based on a survey of such partners conducted by New Visions for Public Schools (Bifulco, Unterman, and Bloom 2014).

Bifulco, Robert, Rebecca Unterman, and Howard S. Bloom. The Relative Costs of New York City’s New Small Public High Schools of Choice, MDRC, October 2014 (available here).

Bloom, Howard S., Saskia Levy Thompson, and Rebecca Unterman. Transforming the High School Experience: How New York City’s New Small Schools Are Boosting Student Achievement and Graduation Rates, MDRC, June 2010 (available here).

Bloom, Howard S., and Rebecca Unterman. “Can Small High Schools of Choice Improve Educational Prospects for Disadvantaged Students?” (2014). Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 290–319.

Bloom, Howard S., and Rebecca Unterman. Sustained Progress: New Findings About the Effectiveness and Operation of Small Public High Schools of Choice in New York City, MDRC, August 2013 (available here).

Unterman, Rebecca. Headed to College: The Effects of New York City’s Small High Schools of Choice on Postsecondary Enrollment (an MDRC Policy Brief), October 2014 (available here).