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Chat Wrap-Up: The Small-Schools Debate

July 11, 2006 5 min read
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On June 21, readers addressed questions on the small-schools debate to Education Week Assistant Managing Editor Caroline Hendrie and Associate Editor Debra Viadero. Below are excerpts from the discussion:

Read a complete transcript of our chat on “The Small Schools Debate.”

Question: What are the characteristics that define a “small school”? How do they differ from individual, autonomous classrooms in a larger institution?

Viadero: The definition of what “small” is varies. In the mid-20th century, when James B. Conant called for the creation of large, comprehensive high schools, he was talking about schools of 400 students. That would be small by today’s standards. Most modern-day reformers define small schools as those in the 100-student to 400-student range. The current small-schools movement, though, is about more than size. Some of its hallmarks include the creation of more personalized learning environments and making sure that every student has some sort of one-to-one mentoring relationship with an adult. These environments differ from an autonomous classroom in a larger institution in that they include a core group of teachers working together to plan lessons and share information on students.

Question: Teaching in a small-school environment for one year, I found I had less planning time and more noninstructional duties than I would in a large school. What policies should be in place to address teacher working conditions and ensure that faculty and staff members are not overwhelmed?

Hendrie: A good number of small schools, at least start-ups, seem to be relying on young, supercommitted teachers who are able to devote an exceptionally large number of hours to their jobs. We know that as teachers get a few years into their careers, they not only become more skilled at their craft but also take on more personal responsibilities, such as having children. So the sustainability of models that rely on extraordinary staff commitment is a question mark. Some of the struggles with staff overwork may ease as new schools get off the ground and people aren’t trying to invent an entirely new institution, even as they run their own classrooms.

Question: I was a teacher at Manual High School in Denver, a small-schools “experiment” that has been deemed a failure and closed. Although our student demographics were challenging, what really sealed our doom was a lack of autonomy from district mandates. We simply had no time or resources to devote to our unique mission as a small school. How can small schools with low-performing student populations succeed as autonomous institutions when so many variables are mandated by the high-stakes accountability measures in the federal No Child Left Behind Act?

Hendrie: While not universally the case, small schools can chafe under district-level rules, some of them No Child Left Behind-related, some not. Among the issues I’ve heard a lot about when visiting schools is the question of staffing autonomy. If a small school is subject to district hiring rules, for instance, the school leader may not have the discretion to assemble his or her own staff. That can loom large for a leader who is trying to bring together a staff with a common vision that may depart markedly from what has been business as usual in the district at large. Flexibility to set their own hours is another major sticking point. In Boston, for example, the district and the teachers’ union were until recently engaged in a long-running dispute over the extra hours that teachers in the district’s innovative, small “pilot schools” were working. A third issue, of course, is curricular autonomy at a time of test-driven accountability. Small schools that take an unconventional approach can be an uncomfortable fit in a district focused on meeting the federal mandates. You also mention time and resources as being a problem at Manual. I think it’s generally agreed that insufficient planning time was a significant obstacle there. Many wise heads are taking a close look at the Manual situation, with an eye toward doing better in the future.

Question: Do you have any data on the courses available in small schools? How do they staff Advanced Placement across a wide range of disciplines, or three or four choices of foreign-language instruction?

Viadero: Educators have had to make some tough choices with regard to the range of course offerings. The dilemma is this: Do you restrict students’ course choices, or do you allow them to take classes or foreign languages outside their communities and risk diluting the “family like” feel? I would love to see some national data on this issue, and I suspect the ongoing evaluation of the Gates Foundation’s $1 billion high school reform effort might be a good place to look for it.

Question: Are small schools better for preventing kids from “falling between the cracks”?

Viadero: There is lots of anecdotal evidence, and some statistical research, to suggest this may be the case. For instance, Patricia Wasley and colleagues did a study a few years ago looking at 143 small schools that had been launched in Chicago in the 1990s. In these schools, the dropout rates were about one-third lower than those in the city’s larger high schools. On the face of it, it makes sense that students will persist longer in a school where it’s easier for adults to keep track of them.

Question: Smaller high schools mean more schools per district, which entails greater costs. Wouldn’t one large, consolidated building, with one set of support and administrative staff—yet allowing smaller class sizes by having a large number of teachers—be a more academically and economically sound solution?

Hendrie: Some studies dispute that small schools cost more. And advocates have long pointed to the higher graduation rates typically posted by small schools to argue that they actually cost less per graduate than larger comprehensive high schools with higher dropout rates. You raise the question of whether the proliferation of small schools will lead to an attendant proliferation of support staff. Some districts are trying to deal with this possibility by restructuring their central offices to enable small schools to access the support services they need, without requiring that they use all of them.

It seems to me that most high schools in this country still conform to the large-school model you suggest. Many kids (and teachers) may thrive in that environment, but it is clearly not working for everyone, and especially not for the large numbers of African-American and Hispanic students who drop out of school; hence, the push to make other options available to families beyond those who are able to choose private school for their kids.

A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: The Small-Schools Debate

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