School & District Management

Schools-Within-Schools Model Seen Yielding Trade-Offs

September 18, 2007 7 min read

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.


“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


“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


“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.


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