Theses Doctoral

Small High Schools and Big Inequalities: Course-taking and Curricular Rigor in New York City

Warner, Miya Tamiko

This study examines whether small high school reform in New York City has fulfilled its goal of providing disadvantaged students access to rigorous mathematics curricula, thereby increasing their college readiness. Between 2002 and 2010 in New York City, 27 large, comprehensive high schools were closed or downsized and replaced by over 200 new small schools (Jennings & Pallas, 2010). Although extant research indicates that these schools have produced higher attendance and graduation rates (Bloom et al., 2010; 2012), the literature on small high school reform and college readiness remains inconclusive. To address this gap in the literature, my dissertation employs a longitudinal database of New York City student and school-level data from 2000-2010 to examine the impact of small high school reform on student math course-taking for two cohorts of students (the class of 2009 and 2010). I address the threat of selection bias by utilizing several propensity score matching techniques within a multilevel modeling framework. I find a small, positive impact of attending a new, small high school on students' progress through the math curriculum (one-sixth of a year) for the class of 2009, but not for the class of 2010. Yet while students in the new, small high schools, who are among the most disadvantaged in the city, might be faring slightly better than they would have had they attended an alternate high school option, they are still failing to complete even one semester of Algebra II/Trigonometry--the lowest level of course deemed "college preparatory" by the district. Furthermore, small high schools are not equally beneficial for all types of students. Black and Hispanic students appear to do better in the small schools than in alternate high school options, while the reverse is true for whites. Meanwhile, students with initially low math achievement benefit from attending small high schools, while students with middle-to-high levels of initial math achievement are better served elsewhere. Moreover, the new, small high schools are much less likely to offer advanced math courses such as calculus or any Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate math--effectively cutting their students off from the opportunity to take these courses. Finally, my results suggest that the rigor of math courses in the new, small schools may be weaker than in the alternate high school options in New York City. Taken together with the existing research, my results suggest that the consequences of small high school reform in New York City are both more complicated and less positive than the reformers promised or district officials will admit (Gates, 2005; Walcott, 2012). While these schools are unquestionably improvements over the large, failing schools they replaced, they remain at the bottom of an intensely academically stratified school system, and they have failed to raise students' college readiness in math. Moreover, these schools are particularly under serving high achieving students by cutting them off from rigorous, advanced math courses.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Sociology and Education
Thesis Advisors
Wells, Amy Stuart
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 31, 2013