School & District Management Opinion

The Purpose of Small Schools

By Deborah Meier — July 24, 2008 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

A lot of questions. I’d love to know more about your answers, too. But part of the problem is that there are lots of different things called charters—even the charter laws differ dramatically in different states and the schools even more so. Not all are small, and many are no more, and sometimes maybe less, self-governing than the average regular public school. Vouchers are, of course, a straightforward proposal to get out of the public school business—except maybe for the left-overs.

The Edison schools (now moving into online learning) have been as large as any public school. In fact, most charter school students in Massachusetts attend large schools, although the average charter is modest in size. Many of the “chains” are even more “standardized” than KIPP. You sent me a piece, recently Diane, about IKEA schools—in of all places, Sweden!—whose leader boasts: “We do not mind being compared to McDonald’s. If we’re religious about anything, it’s standardization. We tell our teachers it is more important to do things the same way than to do them well.” A colleague and pro-KIPP’er friend acknowledged that their kids sometimes have difficulty in high schools that expect kids to be more independent, speak up, write well, and be intellectual explorers. He hoped they’d learn from this. But deciding to go into the high school business may just be postponing the bad news. (See Mike Rose’s brilliant “Lives On the Boundary” about just this subject.)

A side note on test scores: dramatic system-wide improvements in test scores, like New York state’s and D.C.'s, would have sent up a red flag in the days of psychometric standards when such results were a sign of poor tests or cheating. One of the odd qualities of the current mania for testing is that we have no standards for standardized tests.

But back to small schools. The purpose of smallness—that kids and faculty and families are better known to each other—is generally irrelevant in many of the new “small learning communities” and in most of the chains that profess smallness. Irrelevant, that is, for the purposes we had in mind. The reason for the large “dinner table” conversation that small schools (and smaller classes) allow for is precisely in order to make difficult decisions together, to weigh trade-offs, to look across age spans at unexpected side effects (or no effects at all, e.g. “successfully teaching fractions” starting at scratch year after year). Kids have always created their own form of smallness (cliques, gangs, groupings), so have adults! What we wanted was smallness on behalf of educational decision-making close to the ground.

Knowing kids better is not simply to help kids “feel good” (which is definitely a positive), but so that we can over time better understand their interests, styles, passions, “ways of thinking”—and our own. It matters only if we—school and family—are in control of how we can respond to what we learn. It’s a laboratory, in effect, for democracy. It’s not intended to turn teachers into social workers (although hopefully there are social workers that the kids can see) but into wiser intellectual leaders. Fewer and fewer kids take for granted any more that they live within something they can call “a community”—a living culture held together by common bonds as well as common norms for dealing with differences. Democracy is one kind of community, and a very complex kind. When our lives depend on democracy many of its citizens have only the faintest notion about how to think, much less operate, within it. Often enough, they abandon it at precisely such moments as a frill we cannot afford.

When we tease local school boards, or local decision-making in general, for stupidity, we are acknowledging that we have created a society in which very few people “think like” democrats, seeing the importance of connecting their knowledge to their arguments, taking the opinions of others into account, and on and on and on. Once every four years we deride “elitism” but in between we operate with elitist assumptions about the way “ordinary people” think. That’s the most telling indictment of our schools, not their scores on tests.

Yes, representative democracy is essential when the numbers prevent direct democracy, so we must learn equally how to operate within such a system. But each school needs to develop its own set of trade-offs between the two, which was a central argument of the NYC Network project. I think the Boston pilots come close to representing a helpful model that has captured the strengths of charters, but has remained true to our commitment to public’ness. I’m hoping the L.A. model follows in that path.

But, remember, what you and I have hoped for in public schooling has always been aspirational. As you have noted in your books, it has had a rocky and uneven history. Many were excluded. Nor have we ever depended on them as much as we do today given all the other publics kids were once exposed to in their growing years. Today, the young experience the adult world, if at all, through a variety of media, via pre-programmed, often solo games. They require very little negotiation amongst peers, and the ends are pure amusement—to induce the state of wanting “more, more”. (I’m sure there are some skills that are honed, some knowledge taken in—I’m an acknowledged novice at kids’ electronic games.)

Small schools are an attempt to re-create, intentionally, the best of the family dinner table, the town meeting, the public square, the legislative process, the team, and the academy of thinkers—with as much of the diversity of the larger community as we can corral all in one manageable place.

You asked many other questions; particularly about the reason so many hedge fund managers (etc.) want to start schools. Money and the pleasure of control is my short answer. The longer answer is that they really are “believers”. Note the rest of that piece, where IKEA’s spokesman broadens his McDonald’s analogy. What works for hotels and airlines, he says, is what’s best for schools.

But this is more than enough for starters.


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