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Small Schools of Choice

Blueprints Program Rating: Promising

A high school reform model that is academically non-selective but provides academically rigorous instruction in small, personalized learning environments Along with smaller size, the model emphasizes real-world relevance and personalized relationships between teachers and students.

Program Outcomes

  • Dropout/High School Graduation

Program Type

  • School - Environmental Strategies

Program Setting

  • School

Continuum of Intervention

  • Universal Prevention (Entire Population)


  • Early Adolescence (12-14) - Middle School
  • Late Adolescence (15-18) - High School


  • Male and Female


  • All Race/Ethnicity


  • Blueprints: Promising
  • Social Programs That Work: Near Top Tier

Program Information Contact

Rebecca Unterman
Senior Associate, K-12 Education
Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC)
11965 Venice Blvd. #402
Los Angeles, CA 90066

Program Developer/Owner

  • Rebecca Unterman
  • Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC)

Brief Description of the Program

New York City’s Small Schools of Choice (SSCs) are academically non-selective but provide academically rigorous instruction in small, personalized learning environments for low-income high school students. Classes are generally smaller than those in public high schools, with more individualized attention given to students so that personal relationships are developed between teachers and students. In addition, the schools partner with outside organizations to assist with hiring exceptional teachers and staff as well as to provide students with opportunities to connect what they learn in school to real-world applications. Other implementations of the program such as in Chicago emphasize the small number of students, with schools having flexibility in choice of themes and curricula.

See: Full Description


Students enrolled in more recently established Small Schools of Choice in New York City or small schools in Chicago were significantly more likely than controls to:

  • Perform better on Regents Exams in several fields (Abdulkadiroglu et al., 2013)
  • Have lower dropout rates (Barrow et al., 2014)
  • Graduate high school (Bloom & Unterman, 2013; Abdulkadiroglu et al., 2013; Schwartz et al., 2013; Barrow et al., 2014)
  • Obtain more high school credits (Abdulkadiroglu et al., 2013)
  • Stay on grade schedule (Abdulkadiroglu et al., 2013; Barrow et al., 2014)
  • Demonstrate college readiness in English (Bloom & Unterman, 2013), reading, and writing (Abdulkadiroglu et al., 2013)
  • Enroll in postsecondary education (Abdulkadiroglu et al., 2013)

Race/Ethnicity/Gender Details

The students served by the program tended to be Black or Hispanic and come from low-income communities. Although results varied across studies and outcomes, subgroup analyses generally showed program benefits for most gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic groups.

Brief Evaluation Methodology

To examine the small schools’ effectiveness at increasing high school graduation and postsecondary enrollment in New York City, Bloom and Unterman (2013) and Abdulkadiroglu et al. (2013) used a lottery-based quasi-experimental design, with a lottery partially determining whether 9th grade students would attend the small schools or standard high schools. The samples in the studies covered the period from 2003-04 to 2007-08 and had more than 10,000 lottery students. The outcomes included test scores, graduation, and college attendance. Two other studies, one in New York City (Schwartz et al., 2013) and one in Chicago (Barrow et al., 2014), used a quasi-experimental design based on nearness of the student’s location to a small school. They also had large samples and examined dropping out, graduation, and test scores. A fifth quasi-experimental study by Bloom and Unterman (2014) examined more than 200 small high schools in New York City using an instrumental variables approach, in which a student’s random assignment to groups in their first naturally-occurring school assignment lottery was used to predict treatment enrollment, which was in turn used to estimate the causal effect of enrolling in the treatment. In the lottery, students submit their top twelve school choices, schools submit their criteria for students, and assignment maximizes fit between these two sets of specifications. School graduation rates, college readiness, and reading and math proficiency scores were assessed at baseline and four-year follow-up for three consecutive cohorts of first-time ninth-grade students.


Abdulkadiroglu, A., Hu, W., & Pathak, P. A. (2013). Small high schools and student achievement: Lottery-based evidence from New York City. NBER Working Paper No. 19576.

Barrow, L., Schanzenbach, D. W., & Claessen, A. (2014). The impact of Chicago’s small high school initiative. Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Working Paper No. 2014-20.

Bloom, H. S., Thompson, S. L., & Unterman, R. (2010). Transforming the high school experience: How New York City’s new small schools are boosting student achievement and graduation rates. New York: MDRC.

Bloom, H. S., & Unterman, R. (2012). Sustained positive effects on graduation rates produced by New York City’s small public high schools of choice. New York: MDRC.

Bloom, H. S., & Unterman, R. (2013). Sustained progress: New findings about the effectiveness and operation of small public high schools of choice in New York City. New York: MDRC.

Schwartz, A. E., Stiefel, L., & Wiswall, M. (2013). Do small schools improve performance in large, urban districts? Causal evidence from New York City. Journal of Urban Economics, 77, 27-40.

Unterman, R. (2014). Headed to college: The effects of New York City’s small high schools of choice on postsecondary enrollment. New York: MDRC.