Graduates are among the most valuable sources of information for schools committed to developing educational programs that make an enduring difference in students’ lives. Schools often gather graduates’ feedback informally, gleaning what they can when alumni show up for reunions or Alumni Day or stay in touch via casual visits, email, phone calls, and chance neighborhood encounters. But schools can’t get a full understanding of the impact of their work from this kind of feedback, nor from more extensive measures such as alumni surveys. To find out what’s happening with all of a school’s graduates—whether they stay in college, find work, form successful relationships, and participate as community citizens and leaders—and to assess how a school’s environment may have affected those outcomes, schools need to conduct long-term longitudinal research with as many of their graduates as possible over a substantial period of time.
Of course, because most schools don’t have the resources to conduct such long-term studies (though all thoughtful school communities would seize fiercely upon the resulting data) they need to rely on available research conducted with similar schools and student populations. This article focuses on several graduate follow up studies, some in the works and some completed, that provide data about graduates from Essential schools and other small schools with similar structures and philosophies. What is emerging from the research literature about the effects of Essential school practices on graduates’ pursuit of and persistence in higher education and other aspects of post-secondary school life?
Jay Feldman, Director of Research at CES National, describes why longitudinal studies are crucial for grasping the long-term impact of schools. “Longitudinal studies are the gold standard in research that actually provides relevant information to schools. When you just take a slice of data as opposed to following students over time, the slice gives you information, but it doesn’t show you the changes that people experience. In a good study we’ll get an understanding how students experience their freshman year—a time that is especially challenging for low-income students and students of color—and how and why they persevered. They will be able to look back at high school and see what did and didn’t prepare them well, and that information is a helpful component of knowing how to best to structure the high school experience.”
While past research from CES demonstrates increased college attendance among graduates of Essential schools nationwide (Principles at Work, 2001), Feldman is conducting an updated, more comprehensive research effort among college-going graduates of Small Schools Project-associated schools, with results available in 2007. Feldman is collecting transcripts and monitoring students’ progress to understand rates of college matriculation and persistence. Acknowledging that not all Essential school graduates, even if ready for college, enroll in higher education institutions directly after high school, Feldman says, “College is seen as a valid experience for graduates, so it makes sense to look at college first. Tracking students who don’t go to college is a lot more difficult, and getting a comparison group is challenging.”
Despite the obstacles, Feldman hopes that CES can embark on a more comprehensive longitudinal study of CES graduates. “We’d like to do a study in the spirit of the Eight Year Study and really track students’ social, leadership, and intellectual experiences in in-depth ways that you can’t get by looking at transcripts,” says Feldman. “We’re looking for ways to understand and communicate the impact of our work and to fight against standardized tests which don’t show anything relevant about anyone’s work.”
The Power and Limits of Urban Small School Reform
Lori Chajet, a Ph.D. candidate in the Urban Education program at the CUNY Graduate Center of New York and former teacher in a New York City Essential high school, agrees that we need more research on the impact of CES (and like-minded) schools. “The primary goal of small, urban, progressive public schools, sending students to college, has never been fully researched,” Chajet notes. Chajet is currently completing her dissertation, “The Power and Limits of Urban Small School Reform: An Exploration of Graduates’ Post-Secondary Experiences,” which focuses on the journeys toward and through higher education of graduates of one CES school, in order to provide insight into two research questions: to what extent and in what ways did these students’ secondary experiences at a small urban public school influence their expectations for and navigation of higher education? And how can understanding this question inform the work of both small schools and colleges? Chajet conducted ethnographic research at the high school and then did a three-part graduate follow-up study consisting of a survey with 55% of three graduating classes, individual interviews and focus groups with upwards of 20 graduates, and following six students from their senior year of high school through their first three years after high school. The school, referred to pseudonymously as Bridges, educates 500 predominately low-income students of color in grades 7-12, over 90% of whom go on to college. They attend a broad span of higher education institutions: public and private, two-year and four year, open-door and selective, residential and urban. Still completing her research, Chajet shared some preliminary findings.
While generally academically prepared for college, a host of obstacles come in the way of Bridges’ graduates’ persistence through and completion of college. Limited money for higher education was the biggest obstacle and source of anxiety for them. Among the students who stopped-out of college at some point, or left, over 50% cited finances as a main reason. Chajet describes one student who transferred from a private college, with two years of real success, to a state university due to major yearly financial increases that made the gap between the student’s resources and all available financial aid impossible. While maintaining her record of academic success at her new school, the transfer has postponed the student’s graduation by a semester, as students often lose credits when they transfer.
A less than fully complete understanding of financial pressures among their high school teachers and advisors complicate the situation. “When I presented back at school,” recalls Chajet, “I heard questions from the staff about why students aren’t taking out loans. Low income students are less willing to take out loans. They are less sure that they will finish school, and they don’t fully understand the process of financial aid. Taking out loans is frightening when you have no money to back you up. And they’re reading the political economy pretty well: students know they can’t stop, that they have to go to graduate school to get the jobs they need, and that means more loans. It can create a really daunting obstacle.”
This cultural, class, and race friction between staff and students affected other aspects of the transition process from high school to higher education. “When I interviewed staff members, those that were first generation college-goers and of color had a broader definition of college than those who came from middle class backgrounds,” says Chajet. “What this means for small Essential schools is that we need to try to diversify our staff, though that is not easy given our teaching population. It is also critical to have professional development in which teachers are actively thinking through how their own experiences shape how they present information, recommendations, and advice about college.”
Chajet also noted that pedagogy in higher education can be a real obstacle for students used to being well known and intellectually engaged in high school. Students found large college classes to be anonymous and off-putting, and this seemed particularly acute among commuter students, whose lives were not well-integrated with their campuses. These students no longer felt like part of a learning community.
Still, Chajet says, CES schools are doing so much, successfully preparing students from many different backgrounds to succeed in a broad range of colleges across the country. For example, Chajet’s research revealed that 82% of Bridges students ages 22-24 have some or more college, as compared to 57.4% of 25-29 year olds nationally according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Among Black students, 84% of Bridges students have some or more college as compared with 44.7%, and among Latino students, 83% of Bridges students have some or more college as compared with 29.6%. “I am seeing an incredible commitment to learning among graduates and real agency around getting through obstacles. If we are able to look at them 10 years out of high school, we would see even higher rates of graduation and success.”
Several other longitudinal studies involving graduates from CES schools demonstrate that Essential school graduates fare better than their peers in embarking on and persisting in higher education careers.
Martha Foote, Director of Research for the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a CES affiliate center, conducted a 2005 College Performance Study among college-bound Consortium schools graduates by analyzing college transcripts and other data. The study demonstrates lower dropout rates, higher college-bound rates, and much higher than average persistence rates in all post-secondary institutions among Consortium graduates.
In February 2006, research firm Rockman et al conducted the New Technology High School Postsecondary Student Success Study among 244 graduates of Napa, California’s New Technology High School (NTHS). Though NTHS is not affiliated with CES, its small-school size along with its commitment to personalization, tone of decency, performance-based assessment and project-based learning make it a useful comparison. The New Technology High School Postsecondary Student Success Study demonstrates that NTHS graduates were well prepared for postsecondary education, providing survey results that indicate how students rated the effectiveness of particular components of the NTHS program, including completing internships and concurrent college classes, attending a small school, and being in a personalized, respectful environment.
In the Fall 2002 American Educational Research Journal, Linda Darling-Hammond, Jacqueline Ancess and Susanna Wichterle Ort published “Reinventing high school: Outcomes of the coalition campus schools project.” The article described findings from the New York City Coalition Campus Schools Project, examining data from five new small high schools either affiliated with CES or influenced by CES principles and practices that along with other similar small schools had replaced two large struggling high schools in Manhattan. Darling-Hammond, Ancess, and Ort reported that college-going rates at the new small Coalition Campus Schools outpaced those of Julia Richman High School, one of the schools they replaced, attributing the students’ success to small school size, personalization, thoughtful curriculum, real-world learning and connections, performance based assessment, and collaborative faculty planning.
In 1995, David Bensman published Learning to Think Well: Central Park East Secondary School Graduates Reflect on Their High School and College Experiences. New York City’s Central Park East Secondary School, founded by educator Deborah Meier, was one of the charter Essential schools and profoundly influenced the development of other small, progressive, intellectually challenging and equitable schools in New York and beyond. Bensman’s research had its limits—for example, he relied on one-time interviews with graduates to gather data and anecdotes—but was still powerful for its indication that CPESS graduates succeeded both in higher education and in life beyond formal schooling.
Bensman, D. (1995). Learning to Think Well: Central Park East Secondary School Graduates Reflect on Their High School and College Experiences. New York: NCREST.
Cushman, K. (1991). Taking Stock: How Are Essential Schools Doing? Horace, 8 (1). Available online at www.essentialschools.org/cs/resources/ view/ces_res/70.
Darling-Hammond, L., Ancess, J., & Wichterle Ort, S. (2002). Reinventing high school: Outcomes of the coalition campus schools project. American Educational Research Journal, 39 (3). pp. 639-673. Available online at www.schoolredesign.net/srn/ binary/Reinventing%20HighSchool%20%20 LDH%20et%20al.pdf.
Foote, M. (2005). New York Performance Standards Consortium College Performance Study. Available online at http://performanceassessment.org/consequences/collegeperformancestudy.pdf.
Rockman et al (2006). New Technology High School Postsecondary Student Success Study. Available online at www.newtechfoundation.org/Articles/ NTF_StudentSuccessStudy.pdf.
Staff of the Coalition of Essential Schools. (2001). Principles at Work: A 2001 Report from CES National. Available online at www.essentialschools.org/pdfs/PAW3.pdf.
Horace editor note: The following sidebar appeared in an issue of Horace entitled “Taking Stock: How Are Essential Schools Doing?” published in 1991 and available online at www.essentialschools.org/cs/resources/view/ces_res/70. The first volume of the Eight Year Study is online at www.8yearstudy.org.
Tracking Student Success from Experimental Schools: The Eight-Year Study from the 1930s
Has anyone ever tried to find out systematically whether what students do in high school really matters when they go on to college? The answer is yes. In an eight-year study launched in 1934 and brought to a halt by America’s entry into World War II, the Progressive Education Association followed the progress of 1,500 students from thirty progressive high schools through college, comparing their achievement to students from conventional high schools. Their five-volume report, informally known as the Eight-Year Study, has since lapsed into obscurity; but it had widespread effects on how the American secondary school curriculum developed in the decades to follow—and it can provide a useful background to current efforts to assess Essential School progress.
To start, the Progressive Education Association’s Commission on the Relation of School and College got twenty-five leading colleges to agree to admit students from participating schools, even though their high school preparation might not match the conventional distribution of credits. Then it recruited thirty schools and school systems—public and private, senior highs and combined junior highs, large and small, varying widely in student make-up—that were eager to take on the business of examining their own goals and restructuring their curricula accordingly. By removing one key constricting factor—the fear that their students would not get into good colleges—the commission freed schools to try out bold new ways of teaching.
At first teachers did not trust the colleges’ promise enough to make real changes in pedagogy and curriculum. But a growing sense of confidence in themselves resulted eventually in thousands of teachers seriously reevaluating what school was for and how students learn. “They found what they sought in the democratic ideal, in the American way of life,” wrote Wilford M. Aikin, who chaired the commission. “’The high school in the United States,’ they said, ‘should be a demonstration, in all phases of its activity, of the kind of life in which we as a people believe.’”
The test was how well students did in college—by the standards of the college, of the students’ contemporaries, and of the individual students themselves. The answer was encouraging: students from the experimental schools did a somewhat better job than their counterparts by all three measures—and the more radically the school had restructured its curriculum, the better they did. On conventional tests the experimental group did as well as their peers from traditional schools; but they out-performed their counterparts on tests that measured problem-solving skills, creativity, and the like. And they were more likely to be leaders on their campuses. (continued from page 11 sidebar)
“The ways in which these schools were taking risks are very comparable to Essential School ideas,” says Theodore Sizer, who chairs the Coalition of Essential Schools. “They believed that classrooms should be student-centered, that every student can learn, that thought should be linked with action.” As Essential schools work toward change, they might recall the words of the study’s second volume, Exploring the Curriculum:
“Constant fear of failure, fear of fellow-workers, fear of the administration, fear of the community, fear of not imitating the successful example of someone else who is promoted, fear of change, fear of loss of work, fear of failing to follow the edicts of state departments or colleges of education—such daily fears are almost purely negative in effect. They result in thinking about how to be safe rather than how to be effective. In place of fear, self-confidence will come to the teacher whose fellow-workers and administrative superiors understand and cooperate to work out clearer concepts and new means of achieving them. With every advance will come a corresponding increase in the sense of freedom and release—freedom to think and do; release of all one’s energies and capacities.”
The findings of the Commission on the Relation of School and College were published by Harper & Row in five volumes in 1942-1943 under the overall title Adventures in American Education. The individual titles are as follows:
Wilford M. Aikin, The Story of the Eight-Year Study (1942)
H. H. Giles, S. P. McCutchen, and A. N. Zechiel, Exploring the Curriculum (1942)
Eugene R. Smith and Ralph Tyler, Appraising and Recording Student Progress (1942)
Dean Chamberlin, E. S. Chamberlin, N. E. Drought, and W. E. Scott, Did They Succeed in College? (1942)
Thirty Schools Tell Their Story (1943) A good discussion of the Eight-Year Study also appears in Bruce R. Thomas, “The School as a Moral Learning Community,” in John I. Goodlad et al., The Moral Dimensions of Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990), Chapter 9.
Transitioning from Small Schools to College: Putting Students in the Driver’s Seat
By Lori Chajet, Program Developer, The Institute for Urban Education at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts
“In one of our early meetings someone said, ‘It’s not fair that colleges get to choose us—can’t we choose them?’ This started us thinking about the types of colleges WE would be interested in—what colleges WE would choose…We wrote about our lives, our interests…We developed long lists of questions about what we wanted to know about college and then set out to find the answers.”—College Explorers Student
The Institute for Urban Education at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts works with small public schools in New York City to prepare young people for the high school to college transition. Combining what is known about the college-application and college-going process for low-income students of color with a belief in inquiry-driven learning, the Institute’s programs help high school students to become “youth researchers” in understanding college. Through both the Institute’s College Explorers and the College Immersion programs, students develop a sense of ownership over the college application and decision-making process critical to moving toward and ultimately persisting through college.
The Institute’s mission is to help schools recognize what their students do and do not know about college and to create opportunities for them to expand that knowledge. Its belief is that students need an understanding of the system of higher education, internalized beliefs about why college matters, and practice at making informed decisions in order to successfully navigate the obstacles that will come their way.
When students begin in the Institute’s programs in 9th grade, the majority have a very incomplete vision of college. While 76% definitely want to attend college, and an additional 24% are strongly considering it, only 50% have ever visited a campus and an additional 24% have visited only one. As these 9th graders move through the Institute’s College Explorers program they do research on “college”—exploring campuses, interviewing students and university staff, confronting their own stereotypes about college, and thinking about what they might like college to mean for them. As they move beyond the 9th grade, students continue to engage in inquiry-projects around college-going in America, investigating questions of financial aid, community colleges, majors, etc. In the 11th and 12th grades students can participate in the College Immersion Program where they are given the opportunity to take classes at Eugene Lang College. All courses are college-level with some limited to high school students, others an even mix of high school and college students, and others predominately college students. The intent is that if students undertake college-level work, negotiate a campus, and interact with professors before attending college they will be that much more confident when they move into post-secondary experiences.
In the end, participants in the Institute for Urban Education programs emerge believing they too can do some of the choosing.
For more information on the Institute in Urban Education’s programs, please see go to their website, www.lang.newschool.edu/iue/, or contact the Institute’s director, Daphne Farganis at email@example.com.
Lori Chajet is a Ph.D. candidate in the Urban Education program at the CUNY Graduate Center. She was a teacher at a small public school on the lower East Side of Manhattan for six years and has continued to work with a variety of small schools on issues related to professional development.
The research featured in this article is not a complete overview of all research done in CES and similar schools—much more is available that shows the strengths of and challenges to Essential schools. Visit the CES website for research overviews and much more: www.essentialschools.org.
Web follow up! Check www.essentialschools.org later in 2006 for an updated and expanded version of this article: we will add additional relevant studies as more are published and reported. If you know of a research effort that should be included here, please contact Horace editor Jill Davidson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Horace 21.4 featured “Making the Pendulum Swing: Challenging Bad Education Policy in New York State” by Ann Cook and Phyllis Tashlik. This article describes the value of Martha Foote’s 2005 New York Performance Standards Consortium College Performance Study in the context of a historic policy victory of performance-based assessment over the dominance of high-stakes standardized tests. As of press time, Horace 21.4 was not yet posted to CES National’s website, though it will be soon. Please visit www.essentialschools.org/horace to locate the specific URL for “Making the Pendulum Swing: Challenging Bad Education Policy in New York State.”