Small schools movement bypassed for turnarounds, charters

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Nationally, the small schools movement is pretty much dead. Turnarounds
and charters are the focus now. In Chicago and elsewhere, the tens of
millions poured into small schools by the Gates Foundation and other
funders has dried up. Nationally, the small schools movement is pretty much dead. Turnarounds and charters are the focus now. In Chicago and elsewhere, the tens of millions poured into small schools by the Gates Foundation and other funders has dried up.

That’s why I’m intrigued by the final report on the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative, outlining the gains made by students in small high schools, who had higher attendance, slightly higher grades and were more likely to graduate. The report is the last in a series on CHSRI by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.


ANALYSIS AND OPINION


Overall, the gains weren’t stellar—students still missed, on average, almost a month of school per year and posted GPAs a little below a C. Yet the improvement was statistically significant, especially since students in the small schools were typically overage for their grade, likely to be in special education and had higher mobility in the years before high school. In fact, students who were most at-risk of dropping out benefited most from the small schools approach—a particularly important point, given the failure of most urban districts to make any headway in stemming dropout rates.

Two other promising findings: Students reported better relationships with adults in the school, and teachers reported better working conditions and relationships with colleagues.

The nail in the coffin, though, was test scores. The small schools failed to significantly raise achievement, and ACT scores remained abysmally low. Teachers never developed rigorous instruction that could accomplish the daunting task of bringing low-performing students up to grade level and prepare them for post-secondary education—in fact, teachers in these schools reported that they were not teaching any differently than they had before.

Yet given the gains that the schools made, especially with the lowest-performing students, maybe Chicago should have found some way to build on the small schools experiment and focus on strengthening its weak link: instruction.

Instead, the district switched gears to focus on new schools and turnarounds—both of which are, for the most part, unproven.

The research proves once again that there’s no magic bullet to improving schools. In fact, after years of study, Consortium researchers identified five
factors–not one or two, but five–that are essential to transforming
low-performing schools.

Unfortunately, the fact that there’s no magic bullet doesn’t seem to stop policymakers from jumping to one flavor-of-the-month after another, searching for one.