The Evaluation of the National School District and Network Grants Program: Year 2 Evaluation Report

The National School District and Network Grants Program of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is based on the premise that organizations external to the public school  system can catalyze the creation of small high schools that will produce better and more equitable outcomes for students. Although all the grantee organizations funded under this initiative have subscribed to a set of attributes of effective, high-performing schools and classrooms set forth by the foundation, they bring different organizational histories and apply different approaches toward working with schools to put those attributes in place. A large number of grants have been awarded for the creation of small secondary schools. 

Nevertheless, it is still very early to assess the outcomes of the foundation’s education reform strategy. When the data analyzed in this report were collected in spring of 2003, the first small high schools created under the initiative were in their second year of operation; most of the small schools created through conversion of an existing large high school were in their first year as small entities; another group of small schools had opened just the previous fall or were still in the planning stage. Although it is still early to look at outcomes, the evaluation does have a growing database that can be used to examine some of the key questions suggested by the foundation’s theory of change: 

  • With foundation funding and a conceptual framework stipulating attributes of high- performing schools, are intermediary organizations able to catalyze the creation of small secondary schools with the desired characteristics? 
  • Are students’ instructional experiences in small schools that embody the attributes promoted by the foundation different from and better than those of students in conventional high schools? 
  • Are the attitudes of students in schools where the foundation’s attributes are firmly in place consistent with the hypothesis that they are more engaged with their schoolwork and more likely to stay in school through graduation? 
  • Do differences in educational engagement among students from different demographic backgrounds appear less pronounced in small high schools? 
  • Can successful small schools be created by converting large high schools into smaller independent schools or learning communities sharing the same physical plant?