School & District Management

Schools-Within-Schools Model Seen Yielding Trade-Offs

September 18, 2007 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The idea that many U.S. high schools are too large and impersonal to serve students well has gained considerable credence in research and policy circles.

But starting over from scratch with thousands of small, stand-alone high schools is also often seen as expensive and impractical. As a result, many districts in recent years have pursued the cheaper option of simply breaking up their large high schools into smaller schools within schools.

A new book tells a cautionary tale about that understudied alternative, training its sights on five high schools examined closely over time. What emerges is largely a story of the differences between theory and reality, of what can go wrong if school officials aren’t careful, and of many missed opportunities to make the most of a smaller learning environment. Probably the single most salient finding of Schools Within Schools: Possibilities and Pitfalls of High School Reform is that the approach led to increased stratification of students by race, academic ability, and socioeconomic status. The authors also describe as surprisingly rare the cases of instructional innovation tied to the smaller structure.

The book says that, typically, the same campuses would have separate academies, or subunits, as the authors call them, ranging from those known to be “full of brains” to others that were deemed “dumping grounds” for weak students.

Valerie E. Lee

“Unless you’re pretty careful, this [approach] is not the solution to anything and actually creates some additional problems,” said Valerie E. Lee, a prominent researcher on small schools and the book’s co-author.

But Ms. Lee, an education professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said the research has not dispelled her belief in the potential value of the schools-within-schools model, which she first recommended a decade ago as a cost-saving alternative to creating stand-alone small schools.

Instead, the book argues that the approach requires great effort and vigilance, with close attention “to what is taught, to whom it is taught, and how it is taught.”

‘Very Little Research’

Douglas D. Ready

The book, which Ms. Lee co-wrote with Douglas D. Ready, an assistant education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, points to major growth in help from the federal government and private philanthropies in fostering smaller high school environments.

The U.S. Department of Education for many years has provided grant money, now about $94 million a year, for its Smaller Learning Communities Program—aid districts may use to create schools within schools.

The Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has also dedicated about $1 billion since 1999, both to help create stand-alone small schools and break up large high schools into smaller units. The foundation has increasingly begun to promote a broader set of strategies to improve high schools, however. (“Gates Learns to Think Big,” Oct. 11, 2006.)

The authors note that while there has been substantial research on high school size and small schools, “very little research” has specifically evaluated the effectiveness of the schools-within-schools model.

“Similar to many other educational reforms,” the book says, “the SWS reform has been promoted and implemented without a solid base of empirical evidence to support it.”

The area of most consensus among researchers, the book suggests, is that social relations in schools within schools are more positive than in comprehensive high schools. Some studies also suggest they have stronger student attendance, as well as somewhat higher graduation rates, it says.

But the linkage to stronger student achievement is more mixed, the authors say. In fact, the book notes, a 2005 evaluation of schools supported by the Gates Foundation found that, on average, newly created stand-alone high schools had more beneficial social and academic climates than existing schools that were converted to schools within schools.

Up-Close Look

Common Themes

The new book Schools Within Schools: Possibilities and Pitfalls of High School Reform quotes various educators and students discussing the characteristics of the themed academies created at their large high schools, which were divided up. Their names are not revealed, and the schools are identified with pseudonyms.

ADMINISTRATOR PERSPECTIVE:

“Nine times out of 10, they select subunits because that’s where their friends are going. Some of them pick for the right reasons, but a lot of the kids don’t.”
—Taylor High School

“They choose [that subunit] to be with black kids, and because they know its reputation: ‘I don’t have to get there on time. I don’t have to do this. I don’t have to do that.’ ”
—Adams High School

“You’re running a small-schools concept that was a bastardized form of what it was supposed to be. Then you’re running a comprehensive high school, and you can’t run them both.”
—Harrison High School

TEACHER PERSPECTIVE:

“If there’s a nose ring and purple hair, they’re in Arts and Communication, … automatically.”
—Harrison High School

“It’s just like in normal society—you have your rich group, you have your middle class, and then you have your lower class. I guess that’s how you can characterize the system here.”
—Monroe High School

“This elitist business drives me insane, because I don’t know how elite it is that on our floor there are always people sitting out here working until 5:00 at night, talking with one another and sharing ideas.”
—Adams High School

STUDENT PERSPECTIVE:

“I chose this subunit because I don’t want to do a lot of work.”
—Monroe High School

“You hear things from other people, like, ‘Oh, College Prep is full of brains.’
—Adams High School

“MSM [Math/Science Magnet] kids will design houses, IBM [International Business Magnet] kids will sell houses. Generic 1 kids will fix things in houses. Generic 2 kids will steal things from houses.’
—Monroe High School

The book provides an intensive, on-the-ground look at the approach in five high schools across the country. Research teams visited the schools in the spring of 1999 and again the next fall. They returned in 2001, then continued to monitor the schools by phone calls, the Internet, and other efforts.

The authors chose schools in which all students and most teachers were divided into subunits designed around themes. The schools, which are kept anonymous, all had been operating under the model for several years before the study began.

Also, in all of the schools, students selected their subunits. The idea, the book says, was that students would pick subunits based on their interests and future plans.

But the researchers found that few students based their decisions on subunits’ themes or course offerings. For instance, many students said they chose a subunit they thought would place few demands on them. Others sought out subunits known to have high demands. Another common motive was to be with friends.

The researchers concluded that operating theme-based subunits in a free-choice context unintentionally led to “rather extreme—and structurally supported—social and academic stratification among students.”

The students’ subunit choices were “hostage to countless outside pressures beyond their personal interests and plans,” the book says. “These pressures came from many sources: friends, family, school staff, and their schools’ institutional policies and procedures.”

To help remedy the situation, Ms. Lee suggests that schools place some constraints on choice.

“You have to have some mechanisms for tinkering to make sure each unit has enough good students to make it viable,” she said.

‘Confusion and Tensions’

The authors also studied the school structure’s impact on instruction. They argue that smaller, more personalized environments make possible innovative teaching methods to improve student learning. The model, for instance, can foster more collaboration among teachers, more collective responsibility for student learning, and greater attention to individual student needs, the book says.

With subunits that focus on particular interests, it adds, the schools-within-schools model holds the potential to win greater buy-in, and engagement, from students and teachers, and to weave the theme across the curriculum.

But the researchers found little evidence, with some notable exceptions, that such potential was realized in the schools they studied.

“Schools within schools create the conditions under which innovation and change can flourish, but such advances do not rise automatically,” the authors write. “Although social benefits deriving from the SWS structure were very common across these five schools, the benefits we observed flowing from innovative academic activities or classroom instruction were surprisingly rare.”

The researchers also saw tension between the desire for smaller learning environments and the attractions of a larger school, diluting the potential benefits of the smaller environment. For instance, students often would attend classes outside their subunits, especially for such specialized classes as Advanced Placement physics, advanced French, or journalism.

From a curricular standpoint, the researchers conclude, the five high schools were essentially hybrid organizations: part small school and part comprehensive high school.

“These efforts to straddle very different organizational forms led to both confusion and tensions within each school,” the book says.

Fervor Ebbed

James M. McPartland, who with his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore developed the Talent Development model, which includes the schools-within-schools concept, praised the new book, published by Teachers College Press. “It points out some of the risks inherent in doing this,” he said of the book, especially with the potential for increased stratification of students. “That is a danger, but there are practical ways to guard against it.”

For instance, Mr. McPartland says schools’ resources and academic offerings should be distributed evenly. “There should be a fair representation of the most challenging courses, the most experienced teachers with great reputations,” he said.

David J. Ferrero, a senior program officer at the Gates Foundation, said the book’s findings resonate with his work at the philanthropy. “If you were to read a lot of our evaluation reports, there are strong echoes of what you see [in the book],” he said.

For instance, Mr. Ferrero said, creating an environment more conducive to good teaching isn’t enough. “It turned out it required more effort to get teachers to take it to the next level,” he said.

The book notes considerable change in the schools over time. For example, from the initial visits in 1999 to the return in 2001, four of five principals had departed. More broadly, the researchers say, the schools-within-schools model, at least in its full form, didn’t show a lot of staying power.

“[T]o some degree,” the authors write, “each school backed away from the reform after an initial period of enthusiasm.”

Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Law & Courts Webinar
Future of the First Amendment:Exploring Trends in High School Students’ Views of Free Speech
Learn how educators are navigating student free speech issues and addressing controversial topics like gender and race in the classroom.
Content provided by The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Start Strong With Solid SEL Implementation: Success Strategies for the New School Year
Join Satchel Pulse to learn why implementing a solid SEL program at the beginning of the year will deliver maximum impact to your students.
Content provided by Satchel Pulse
Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Schools Prefer Cheaper Ventilation Options to Curb COVID: Why They Should Consider Upgrading
Most schools are opening windows and hosting class outdoors rather than investing in costlier, more-effective measures.
2 min read
Students from PS 11 Elementary School participate in art projects and interactive activities, during an after-school outdoor program held in the High Line park in New York, NY, October 21, 2020.
Students from PS 11 Elementary School participate in art projects and interactive activities during an after-school outdoor program in New York City in 2020. Many schools are opting for outdoor classes and other-low cost measures to maintain healthy air quality during the pandemic.
Anthony Behar/Sipa via AP Images
School & District Management Hour by Busy Hour: What a Principal's Day Actually Looks Like
From the time they wake up until they set the alarm at night, school leaders juggle the routine, the unexpected, and the downright bizarre.
Left, Principal Michael C. Brown talks on a radio at Winters Mill High School in Westminster, Md., on May 17, 2022. Right, Boone Elementary School principal Manuela Haberer directs students and parents in the pick-up line at the conclusion of the school day on May 19, 2022 in San Antonio, Texas.
Left, Principal Michael C. Brown talks on a radio at Winters Mill High School in Westminster, Md., on May 17, 2022. Right, Boone Elementary School principal Manuela Haberer directs students and parents in the pick-up line at the conclusion of the school day on May 19, 2022 in San Antonio, Texas.
From left, Steve Ruark and Lisa Krantz for Education Week
School & District Management Photos What School Leadership Looks Like: A Day in the Life of a Principal
A look at a typical day for one elementary school principal in Texas and a high school principal in Maryland.
1 min read
Principal Michael C. Brown, from left, talks to seniors Brady D’Anthony, 18, and Sydney Dryden, 17, at Winters Mill High School in Westminster, Md., Tuesday, May 17, 2022.
Principal Michael C. Brown, from left, talks to seniors Brady D’Anthony, 18, and Sydney Dryden, 17, at Winters Mill High School in Westminster, Md., Tuesday, May 17, 2022.
Steve Ruark for Education Week
School & District Management Schools Can Access Tons of Money for Electric Buses. Will They Use It?
Electric buses are growing more appealing as fuel prices rise, but some districts remain wary of the cost and logistics.
5 min read
Stockton Unified School District's new electric bus fleet reduces over 120,000 pounds of carbon emissions and leverages The Mobility House's smart charging and energy management system.
The new electric bus fleet at California's Stockton Unified School District is projected to reduce the district's carbon emissions.
Business Wire via AP