Editorial: The Small School Express

By the Editors of Rethinking Schools

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

Historically, high schools have been a key sorting system for this stratified society, sending some off to lives of privilege and accomplishment and tracking others to society’s basement.
Illustration:Michael Duffy

The small schools train has left the station. In fact, it has jumped the tracks and no one is really sure where it’s headed as it picks up passengers and speeds through school districts across the country.

New York City is phasing out large high schools and planning for 200 new small schools over the next five years. Chicago is planning 100. Los Angeles is converting 130 middle and high school campuses to smaller units. New Jersey is encouraging all middle and high schools in the state’s 30 poorest districts to reorganize into “small learning communities” by 2008. Similar initiatives are underway in nearly every large urban district.

Schools have always seen more than their share of “silver bullet” solutions to their problems. But aside from being the latest fad, the small schools movement has also become a testing ground for competing visions of public education and the kind of society we should prepare our youth to enter and inherit.

Perhaps the one point of agreement is that U.S. high schools, especially in urban areas, need radical change. Dropout rates for students of color are horrendous. Achievement levels, whether measured by dubious standardized tests or more authentic means, are lower than they should be. And academic achievement gaps mirror the racial and class inequality that exists all around us. Far too many large urban high schools are failure factories that disrespect the teachers, students, and communities they’re supposed to serve. Too many secondary schools are crumbling, overcrowded facilities in disrepair, unsafe and unhealthy places for the mind and spirit.

The issue is what role small schools can play in solving these problems. Here’s a best-case argument from a report by Jobs For the Future, an economic and education research institute:

A growing number of school districts around the country are using small school development as a central strategy for improving high schools and overhauling the way the district itself does business. Driven by an increasing sense of urgency and frustration with reforms that fail to fundamentally change the quality of instruction or the nature of student-teacher relationships, they are transforming large, under-performing high schools into “education complexes” made up of multiple autonomous small schools under one roof. For school districts, this conversion process offers a potentially powerful opportunity for a “defining moment” of change — an opportunity to provide the most fertile conditions for excellent teaching and learning. A small schools strategy provides educational leaders with an opportunity to fundamentally rethink such key areas as administrative structures, staff roles, student-teacher relationships, course sequences, subject matter, the use of time, community partnerships, and parent engagement.

If small school reform serves as an entry point to these issues, it would be a positive development. But there is good reason for skepticism. To produce a “defining moment of change,” small school reform must address more than the issues mentioned above, important as they are. Unless basic matters like inadequate funding and the legacy of racial inequality in education are tackled head on, small school rhetoric will simply float like a hot air balloon over the landscape of urban school crisis.

Not all supporters of small school reform are driven by a “sense of urgency” about improving the quality of instruction or the nature of “student-teacher relationships.” Some are driven by dreams of privatization and hostility to public education. Others see small schools as a way to preserve pockets of privilege and withdraw from the common ground and collective obligations that a democratic system of public education needs to survive.

Contradictory Impulses

Like many education reforms, small school reforms often contain contradictory impulses. At times, small schools have served as liberated territory, sites of progressive possibility inside a bureaucratic system that is highly resistant to change. In other contexts, they can cream the best students and receive unfair allocations of scarce resources while creating openings for privatization, resegregation, and union busting.

Some have raised concerns about the sketchy record of small schools when it comes to serving special education students and English language learners. Evidence in some cities, such as New York and Milwaukee, suggests that small schools are reinforcing patterns of segregation by serving a lower percentage of these students, who are then clustered in the remaining larger high schools.

Others see small schools as the new “site-based management,” a structural reform that rearranges the furniture, but is largely irrelevant to the core issues of teaching and learning. Still others see small schools as a vital, but by themselves insufficient, part of a progressive reform agenda along with funding equity, antiracist/multicultural curriculum, critical teaching practice, effective school and district management and leadership, and democratic community-school partnerships.

Small school reform can contain any or all of the above elements, sometimes simultaneously. To date, the most successful small schools seem to be teacher- and community-driven efforts that take root in the cracks created by the failure of large urban systems. These bottom-up small school efforts typically have histories and school cultures quite 
different from the “small learning communities” created by the top-down conversion or restructuring of large comprehensive high schools.

On the other hand, the conversion of large high schools holds the potential to reach a much higher percentage of students than the creation of small “off-site” schools. Whether some combination of these strategies can contribute to the revitalization of public high schools on a scale large enough to make a system-wide difference remains to be seen.

Understandably, teachers are deeply ambivalent about small school reform. On the one hand, many teachers have seized the opportunity that small school reform presents to pursue collaborative visions of innovation, educational excellence, and social activism. In fact, many of the best small schools are fueled by a passionate volunteerism among committed teachers that is both heroic and at the same time problematic as a basis for sustainable, systemic reform over the long haul. In too many other places small school reform is something that’s being “done to teachers,” with a profound lack of respect for their experience, needs, and conditions of work. Without greater attention to the supports needed to improve teaching and learning in classrooms and to the key role teachers must play in shaping and implementing change, small school reform cannot succeed.

As Michelle Fine reminds us in her essay in this issue, the debate is not really about size. “Small,” like its often-paired counterpart “rigor,” are overused shorthand for complicated issues. Lately, we’re seeing new counterfeit versions of “small” in the service of an equally counterfeit call to “rigor.” Today, the argument goes, we must “personalize” our high schools (often through deeply impersonal, bureaucratic reform processes) so that all students receive the attention they need to pass tougher tests and course requirements. A society that has never sent more than a third of its citizens on to post-secondary education is suddenly rhetorically committed to “preparing all students for college” as a matter of national security. The recent Governors Summit on High Schools warned, “High school is now the front line in America’s battle to remain competitive on the increasingly competitive international economic stage…. If we do not make a concerted effort to move our society beyond this boundary, we will find ourselves a society cut in two— one side enfranchised in the modern economy, experiencing its affluence, the other lacking the means of access to the future.”

It is hard to take this rhetoric seriously. The crisis in our high schools reflects a “society cut in two” not in some far-off future, but in its grossly unequal present and sharply divided past. Historically, high schools have been a key sorting system for this stratified society, sending some off to lives of privilege and accomplishment and tracking others to society’s basement. At the Governors Summit, the country’s richest man, Bill Gates, declared that the nation’s high schools were “limiting, even ruining, the lives of millions of Americans every year…. This isn’t an accident or a flaw in the system; it is the system.”

This “system,” however, goes far beyond schools. It’s a global social and economic system that has produced both Gates’ fabulous wealth and the staggering inequality that his philanthropy purports to address. Promises to bridge achievement gaps by pairing “small” and “rigor” would be more credible if they were accompanied by plans to ensure open admission to college for all and adequate and equitable funding for public education, or if gaps in health care, income, and housing were deemed as urgently in need of redress as gaps in test scores.

It is worth considering for a moment why so many powerful corporate and political interests have endorsed this move to small school reform. Again, there seem to be several factors at work.

One is an economic argument that blames the education system for failing to produce adequate numbers of skilled workers for the “high-tech demands of the new global economy.” Though this argument rests on dubious assumptions about the high-tech, affluent future that awaits us all, we don’t doubt that many powerful interests find it compelling (even as they outsource high-tech jobs to Third World countries in pursuit of greater profits). This logic was on prominent display at the recent Governors Summit and it encourages educators to put the needs and interests of the business world at the top of their agenda. Against this background, small school reform of the kind sponsored by Gates can be understood as an educational version of the “total quality management” reforms in the corporate workplace that seek to replace factory-style practices with more collaborative, enlightened management styles previously reserved for elites. In this vision, small schools can better prepare a larger strata of students for the team-oriented, task-driven, professional climate of many high-tech, corporate environments.

A related motivation stems from the yawning gulf between newly imposed higher standards and tests and the real-world preparation of high school students. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, typically half of all students entering a high-poverty high school read at a seventh-grade level or below. Groups like the Education Trust and Achieve Inc. (a major force behind the Governors Summit) are promoting even more demanding high school standards and tests. Without dramatic changes in how high schools function, these new standards will simply accelerate the hemorrhaging of dropouts. This prospect has led many standards-boosters to endorse a thin version of small, promoting “personalization” mainly as vehicle for boosting test scores and course completion rates. Attempts to do small on the cheap are sometimes accompanied by the shrinking of services provided to urban youth, replacing comprehensive high schools with their broad range of course choices and traditional array of social, athletic, and extra-curricular activities with barebones, storefront schools that “personalize” a downsized version of a well-rounded education. In this context, a focus on small can serve to deflect attention away from the fundamental issue of inadequate and unequal resources.

Another factor promoting small school reform is the movement toward “school choice.” This ranges from increasing options inside the public system, to various charter school plans, to privatization and voucher schemes that seek to replace public education with a market system or turn schools over to for-profit management firms. Small school reforms can serve any of these purposes, which is one reason their value as a reform strategy needs to be judged in larger context. Reform that provides good options for all students, that explicitly addresses equity concerns about tracking, resources, facilities and staffing, and that allows room for pluralistic educational visions can strengthen the public system. Reforms that bleed the public treasury to subsidize private tuition or create pockets of privilege divorced from democratic commitments and accountability will weaken it. The prominent role of foundations and intermediaries in small school reform also raises concerns about the privatization of education policy, especially in an environment where a politicized funding system starves the schools and makes districts desperate for foundation dollars.

These currents exist side-by-side with progressive small school efforts that seek to circumvent central office bureaucracies, create openings for community and teacher voices, and invest small school reform with democratic, antiracist values.

Anyone involved in small school reform in a large urban district is likely to find each of these agendas represented to various degrees. Together they make for a small schools movement in which both educational progress and backsliding are possible.

We agree with many supporters of small school reform who see in its best examples strategies that can contribute to effective high school reform. We agree that unless the public system creates effective alternatives to the options now in place, the demise of public education will accelerate. But to serve the educational and social goals of a truly democratic society, real reform must adequately address all the key issues of sufficient funding, teacher preparation and support, classroom practice, community participation, institutional racism, systemwide fairness, and larger issues of social accountability and public policy. Without such a comprehensive scope, small school reform will be another in a long line of broken promises. In the end, it is not about defending what is, but about being honest about what it will take to replace it with something better.