Small schools are ‘launching pad’ for improved teaching

Print More

Thanks to Catalyst and Alexander Russo for stirring the pot and keeping the small schools discussion alive. I am perplexed, however, by the gaping disparity between the one-sidedly negative “Improving Teaching Is a Low Priority at Small High Schools” and the actual conclusions of the Consortium on Chicago School Research study.

Many of the problems both Russo and the Consortium study describe are what happens when any reform gets captured by a top-down bureaucracy and is taken “to scale” by the big foundations.

The problem is, Russo’s article and the Consortium study don’t jibe.

The study is more balanced in its assessment of the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative and looks at possibilities vs. realities. It reaffirms what many of us small-schools educators and activists have been saying for years: Small schools are the launching pad for improved teaching and learning—not the rocket ship. Small schools can create optimal conditions for teachers to develop a professional community and instructional improvement, but are not a panacea.

Quite a difference here between small schools making improved teaching a “low priority” and small schools being hindered or undermined by administrative policies.

Small school proponents argue that small learning communities may help improve instruction by creating strong and vibrant teacher professional communities focused on teaching and student learning.

If small-school and large-school principals “don’t understand what good classroom instruction looks like,” as Consortium leader John Easton says in Russo’s piece, then there is a systemic problem that should be considered before launching an initiative on the scale of Renaissance 2010. It is not a “failure” of small schools, as Russo seems to indicate. Rather, leadership capacity should be considered carefully before you launch a plan for 100 new small schools.

The study points to several examples of things that small schools find more difficult to do, such as “running an after-school detention program” because “nobody wants to do it.” (Maybe it’s just me, but if none of the teachers want to do it, maybe after-school detention is not such a hot idea).

The real point of the study is that small schools are generally great at some things and not so great at others. There are always trade-offs that educators, parents and students need to consider. Breadth for depth in curricula and course offerings. Department structures for teacher teaming. Lots of programs for safety and strong personal relationships. Top-down accountability for more autonomy. We have found that the small schools that make these trades do well.

Finally, the Consortium study wasn’t as much about small schools as it was about the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative, which involves large high schools trying to transform into smaller learning communities and trying to carry the weight of a largely unsupportive bureaucracy at the same time.

This is what I call the predictable failure of top-down reform. But it is not a “failure” of small schools, which cannot and should not be expected to be “a cure” for the system’s ills, as Russo says.

Mike Klonsky

Director, Small Schools Workshop