Contrasting Paths To Small School Reform: Results Of A 5-Year Evaluation Of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s National High Schools Initiative


Shear, L., Means, B., Mitchell, K., House, A., Gorges, T., Joshi, A., Smerdon, B., & Shkolnik, J. (2008) “Contrasting Paths to Small School Reform: Results of a 5-year Evaluation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s National High Schools Initiative.” Teachers College Record 110 (9), p. 1986-2039.



In 2000, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation began an ambitious initiative intended to catalyze the fundamental transformation of American high schools. This article summarizes the results of a 5-year national evaluation of the first stage of the foundation’s initiative.


This article focuses on two contrasting strategies to small-school reform: starting new small high schools, and converting large schools into smaller learning communities. For each strategy, it reports on the progress of the reform in its first several years, student outcomes, and key implementation factors that shape progress and outcomes for startup and conversion schools.

Research Design

The evaluation summarized in this article used a mixed-methods design. Data and analyses in this article come from surveys of teachers, students, and school leaders; case study site visits that collected a range of qualitative data; the collection and analysis of teacher assignments and student work; and district records of attendance and achievement.


Results show that although both strategies have the potential to promote learning environments that are more personalized and that encourage students to work to higher standards, start-up schools in their first several years showed positive results in terms of attendance and some indication of student achievement gains, whereas these outcomes did not emerge for conversion schools during the timeframe of the study.


Results reported by the evaluation must be taken in the context of the typically slow pace of significant educational reform. Despite the many tasks facing start-up schools in their first 3 years and the challenges posed by limited budgets and incompatibilities with district systems, these schools were quickly able to establish strong and supportive school climates without apparent compromise to student academic achievement. Conversion school progress was slowed by an early focus on structural changes and the challenges of equitable reassignment of existing staff and students, with less initial clarity of vision for the learning environment or initial emphasis on instructional change. More evidence is needed concerning the long-term outcomes for students in these schools and the feasibility of creating small schools at scale, and therefore the degree to which either strategy is likely to support the ultimate goal of promoting educational excellence and equity for all high schoolers.

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