Tuesday, October 26, 2010

More On Small Schools

I've been thinking a lot recently about small schools and their effects on education.  Small schools have had a lot of hype around them for a while now.  A smaller student population is supposed to help staff develop better relationships with students and keep them from slipping through the cracks.  But, I suspect (as with just about any public policy), the reasons for their implementation are at least as much political as they are about actually improving anything.  Truth and reason are rarely among the top priorities of policy-making or elections.

In thinking about the effects of small schools, I've been talking to a number of colleagues (both at my school and at the UFT's new chapter leader conference this past weekend).  In my conversations, some people have posited to me the following things as either causes or effects they see of small schools that I feel are rarely discussed:

- Small schools were created to help manipulate the statistics so that Klein and company look better - e.g. ten violent incidents at one large school looks worse that 2 violent incidents at five different schools.

- Small schools are more expensive as they usually require more administrative staff and the duplication of secretarial positions.

- The ongoing creation and dismantling of small schools in NYC increases the amount of disorganization happening in schools overall.  Small schools have to spend years building systems and getting their head above water before they're able to get to a point where they're only out of compliance with a bearable number of political dictates rather than practically all of them.

- Small schools have created a increasing demand for administrators, which, I suspect, increases the number of corporate training programs for educational leaders (like New Leaders for New Schools or the Principal's Academy).  So many of these admins sound like this, or this, or this and have no positive effect on student learning.

- Small schools are more inefficient because multiple schools in one building are often duplicating computer labs, SAVE rooms, and other spaces rather than sharing them for all schools.

- Small schools allow for fewer options for students to participate in extracurricular activities and choose electives they're interested in.

-Small schools allow for a more team-oriented approach to addressing school-wide issues rather than administrative dictates.

-Small schools allow staffs to more effectively cater to the needs of their particular population of students.

-Small schools increase the likelihood of school-wide cohesiveness and communication.

I'm sure this list is not extensive and people will likely disagree with some of the points I've listed (as I'm not sure I agree with all of them).  What are some things to add here?


  1. * they're easier to close;
    * I'm drawing a blank on the statistical name for the phenomenon, but if you split a school with middling aggregate scores into parts, it is pretty likely that some of the parts will become high and low outliers -- now you can take credit for creating the high one and closing the low one!

  2. I've been thinking about this for a long time. There are three schools in my building and issues around sharing space are more tense than need be. I do love the small school feeling and so do my middle school students but I think by high school many grow bored, though very nurtured. We're just too overstretched to offer enough of the different activities and opportunities that keep different kinds of kids interested in school. I wish that we shared resources and electives more, and I wish that when they "create" small schools, that they wouldn't dump the old students and teachers to the four directions. It's crazy! Another great concept in theory!

    1. I teach high school at a grades 6-12 small school, and I completely agree with Dalilou: our high school students are very nurtured, quite immature in many ways, and very bored. Our administration and private donors/backers love to talk about "student voice and choice," but the reality is that our students have no choice: there is one Math class per grade level, one English/History class, one Science class, etc., and no choice for electives.

  3. Great post. You've covered many of the salient critiques of the small school movement. Like many education reforms, if properly funded and supported, it would make sense. Provide for sufficient teachers, support staff, counselors. In reality, teachers often end up doing a lot of jobs they wouldn't have to do in a larger school, which stretches them thin and leads to high attrition.

  4. Hey James, was just reading back a little in your blog and this one caught my eye. As an arts teacher I am actually for larger schools, as a big school can have more specialized equipment and facilities (in my case, a theatre, but also possibly a film lab, ceramics studio, music practice rooms, recording studio, etc...) that allow for a broader range of artistic and career oriented training than a smaller school is generally able to offer. When you talk about some students who come to school to take part in these kinds of activities, this can be a pretty big deal. I am enjoying the blog!