Education Opinion

Small Schools, Big Ideas

By Thomas Toch — December 03, 2003 10 min read
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To change America's high schools, let synergy replace squabbling.

“The Casement and Doublehung Window Foundation has committed $14 billion over the next five years to the creation of miniature schools,” the conservative education commentator Chester E. Finn Jr. reported in a playful parody of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in his weekly newsletter last April Fools Day. “Grants will be made primarily to toy factories, traditional doll-house carvers, and makers of Swiss cuckoo clocks ...”

It would be difficult for anyone in education circles today not to recognize the target of Mr. Finn’s jesting. In less than four years of grantmaking, the Gates Foundation has transformed the notion of replacing large, “comprehensive” high schools with smaller, more personal models into a national movement. The world’s wealthiest philanthropy has earmarked nearly $700 million to states, school systems, and a range of nonprofit organizations to create 1,400 mostly urban high schools of 400 or fewer students each—some of them in new locations, some of them in large, existing high school buildings that have been subdivided. In September, the foundation pledged $51 million to create 67 of the new-style high schools in New York City alone.

This, alas, has made conservative school reformers very unhappy: Mr. Finn’s humor wasn’t completely innocent. That’s unfortunate. The Gates high school initiative has the potential to improve greatly the performance of the nation’s secondary education system. If conservatives successfully attack the nascent small-schools movement, students will suffer, and an important opportunity will be lost.

But a number of the charges that conservatives have leveled at the small-schools reform model—notably, that it must be accompanied by other fundamental reforms if it is going to be introduced on a large scale—are legitimate, and the impact of the small- schools movement would be greatly increased if the movement’s leaders, many of whom are leading progressive school reformers, would listen to what conservatives are saying.

The small-schools movement is a classic example of the value of combining ideas from both the left and the right in crafting school reform solutions. Unfortunately for the nation’s students, such synergy is rare in public education reform. (Take, for example, the debate over how best to teach students to read: Though one would never know it from the tenor of the national debate on the issue, the most capable elementary teachers routinely combine phonics and whole-language strategies in their reading classes.) The small-schools movement could easily become yet another casualty on a school reform landscape that has been needlessly and endlessly polarized by conservative and progressive purists, who carry on like modern-day Hatfields and McCoys.

The conservative cognoscenti have yet to publicly hit the Gates small-schools agenda with anything harder than soft jabs like Mr. Finn’s: The conservative journal Education Next recently ran a reprimanding review of four books published by Teachers College Press about small high schools that managed to never mention the Gates Foundation. Perhaps conservatives don’t want to antagonize a potential funder worth $25 billion. But privately many are disdainful of the Gates high school strategy, calling it “naive” and “utopian.”

They are wrong.

Though our economy increasingly reserves well-paying jobs for the well-educated (a U.S. college graduate now earns nearly 70 percent more, on average, than a high school graduate, more than double the 27 percent wage gap of only a decade and a half ago), only 18 of every 100 entering 9th graders eventually earn associate’s or bachelor’s degrees. The fact that many students attend large, alienating high schools is an important contributing factor to these grim statistics.

Sixty percent of high school students attend schools with enrollments of at least 1,000, and many schools are vastly larger than that. New York City’s John F. Kennedy High School, in the Bronx, has 4,590 students; DeWitt Clinton High School, also in the Bronx, has 4,600. Anonymity breeds apathy and alienation in many such schools, sapping students’ motivation to learn and teachers’ motivation to teach. Many students and teachers simply do not care because they do not feel cared about.

The result is what the school reformer Theodore R. Sizer has famously called a “conspiracy of the least” in many high school classrooms. Teachers don’t press students very hard—they start classes late, finish early, let the conversation drift away from the day’s topic—and in return students don’t make life difficult for teachers. These classroom compromises take a huge toll on public high schools’ productivity.

Not all large high schools are bad, of course. And not all small ones are successful. But small schools are more likely to create the sense of connectedness among students and teachers, the sense of being known and valued, that motivates people to work hard. They encourage stronger bonds between students and teachers and generate a level of genuine caring and mutual obligation between them that is found far less frequently in large, comprehensive high schools. Small schools, in other words, are more likely to create the conditions that make learning possible.

The small-schools movement is a classic example of the value of combining ideas from both the left and the right in crafting school reform solutions.

There is ample evidence of this. A slew of studies involving rural, suburban, and urban high schools have found that student and teacher attendance are typically higher in small schools. So are student involvement in extracurricular activities and graduation rates. Teacher turnover and student disciplinary problems are lower.

Big, comprehensive high schools, those that teach a wide range of subjects to a wide range of students rather than traditional academic subjects to all students, were designed for another economic era, when high schools essentially served as sorting machines, preparing students very differently for very different roles in the workforce. It arguably didn’t matter if high schools failed to educate many of their students effectively; an 8th grade education led to middle-class wages in a steel mill or on an assembly line. But in today’s postindustrial economy and in the wake of the civil rights movement, we want high schools to provide to a wide range of students the sort of demanding academic education that they traditionally reserved largely for the gifted and the privileged. Creating school cultures that motivate more students and teachers to work hard in the classroom is a critical part of this unprecedented task.

But small high schools are even more apt to engage students and teachers if the schools have features that conservatives like. Students and teachers are more likely to be invested in their work, for example, if students are permitted to select their schools and if schools are given authority over their budgets, staffing, and curriculum. Students attending schools under choice plans are typically going to work harder because they want to be in the schools they select. For staff members, the motivation of small, autonomous high schools is akin to that of small businesses: Teachers work hard because they have a sense of ownership. Because they are part of a small team that selects staff, sets budgets, and decides teaching strategies, they are invested in ways that their counterparts in big, bureaucratic schools never are.

The reality is that many of the nation's model small high schools are, or are a lot like, charter schools.

Robin Lake, the author of the recent Education Next review of the Teachers College books, and others are right to chide influential progressive small-schools advocates such as Mr. Sizer, Deborah Meier, Dennis Littky, and Ann Cook for downplaying the importance of these reforms to their schools’ success. Every one of them owes the very existence of their schools to the fact that they operate at least in part beyond the reach of traditional school system bureaucracies and teachers’ union contracts. The reality is that many of the nation’s model small high schools are, or are a lot like, charter schools. As Robin Lake suggests, "[The small school advocates’] denial of their own special circumstances lets them ignore—and even oppose—the systemwide changes that must occur if their valuable ideas are to be widely replicated.”

One such large-scale change is the abolition of seniority-based hiring and firing. Another is stronger accountability. Many progressive small-schools leaders oppose external accountability mandates such as those in the federal No Child Left Behind Act on the grounds that every school community (teachers, administrators, parents) should define for itself what is most important for students to know and how best to measure student achievement. (That stance puts them, ironically, in close company with some conservative charter school and voucher advocates, who have opposed applying state testing requirements to charter and voucher schools on the grounds that parents’ ability to withdraw from the schools supplies sufficient accountability: Think Deborah Meier and Lisa Graham Keegan, Arizona’s former state schools chief, or Ted Sizer and Florida’s commissioner of education, Jim Horne.)

It is true, as progressives argue, that small schools are able to include richer and potentially higher-quality assessments such as oral presentations and essays in their accountability systems. Big schools tend to rely exclusively on standardized multiple-choice tests because they must test so many students. Small schools should be permitted to use their alternative measures, if they are rigorous.

But external reporting of student achievement is no less of an incentive for small schools to do a good job than it is for charter and voucher schools and public schools generally, and if public money is being spent to run the schools, taxpayers and parents have a right to know what’s happening in them, as they do in charter schools and voucher schools.

The Gates Foundation knows that accountability, school choice, and autonomy from school system regulations and union rules are important to its small-schools campaign. It endorses the reforms. And of course there is no reason why small high schools have to favor one teaching strategy over another. Their curricula can be traditional or progressive; what matters is that the schools have distinct identities that students and teachers internalize.

But Gates set itself up for criticism by letting itself be identified too closely with progressive school reformers, even though Gates has funded them because of their longtime advocacy of smaller schools rather than because of their progressive leanings and opposition of state-level accountability. Realizing this, the foundation has worked hard recently to fund high schools with diverse educational philosophies. For example, it recently pledged $19 million over five years to expand the Cristo Rey network of Roman Catholic schools.

The best strategy is to harness the progressive-backed small-schools movement to several conservative-backed solutions: school choice, accountability, and school autonomy.

The foundation also made a mistake in letting its high school reform effort be defined merely as a small-schools movement. It should be stressing the importance of creating school cultures that motivate students and teachers to care because they feel cared about, not small schools, per se. Small schools are a means to a larger end: getting students and teachers to invest in (or, in the words of the school reformer Steven Wilson, “subscribe” to) the missions of their schools as an important step toward lifting achievement and getting a far wider range of students into and through the college pipeline. Creating significantly smaller high schools is one of several strategies for achieving greater investment by students and teachers, and it should be pursued together with other strategies, such as school choice. The Gates Foundation hasn’t done a very good job of framing its message in this way.

But it is absolutely right to focus on the failed cultures of large, comprehensive high schools. It is simply not possible in the United States to educate our diverse and increasingly disadvantaged public school population to high levels by relying exclusively on external rewards and sanctions—or, as a denizen of a conservative think tank told me recently, “hammers"—to motivate students and teachers.

External incentives are surely an important part of the solution. But in Steven Wilson’s words, “If we search for a master design for [student and teacher] commitment, we search in vain.” Unless we address the dysfunctional cultures of many of our high schools, unless we are able to get students and teachers to connect to their schools on a personal level, the performance of public high schools isn’t likely to improve significantly. There is a human side of school reform that we ignore at our peril.

The best strategy is to harness the progressive-backed small-schools movement to several conservative-backed solutions: school choice, accountability, and school autonomy. Both sides have important contributions to make to high school reform.

Thomas Toch is the director of the National Center on Education and the Economy’s Policy Forums program, in Washington, and the author of High Schools on a Human Scale (Beacon Press, 2003). Research for the book was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Mr. Toch can be reached at ttoch@ncee.org.


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