Education Letter to the Editor

Small Schools

September 21, 2004 4 min read
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To the Editor:

Your article on Chicago’s small-schools initiative (“Chicago to ‘Start Over’ With 100 Small Schools,” July 14, 2004) provides objective reporting on Renaissance 2010, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s plan to close the city’s underperforming schools and replace them with 100 or more small schools, many of them to be run as charter schools or by private operators. But you fail to point out a major fallacy in the plan: the supposition that a school’s size, enrollment, and teachers are key variables in determining its students’ educational success.

Sadly, many of the schools that would be closed or reorganized under Mayor Daley’s plan are the same schools he “reorganized,” “reconstituted,” and “intervened” in seven to 10 years ago. At that time, teachers and some principals were made to reapply for their jobs or were fired outright. The district followed this purge by bringing outside experts to the schools to show those who had survived the errors of their ways. Among these experts were nationally known figures, including Northwestern University’s Fred Hess and the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Michael Klonsky and their variations on the “small-schools project”; the University of Chicago’s Tony Bryk and the Consortium on Chicago School Research; and DePaul University’s Barbara Sizemore and her “School Achievement Structure” program.

Almost a decade—and tens of millions of dollars in consultant fees—later, the same schools remain the poorest performers in the Chicago school system, and most of the same consultants remain on the district’s payroll.

As you correctly report, a similar “reconstitution” effort in San Francisco almost 20 years ago failed to show any meaningful improvement over time, in spite of reducing the schools’ size, changing the teachers, and increasing funding. The problem that these would-be change agents fail to address is that teachers and small schools are not the key variables in the education equation. Anyone with some knowledge of the current conditions in inner-city schools can tell you that poverty, the absence of concerned parents and guardians, peer pressure (especially from gangs), and lack of interest in learning by the individual students themselves are the key reasons why these students fail to achieve; not “bad teachers,” and not “big schools.”

For example, in Illinois, the top five high schools known for academic excellence are also among those with the largest enrollments. The five lowest-performing high schools are among those with the least number of students.

One of the major problems with the research used to justify these “interventions” is that the experts analyzing the data are often the same people who benefit from being hired to fix the problems the data reveal.

In the end, control of the money and patronage is what these interventions into the education of inner-city schools are all about. Private operators and charter schools take the money away from the oversight of local school councils and other public watchdogs, as well as eliminate union-scale wages and benefits, and put the money in the hands of politicians and politically connected businesses to mete out as they please.

There are no definitive data showing that inner-city charter schools, in the absence of sharing the public schools’ burdens of having to meet all of the state’s mandates and serve all of a challenging array of student groups, outperform the public schools in terms of student achievement.

Until politicians are forced to deal with the socioeconomic problems at the root of poor school performance, more union teachers will be fired and more public money will be wasted on patronage projects that have proven to be both costly and ineffective in the real world.

Tom Sharp

Chicago, Ill.

To the Editor:

“Small is beautiful”—but only if it’s part of a new policy framework for public education that recognizes (among other things): (1) a goal of much higher learning levels; (2) that the student, not the teacher or the bureaucracy, is the producer of learning; (3) the need for home-school-community partnership; (4) the reality that many students need support, not just “teaching”; and (5) that the school is the key unit for change and teamwork.

Most school systems and communities have not adopted such a policy framework, so their small-schools fads are too often just bureaucratic shell games that result in confusion and failure—or are taken over by privatization interests. Why are educators fighting over details, instead of leading us to replace our present obsolete system with a new one that can work?

David S. Seeley

City University of New York

New York, N.Y.

To the Editor:

I would like to see data that find a positive correlation between the restructuring of large schools into smaller ones and academic achievement. I also would like to see data that reveal a correlation between privatizing small schools and academic achievement. Finally, I would like to see data showing a positive correlation between these two trends and improved academic achievement in low-performing schools.

Without such data, what reason is there for this initiative? Is Chicago giving in to another educational fad and to special-interest groups?

Barbara Puleo

New York, N.Y.


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