School Organization

School organization and size should be used as levers of change because of their ability to be consciously designed as a tractable cost-effective way to increase academic achievement in general and special education students. The Institute has undertaken a number of projects focusing on how schools are organized and the influence on student outcomes.

Select Publications

What do AEFA Members Say? Summary of Results of an Education Finance and Policy Survey

Leanna Stiefel, Amy Ellen Schwartz, Anne Rotenberg
Education Finance and Policy
, 6(2): 267-292

In the spring of 2008 the authors surveyed members of the American Education Finance Association (AEFA) to gain insight into their views on education policy issues. The results summarize opinions of this broad group of education researchers and practioners, providing AEFA members and education leaders with access to views that may be helpful as they consider policies to analyze or pursue. This article reports the results in six areas of current policy interest. How should education aid be distributed? Is school choice a good thing? Does school finance reform work? What has accountability wrought? Can school policies close the black-white achievement gap? And how should teachers be compensated? Our findings identify areas of substantial agreement as well as areas where there is disagreement. For example, there is considerable agreement that state and federal governments should provide additional funding for disadvantaged students but disagreement on how to measure school finance adequacy. 

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Can Teachers by Evaluated by Their Students' Test Scores? Should they be? They Use of Value-Added Measures of Teacher Effectiveness in Policy and Practice (2010)

Sean P. Corcoran
Annenberg Institute for School Reform

Value-added measures of teacher effectiveness are the centerpiece of a national movement to evaluate, promote, compensate, and dismiss teachers based in part on their students' test results. Federal, state, and local policy-makers have adopted these methods en masse in recent years in an attempt to objectively quantify teaching effectiveness and promote and retain teachers with a demonstrated record of success.

But questions remain as to whether value-added measures are a valid and appropriate tool for identifying and enhancing teacher effectiveness. In this report, the author aims to provide an accessible introduction to these new measures of teaching quality and put them into the broader context of concerns over school quality and achievement gaps. Using New York City's Teacher Data Initiative and Houston's ASPIRE (Accelerating Student Progress, Increasing Results & Expectations) program as case studies, the paper assesses the potential for these measures to improve outcomes in urban school systems. In doing so, the author outline some of the most important challenges facing value-added measures in practice.


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Mission Matters: The cost of Small High Schools Revisted (2009)

Leanna Stiefel, Amy Ellen Schwartz, Patrice Iatarola, Colin C. Chellman
Economics of Education Review, 28: 585-599

With the financial support of several large foundations and the federal government, creating small schools has become a prominent high school reform strategy in many large American cities. While some research supports this strategy, little research assesses the relative costs of these smaller schools. We use data on over 200 New York City high schools, from 1996 through 2003, to estimate school cost functions relating per pupil expenditures to school size, controlling for school output and quality, student characteristics, and school organization.

The authors find that the structure of costs differs across schools depending upon mission-comprehensive or themed. At their current levels of outputs, themed schools minimize per pupil costs at smaller enrollments than comprehensive schools, but these optimally sized themed schools also cost more per pupil than optimally sized comprehensive schools.They also find that both themed and comprehensive high schools at actual sizes are smaller than their optimal sizes.


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Small Schools, Large Districts: Small-School Reform and New York City's Students (2008)

Patrice Iatarola, Leanna Stiefel, Amy Ellen Schwartz, and Colin C. Chellman
Teachers College Record, 110(9): 1837-1878

High school reform is currently at the top of the education policy making agenda after years of stagnant achievement and persistent racial and income test score gaps. Although a number of reforms offer some promise of improving U.S. high schools, small schools have emerged as the favored reform model, especially in urban areas, garnering substantial financial investments from both the private and public sectors. In the decade following 1993, the number of high schools in New York City nearly doubled, as new "small" schools opened and large high schools were reorganized into smaller learning communities. The promise of small schools to improve academic engagement, school culture, and, ultimately, student performance has drawn many supporters. However, educators, policy makers, and researchers have raised concerns about the unintended consequences of these new small schools and the possibility that students "left behind" in large, established high schools are incurring negative impacts.

Using 10 years (1993-2003) of data on New York City high schools, the authors examine the potential systemic effects of small schools that have been identified by critics and researchers. The authors describe whether small schools, as compared with larger schools, serve an easier-to-educate student body, receive more resources, use those resources differently, and have better outcomes. Further, the paper examines whether there have been changes in segregation and resource equity across the decade contemporaneous with small-school reform efforts.


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Small Schools Effectiveness and Stability in Teachers and Students (2007)

Robin Jacobowitz and Meryle G. Weinstein
IESP Occasional Paper

A two-year mixed methods study to explore the process and outcomes of small high school development in New York City across the past decades. The authors examine how school-level student and teacher populations change over time in small New York City public high schools, the organizational and instructional practices that contribute to positive small school learning environments and how changes in these populations over time may influence school practices.

Funded by New Visions for Public Schools, the project produced two reports. This report focuses on how student and teacher populations at the NYC small high schools change from year to year as they develop during the first ten years of their existence.


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The Effectiveness of Small High Schools, 1994-95 to 2003-04 (2007)

Robin Jacobowitz and Meryle G. Weinstein
IESP Occasional Paper

 A two-year mixed methods study to explore the process and outcomes of small high school development in New York City across the past decades. The authors examine how school-level student and teacher populations change over time in small New York City public high schools, the organizational and instructional practices that contribute to positive small school learning environments and how changes in these populations over time may influence school practices.

Funded by New Visions for Public Schools, the project produced two reports in 2006. This report examines student and teacher demographic characteristics over time, student outcomes over time, and organizational and instructional practices that contribute to positive learning environments in small schools. We anticipate that our findings will have important implications for how new small high schools are established and supported, as more and more small high schools are created throughout New York City.


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School Efficiency and Student Subgrounds: Is a Good School Good for Everyone? (2006)


State and federal accountability reforms are putting considerable pressure on schools to increase the achievement of historically low-performing groups of students and to close test score gaps. In this article, we exploit the differences among the large number of elementary schools in New York City to examine how much schools vary in the efficiency of the education they provide to subgroups. In addition, we examine the extent to which observable school characteristics can account for the variation that exists.

The authors find that New York City elementary schools vary in how well they educate poor students compared to nonpoor students and Asian and White students compared to Black and Hispanic students. The disparities in school efficiency measures between boys and girls are lower than for the other subgroups. There is no conclusive evidence about which school resources and characteristics are associated with more or less efficient education across all subgroups.


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Do Good High Schools Produce Good College Students? Early Evidence from New York City (2006)

Hella Bel Hadj Amor, Amy Ellen Schwartz, Leanna Stiefel
in Advances in Applied Microeconomics, Volume 14, Improving School Accountability: Check-Ups or Choice, edited by T. J. Gronberg and D.W. Jansen

 The authors examine variation in high school and college outcomes across New York City public high schools. Using data on 80,000 students who entered high school in 1998 and following them into the City University of New York, this paper investigates whether schools that produce successful high school students also produce successful college students. The authors also explore differences in performance across sex, race, and immigration, and briefly explore selection issues. Specifically, they estimate student-level regressions with school fixed effects, controlling for student characteristics, to identify better and worse performing schools based on state mandated exams, graduation, and college performance.


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Immigrants and the Distribution of Resources Within an Urban School District (2004)

Amy Ellen Schwartz and Leanna Stiefel
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. 25(4): 303-327
In this article, the authors explore the variation in school resources and the relationship to the representation of immigrant students. To what extent are variations in school resources explained by the presence of immigrants per se rather than by differences in student educational needs, such as poverty or language skills, or differences in other characteristics, such as race? Their results indicate that, while schools resources decrease with the representation of immigrants, this relationship largely reflects differences in the educational needs of immigrant students. Although analyses that link resources to the representation of foreign born students in 12 geographic regions of origin find some disparities, these are again largely driven by differences in educational need. Finally, the authors find that some resources increase over time when there are large increases in the percentage of immigrants in a school, but these results are less precisely estimated. Thus, elementary schools appear not to be biased either against or for immigrants per se, lthough differences in the needs of particular groups of immigrant students may lead to more (or fewer) school resources.

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Best Schools, Worst Schools, and School Efficiency: A Reconciliation and Assessment of Alternative Classification Systems (2003)

Leanna Stiefel, Hella Bel Hadj Amor, Amy Ellen Schwartz
in Developments in School Finance, edited by William J. Fowler Jr., National Center for Education Statistics

This volume contains papers by state education dept. policymakers, analysts, & data providers on emerging issues in school finance. Including: estimates of disparities & analysis of the causes of expenditures in public school districts; race, poverty & the student curriculum; court-ordered school finance equalization; resource allocation to schools under conditions of radical decentralization; building equity & effectiveness into school-based funding models; alternative options for deflating education expenditures over time; productivity collapse in schools; & evaluating the effect of teacher degree level on educational performance.


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How Should We Organize Primary Schooling? Grade Span, School Size and Student Academic Performance

co-Principal Investigators: Leanna Stiefel and Amy Ellen Schwartz, NYU, Ross Rubenstein, Syracuse University & Jeffrey Zabel, Tufts University

This research is one of the first efforts to systematically identify and measure the effects of school grade span organization on student achievement in a large urban school district. The project seeks answers to the following questions: What effect does the grade span configuration of primary schools have on student achievement? Do the observed effects differ depending on student characteristics, such as grade level, income, race, immigrant status, English proficiency, and eligibility for special education? How does the test score gap across students vary with school organizational factors, such as school size, grade span or articulation grade? What related factors (for example, the particular grades served, school size and composition, timing of transitions to new schools) mediate the effects of grade span configuration? We exploit the natural variation found in the country’s largest school district (New York City) and take advantage of unique longitudinal student data that will allow us to examine the performance of cohorts of students through seven years of schooling and as they transition from elementary schools to middle school. Our research focuses on identifying ‘optimal’ ways to organize schools and explore differences in optimal configurations across students of different backgrounds. The research is funded by the Institute for Education Science of the U.S. Department of Education and should be of value to educators, researchers and policymakers.


Small Schools and Teacher Recruitment and Retention

co-Principal Investigators: Leanna Stiefel and Amy Ellen Schwartz

How is recruitment and retention different in small and large schools? What are the characteristics of teachers who are recruited to small high schools versus larger high schools? Are teachers in small schools more likely to be recruited from outside the district? Are they recruited from large schools? How do the characteristics of teachers change as small schools mature? Do they begin to resemble the characteristics of teachers at larger, established high schools? Are levels of retention different?

Small Schools and College Preparation and Outcomes

co-Principal Investigators: Leanna Stiefel and Amy Ellen Schwartz

Do small high schools better prepare students for college than larger schools? Are the effects the same for all students or do they differ across groups of students (English language learners, immigrants, racial and ethnic groups, etc.)? Do small high schools deliver better college outcomes than larger schools in areas such as applications, matriculation and GPA? Are college outcomes produced equally well by small schools or are some schools too small, for example, to provide the in-depth, specialized work needed to prepare students for college? Do newly created small schools have a different impact on students than older small schools?

Systemwide Effects of Small School Reform

co-Principal Investigators: Leanna Stiefel and Amy Ellen Schwartz

To what extent did the creation of new small high schools succeed in increasing the performance of all the district’s students? Did gains in new small schools come at the expense of losses in the existing schools? What evidence is there that creating small high schools might be effective as a system-wide reform? How does such a reform “go to scale” such that it will have a larger impact on the entire school system? How do existing schools become small? How is a location chosen for new small schools?