To the Editor:
Larry Myatt’s thoughtful and challenging essay “Nine Friction Points in Moving to Smaller School Units” (Commentary, April 6, 2005) raises important issues for educators trying to restructure their large high schools.
I differ on a few points in Mr. Myatt’s Commentary, and would like to add a 10th “friction point.”
The friction point first: School restructuring, re-culturing, and re-purposing shouldn’t be seen as the return on the “substantial investment” made by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other private philanthrophies. I worry about grant-driven initiatives becoming get-rich-quick schemes replete with nonnegotiables or Starbucks-type replications that pay little if any attention to Mr. Myatt’s other friction points, such as those involving community engagement, respect for teachers, equity, and support for special needs.
Cash-strapped schools and districts, facing massive cutbacks and losses of teaching positions, can find themselves pushing top-down school conversions or closings/ reopenings in order to get funding, but without intentionality, without a strong rationale, or without the necessary level of public engagement—as Mr. Myatt puts it, winning the “hearts and minds of the people involved.” The small-schools models dreamed up by the reformers (myself included) and foundations can easily melt away when they clash with a community’s force of habit.
There is no arguing the degree of difficulty that goes along with that process. But many large schools have made progress through restructuring and conversion to smaller learning communities. Schools have become safer. In many new and restructured schools, teachers are working together in professional communities, and kids are more visible and engaged in authentic learning.
But we need to be careful not to claim too much too soon. Learning outcomes are still lagging. Social-service delivery in small schools is an Achilles’ heel. Some small schools are little more than sophisticated tracking-and-sorting devices, like their larger counterparts.
I question Mr. Myatt’s premise about the “widespread agreement that results in … start-up schools are generally more promising” than in conversions. The emerging data on charter school learning outcomes seems to challenge that assumption. Sustaining new starts and converting large schools each are complex tasks requiring the same degree of community engagement and district-level support. Neither can be seen as mainly a technical or structural change, and both must begin with more attention to the specific conditions in each community and less to the preconceptions of the foundations.
I also question Mr. Myatt’s general statement about high schools (many with high levels of violence, high dropout rates, and severe cuts due to the budget crises) being “comfortable environments for adults.” If they are, then those schools are not going to see much change, regardless of the investment. In my own research, I find growing dissatisfaction among teachers with their heavy teaching loads as well as their own disconnection with students.
College of Education
University of South Florida (Sarasota/Manatee)