School & District Management Opinion

Our Best Hope

November 01, 2003 3 min read
Small schools are often held back by uniform standards.

If you look closely at what is happening in New York City, you’ll get a glimpse of what could be an exciting and promising future for public education. New Visions for Public Schools has put in place more than 30 of the most exciting nontraditional schools in the nation. The Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Schools for a New Society is blazing trails in creating a different kind of high school. The city is establishing 200 small charter schools and might even create a “charter district” to support and oversee them. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given New York $51 million to fund 67 new, small thematic schools.

A year ago, I wrote that a handful of reformers and policymakers were embarking on a bold new strategy to improve public education by building a kind of parallel system of small, innovative schools on the margins of the current system. That movement is gaining momentum, and it may be America’s best hope for giving our children the kind of education they need to become competent young adults and the skills and motivation to be lifelong learners.

New York City is in the vanguard, but not by itself. Nontraditional schools are springing up all over—in Providence, Rhode Island, San Diego, the District of Columbia, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other major cities. Many of these are charter or contract schools that are different from conventional schools in almost every way.

Promising as the small schools movement is, the odds against its success are formidable. First, many who feel threatened by what they perceive as competition are trying to smother the movement in its crib. Second, existing policies and practices in every state put the new schools in constant jeopardy and make it extremely difficult for them to flourish. And No Child Left Behind has now raised the stakes by creating an even more rigid and punitive environment.

Schools like Urban Academy in Manhattan, the Met in Providence, and the Minnesota New Country School in Henderson are in peril because they march to different drummers. They personalize education and try to tailor curricula and schedules to the specific needs and circumstances of each child. Instead of using standardized tests and letter grades to assess student progress, they rely on multiple measures that include work and performance, community service, and personal growth. Although these schools often place virtually all of their students in college or postsecondary study, they may be judged “low performing” because they don’t do well on the Trivial Pursuit tests that now dominate students’ lives.

To survive, these schools could be forced to abandon or compromise the very philosophy and practices that make them successful. The Beacon School in Manhattan, for example, has led the nation in the use of student portfolios for learning and assessment. But in the name of uniformity, Commissioner of Education Richard Mills decided two years ago to cancel the exemption from the Regents exams that his predecessor gave Beacon. Now that its students are compelled to take the Regents, Beacon has been forced to modify its curriculum and cut back its portfolio program.

If the promise of the small schools movement is to be realized, we must create an open sector where innovation and experimentation are encouraged and protected. Instead of being held to the rigid standards of the conventional system and judged by the test scores that drive it, the new schools should be required only to meet their own goals and accomplish their own missions. And they should be evaluated by methods and measures that are compatible with their practices. Invariably these new schools have higher attendance and lower dropout rates, and they send more young people to college than traditional schools do. That says something positive about the attitudes, motivation, and performance of their students.

Today’s students are incredibly diverse in every way. Why not try to provide them with an educational system that matches that diversity and accommodates their needs and talents?

—Ronald A. Wolk

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