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Charters, Performance Pay, & Serious Trade-Offs


Dear Diane,

Yes, it seems so obvious to you and me. Using their metrics, the boosters of mayoral control can hardly point to any trend that supports their claims. On NAEP data, the two biggie mayoral control cities show no change, and on graduation data, NYC shows some improvement, but Chicago shows none, even if we go by the city's data. If we look at the data in the recent RAND study, it confirms many others—charter schools do no better re. test scores than their comparable neighborhood schools—some better, some worse. The data on merit pay don’t exist, of course—and it’s already a national priority. But that most comparable jobs use “performance-based” pay just isn’t a fact. The Economic Policy Institute has published a report on the subject that hardly is conclusive, but the logic suggests serious trade-offs that none of the folks in D.C. seem to be even aware of. If you do X, there are “unintended” but inevitable consequences—especially if you’re not even aware of them. (As for the charge that local control leads to more corruption? Having the right friends in the right place may lead to millions under mayoral control vs. hundreds under local control.)

School reformers perhaps should be required to publish “cautions” the way drugs do—if you do this, watch out because….(In bigger print, however.) In fact, it’s an essential “habit of mind” of a well-educated person—paying attention to trade-offs.

Regarding the kind of national standards being proposed is really a national curriculum. One of the arguments for it is a give-away: with national standards, if a kid moves from school x to y, he’ll barely miss a heartbeat. Again, no concerns over unintended consequences—teacher burn-out at the very least. There are forms of standards that could avoid this—if we feel the need for them—such as those CPESS modeled (“habits of mind”) alongside some broad sweeping propositions in each field. More like the Advanced Placement English test (at least the way it used to be). It didn’t require everyone to read the same books or spout the same answers. It directed “attention” to certain themes and ideas so that students could use what they had read and studied to come up with their own responses to timeless issues in literature. Ditto for history or science. These wouldn’t be “specs” for test producers, but specs for schools to consider in designing curriculum and assessments.

The class-size debate isn’t on the “reform” agenda. But it has been assisted by two excellent books. An EPI (Economic Policy Institute) book in the form of a debate and a wonderful study and brief in favor of smaller classes by Garrett Delavan, "The Teacher’s Attention."

NAEP then could do the deeper and broader job of seeing how these play out over time, including a look eight years down the line—in college, on the job, as a voter.

I had a fascinating conversation with a teacher who has been teaching physics for 15 years in L.A. and the surrounding area. She teaches 200 students on most days (in groups of 40 or so), at least three of the classes have the same test-prep curriculum. She feels bored. Ready to “move on”—but to what? I asked her to describe what she wishes she could do—even if it were unrealistic. Her wishes? Small classes so she could explore science more deeply with kids, the opportunity to do some interdisciplinary teaching with colleagues, to be able to approach physics from directions that might not match the state exam, to expand her own intellectual horizons alongside of and separate from her students. What kid wouldn’t say, “amen”?

In such settings, a teacher with 15 years of experience wouldn’t be at the end of her career (and wits) in the classroom. Imagine schools, in collaboration with universities, as the site for teacher-training—prolonged apprenticeships. My friend would then also be teaching other colleagues and would-be colleagues and learning from some interesting scientists on campus.

This was the “reform” idea of the late '80s. But it’s getting harder, not easier, to imagine this happening today. But, you ask—how did we move so far from this vision in such a short time, so that we now have a bipartisan plan for schools that make the old factory-model look innovative? Partial answer: We left practitioners like me and educational scholars like you out of the loop and instead turned to financiers and lawyers!



Hi All.... hope this finds you all well!

Deb, thanks for a post that help to stimulate ideas and possibilites!

"But, you ask—how did we move so far from this vision in such a short time, so that we now have a bipartisan plan for schools that make the old factory-model look innovative?

Partial answer: We left practitioners like me and educational scholars like you out of the loop and instead turned to financiers and lawyers!" ( deb)

It is interesting who is missing!
People like, you, Diane, Linda Darling-Hammond, who have devoted their life work, both on the ground and through research on ways to improve education.

And the difference in vision is apparent even in the language used...

Your use of the word "imagine" jumps out at me........

"Imagine schools, in collaboration with universities, as the site for teacher-training—prolonged apprenticeships. My friend would then also be teaching other colleagues and would-be colleagues and learning from some interesting scientists on campus."

So... i too will throw out some "imagine" pictures ....

Here on the ground in the smallcounty that I find myself living in here is the current reality:

18 separate school districts.
Roughly 14, 000 students.
Range of poverty with-in the school districts: 0% to 88%.
Average % poverty in the county: 30%

Imagine also, a systems approach that moves to balance social capitol with-in our public school systems… so that we no longer have schools that are floundering in areas with less social capitol.

Imagine … long term the possibilities of our public schools being places of hope for all kids and not just those that come from more privileged backgrounds.

Image a system with various magnet schools to increase choices with-in the system yet also is aware of balance and size with-in the school communities.

Imagine long term the positive results to the over all health of all our communities.

Imagine the possibilities of diversifying these schools.

Wondering... thinking a bit outside the assumed boxes we find ourselves in what others quickly imagine.

be well... mike

"Practitioners like me"...

Aye, there's the rub!! As we've oft mentioned, were the teaching world filled with practitioners like you, 'twoud be little problem. Alas its not. Its filled with normal mortal souls, and we must design systems which maximize the ability of those with less than unlimited energy, less than genius thinking.

Tis the design of such systems which so vexes us. Take Mike. I have laid out for him weekly for some 18 months how this is done. Yet this morn he accuses me of never placing a vision on the table. How to reach such souls?

I wrote here this morn on the schools of small Akron. If we can't fix reading issues in Akron, NYC with its 1.1 million students and infamous costs, labor, and bureaucratic climate are far beyond us.

Mike here finally gives us a picture of what vexes his local system: 18 districts to serve 14,000 students. How ridiculous! 800 students per district? Talk about your bureacuratic overhead!!! Let's get rid of some of those staff and put it towards learning!!!

...Unless... Unless those districts have like one administrator, and they all share costs via say 2-3 educational service centers. One can imagine a system like that being a bit more efficient.

The district I now sip coffee in has just such a setup. It doesn't send lots of students to Ivy League, but it somewhat works.

What would be better would be for it to be strongly ties with a multi-state regional network serving schools with similar issues and philosophy.

Charter school networks, freed of caps, could be one vector to such associations. CES is such a network.

On teachers, lets go beyond your 15 year veteran and say that it should be easier for 15 year vets of other professions to replace some of the burnouts you describe. Your friend can find a school where her approach would be welcomed. Not all teachers have that enthusiasm. Too many are staying for the pension.

The systems we set the conditions for should be adaptable to all such concerns.

One of the arguments for it is a give-away: with national standards, if a kid moves from school x to y, he’ll barely miss a heartbeat. Again, no concerns over unintended consequences—teacher burn-out at the very least.

What do you mean, a give-away? I hope you mean that this argument is so obviously true that no sensible person would dispute it. E.D. Hirsch is quite right when he points out the horrible inequities caused by the lack of a consistent curriculum . . . poorer students are the ones most likely to move around from year to year, and then most likely to find themselves lost in a new school's different curriculum.

The point about teacher burn-out is a bizarre non sequitur. National standards are no more likely to cause teacher burnout than local control.

Mike, you might as well have asked in '85 what the World Wide Web would look like! :-)
Hi All... hope this finds you all well.

Ed... what i was refering to was this kind of statement concerning my question of your vision:

"My vision of a 2020 school system would be both highly flawed and irrelevant.
'Twould resemble too much of my past experiences and too little of the innovation and advancement possible when lots of good people are freed up to do the job. ( Ed )

Your post on Akron, today, was much clearer...thanks.

As to your concerns today:

"Mike here finally gives us a picture of what vexes his local system: 18 districts to serve 14,000 students. How ridiculous! 800 students per district? Talk about your bureacuratic overhead!!! Let's get rid of some of those staff and put it towards learning!!!" ( Ed )

Interesting point and it is here we may have a bit of agreement.

New Jersey has over 600 school distrcits and the state has no power to make them merge or consolidate Ed.

In your vision Ed.... would you give the state power to merge local school districts?

Would you allow the state the power to put districts together and what items might you look at as you do this merging or consolidation?

Ed, you say this:
Let's get rid of some of those staff and put it towards learning!!!

Who would in your vision Ed...have the power to make these decisions, the state?

Getting clearer, thanks Ed and i look forward to your answers to some of these questions.

be well... mike


Thanks for bringing reality to the issue of standardization as a solution for high mobility. We who have classroom experience, however, must not assume that everyone will see our point. Last year, for every student (of my typical 140 student teaching load) who attended class enough to legally be eligible for credit, I had three who transferred out or transferred in or just missed too much class for credit. At first glance that is an argument for standarization of curriculum.

But, I ask almost every student what they were studying in their old school, like I often ask what they learned in other classes. When I ask honors students,or a few who transferred from the suburbs, I often get an answer. Given the limits of situational memory, its not unusual that students need prompted to remember what they were studying in another context.

In my regular classes, however, none of the transfers over the last decade or so have a clue about what they were studying. Most can't recall whether they were studying the history of the world, the US, or their state. Many don't recall ANYTHING about their last school.

Gordon MacInness' great book on N.J. and the lessons of Abbott makes a great point, saying that military schools also have high mobility. Their solution? Make sure kids learn how to read for comprehension.

Rather than teach kids to go through the motions and have words go in one ear and out the other so they can fit into whatever test prep regime they land in, teach kids something they can take with them WHEREVER they go in life - reading comprehension.

The following could apply better to Diane's previous blog (and I know that I'm bending over backwards to give the benefit of the doubt to the Obama administration). But the following was said by Arne Duncan

scramble to cover everything – a little of this – a little of that – and not enough of what’s really important. They can’t dig deeper on a challenging subject that excites their students.

"And students can’t master material when they are racing through it. We must limit standards to the essential knowledge and skills our kids need so teachers can focus in depth on the most important things their kids should know."

Hey, Mike, just have a minute before on to the next stop,...

600 school districts for 1.4 million kids seems roughly on par with Ohio's 900 districts for 1.8 million kids. Actually, a bit bigger per district there.

We're averaging just over 2000 students per district, perhaps not coincidentally close to what this rural district (not this morn's) holds!

Compare this, though to your near neighbor,... 1 district for 1.1 million students!!!

Can anyone see anything wrong here? Anyone?

As to no power to change the districts, that would be an issue for the NJ Constitution, presumably still under the power of the NJ people. I say presumably not knowing the amendment process. Here in Ohio it is much too easily amended!

Washington Post and New York Times columnists like Alter, Brooks and Kristof are particularly guilty of describing reforms as if they involved no tradeoffs. In doing so, they make it all the easier to present school reform debates as morality plays rather than complex discussions about policy and practice.

That certainly is unfortunate.

Even more troubling is the tendency of several national commentators to present a small number of favored reform ideas as the last hope for urban schools and the students who attend them. Given the lack of solid research behind those reforms, that tendency strikes me as very irresponsible.


My district did an interesting study on mobility a few years back. There was an extent to which poverty (and lack of programs) could be implicated (the school closest to the family shelter had exceedingly high mobility, the school that served the projects had next to none), but there was also a disturbing level of mobility that came as a result of school practices. Moving in some cases (or changing schools at any rate) was a family choice in response to either school conflict or other difficulty with school. In addition, while the district has a policy guaranteeing transportation to any family who moves during the school year and want to stay in the same school--well, downtown doesn't talk to the buildings, the buildings don't talk to downtown, and nobody ever talks to transportation. In short NOBODY was responsible for implementing the policy, many at the building level didn't know about it, and if they did, they weren't likely to share it with any families who were on their way out the door if things hadn't been going well.

But, I think that Deb is suggesting something like the monotony of specialization contributing to teacher burn-out if "standards" lead to highly regularized curriculum. First, I don't think that they need to, although Fordham and the Core Knowledge folks get testy at standards that don't have prescribed reading lists and all. But, I also recall reading something some years back about highly specialized "hospitals" that were cropping up to specialize in a single procedure, say appendectomies. Running patients through like they are on the rack at Jiffy Lube doesn't sound appealing on the face of it--particularly when you consider the ego needs of someone as highly evolved as a surgeon. However, they asked someone who was not just working there, but also liking it where the challenge was for them. He replied that the challenge here was not in the diversity, but the perfection.

I know--medicine doesn't equate to education (unless we are talking about pay scales or respect)--but, I think that there are still challenges aplenty in the field, not the least of which is how we manage to improve the learning of kids across the board, even those who don't stay put.

I was hoping Margo and others would comment on why Akron should be such a more hostile climate to K-3 learners than nearby Ravenna and other towns. This isn't the Bronx we are talking, it isn't DC with its gangs and 500 person central staff.

My father grew up in inner Akron, in a rather poor family of 10; he not only learned to read, he learned far more of history and literature from the public schools than I.

Why should Akron now embrace dour, worksheet-centered classrooms?

A quick look at the test results show they are in "Continuous Improvement" whatever that means. Yet failing 4 in 10 standards seems normal. Lincoln Elementary, in Dad's downtown neighborhood (near the University) has been falling steadily in 3rd grade reading proficiency.

Teaching to the worksheet doesn't seem to be a good beat-the-test strategy, and it certainly isn't a good strategy for producing enthusiastic readers.

So why does the teaching culture in Akron still embrace it?

Back to success networks: Advertised above this page was the Ohio Stem Learning Network. At first glance just the type of collaborative teacher/school connection I mentioned yesterday. Plus, its in cooperation with Battelle Labs. COSI, and other institutions.

But lets face it. This partnership will be short lived. It unnaturally limits itself to Ohio; its stakeholders have a tenuous connection to students. It will help a few students for perhaps even a few years. Then it will be shoved aside for some new and flashier partnership among some other assembly of interested organizations.

Are there no other models for grouping disparate worksites delivering similar services to similar consumers?

I think it works now!

Anyhow. Why mandate versus persuade. Democracy is mostly built around persuading enough people--not coercion. Where this stops is always a judgment matter of some "majority", unless it's unconstitutional. But there's no question that the original "founders" intended education to be local. Of course, I think it's wise for strictly educational reasons to boot. One cannot "persuade" students (which is what teaching is in the end all about) what one doesn't oneself believe.

As for inefficiencies of size. There are a lot of small sovereign nations. Try telling their citizens it's inefficient.

Finally, the best private schools (the ones the most powerful people send their kids to) have a high ratio of out-of-the-classroom bureaucrats per pupil. My objection is not to bureaucrats, but to people whose work is so far removed that it would be better not done.


Deb, That's all great, and I agree with each. BUT...

The difference between engineers and poets is that engineers much actually make choices, whereas poets can be satisfied with "Envision".. all the day and night.

Extra bureaucrats must be paid for, and must help, not harm the effort. If you're the person in Rhee's central office charged with keeping the lights and TP changed, and you never make it to the buildings you are responsible for, why then its possible you are not aiding education.

When Michelle took over, she found that people were shocked to see her -- or anyone from the central office in fact. Repeatedly teachers and staff members told her no one ever visited them.

750 student districts may actually make sense in many places--but probably not 18 of them crammed into one small county. Not if the tax base isn't there.

For just those reasons, I want lots of small districts--and I don't think it's cost inefficient.
If the NYC chancellor visited ech school ONCE per year, that would mean 7 a day, not counting professional days, etc. And that's all he/she could do.
So it would be inefficient use of his time. Ditto for principals in charge of schools with 150-200 teachers. Absurd to ask them to take responsibility for what's going on in classrooms--and thus the perceived need for mechanical, bureaucratic data to "catch" them.
In the early 1990s, with Annenberg monies, we designed a project around trying to see what numbers--the size of a network--worked best, what forms of accountability, etc, etc.--fre4d from most state, city and union regulations. It was approved by the state, city, union et al--until a new NYC chancellor arrived and didn't want to experiment with 150 schools (all relatively small) cut loose to try out something different under highly controlled and observed circumstances. It was a loss for us all.

I didn't and still don't know what the potential answers are, but I know tht continued centralization of classroom decisions won't work IF our goal is smart workers and smart citizens.




Would you consider it democratically legitmate for a state, after a voter referendum, to kick the Feds out of their education system? Or how about if a district voted to secede from the state's apparatus?

Naturally, it would then logically follow for me to ask if it would be democratically correct, so to speak, for a school to vote itself free of its district, either to join another or even create its own?

You know where this is going.

How about the smaller units? Could a class, its teacher, admins, students, parents and whatnot- collectively vote itself free?

At what arbitrary point is it democratically legitimate, in your view, to force a suboordinate unit to stay put? Who gets to decide?

And if the most basic sovereign unit is not the individual then wouldn't it necessarily mean that "democracy" is just another name for coercion and subjugation?

(I know you admit that majority, in some form, is always at the end of a democratic decision.)

Reading your post brought back memories...

I remember going to CalTech in 1990 for training in a program called S.E.E.D.. CalTech personnel–professors and graduate students–trained us public inner-city schoolteachers in the use of science kits that were rotated between schools every few weeks or so. The kit/unit I remember was called “Clay Boats,” in which students explored the buoyancy of different materials: aluminum foil, clay, aluminum foil and clay, etc. We were trained on the beautiful CalTech campus, fountains and flowers all over the place, and for lunch one day a scientist invited me up to see his lab. Under bright lights a not-too-happy-looking monkey sat immobilized, a big hole in the middle of its skull, bundled wires sprouting out. The scientist explained what he was doing but I was just trying not to pass out.

It was fun, fascinating, an experience I will always remember. (I was happy to find out that the program is still flourishing in many of Pasadena’s public schools today.)

LA Unified has science kits too, made by a company called Foss. As an RSP teacher I don’t have much to do with science, helping kids more with reading and writing. But I did have the pleasure of watching the entire second grade experiment with Pebbles, Sand, and Silt. The kids loved it: sifting sand, bringing out the color of rocks by dripping water onto them.

Kids exploring, teachers facilitating. What a concept! And it’s happening right here at our school, albeit only in the springtime after high stakes testing is done.

Next year our school gets a science lab. I hope the kids learn a lot from it. I hope it’s a big success. I hope it leads to other rooms: a room for music, a room for art. I have my doubts. With overcrowded classes, teacher layoffs, and a Secretary of Education not rolling back No Child Left Behind but ratcheting it up, real education may never have a chance

Only if it does, only if we stop teaching to the test and truly challenge students (and teachers!), will real reform ever come.

Hi All....

hope this finds everyone well....

Deb: "For just those reasons, I want lots of small districts--and I don't think it's cost inefficient.
If the NYC chancellor visited ech school ONCE per year, that would mean 7 a day, not counting professional days, etc."

Deb, i have always been a supporter of small schools and even small districts. We are in the people business and size matters greatly.

I am wondering as i look at my small part of the world.... can we think about both... been doing some digging after reading: Hope and despair in the American city by Gerald Grant.

Whose schools work better?
Wake disperses low-income students with busing; Charlotte gives high-poverty schools extra money

By T. Keung Hui -
Published: Sun, Feb. 08, 2009

North Carolina's two largest school systems have taken vastly different approaches to two thorny issues -- student reassignment and educating low-income students with hefty academic deficiencies.

Wake County, the state's largest district, has used buses instead of greenbacks to address the academic needs of low-income students.

To meet the demands of growth and support a diversity policy aimed at reducing the number of high-poverty schools, Wake's system moves thousands of students each year to different schools, sometimes sending kids on bus rides of more than 20 miles.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the second-largest district in North Carolina, has shifted to a system of largely neighborhood schools, resulting in a stratified mix of affluent schools in the suburbs and high-poverty schools near downtown Charlotte.

Instead of busing kids to balance out the level of low-income students at each school, the district pours millions of dollars into these high-poverty schools each year to boost the performance of academically disadvantaged students.

"Charlotte is not proving to be a good system," said Rosa Gill, chairwoman of the Wake school board. "They're still having problems. They're going back to a segregated school system. The citizens of Wake County aren't looking for that."

Molly Griffin, chairwoman of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, said the district is doing a pretty good job considering it has so many low-income students. Just over half of Charlotte's students receive federally subsidized lunches, compared with 28 percent in Wake.

Despite the different approaches, the academic results among minority and at-risk students are very similar in both districts, with only a narrow gap in test scores. But Charlotte also has many more low-performing schools than Wake and has a harder time recruiting teachers to work in these tough schools.

Through the 1990s, both Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg based students' assignments on race to try to keep schools integrated. Wake did it by choice; Charlotte was following a federal court order.

But as federal courts raised more and more questions in the 1990s about race-based school assignments, Wake switched in 1999 to student assignments based on family income. The policy was based on research showing that academic performance drops when a school has too many low-income students.

Wondering Deb and Diane...and any others...what you think of a system like Wake County?

be well... mike

Ok, so democratic units ought to be defined by constitutions you say. But doesn't that become problematic when the constitution is in the hands of the very political unit that a subordinate unit believes is just to break away from?

The US Constitution currently means whatever those in national power say it means. Lincoln proved that with his invasion of the South. In add, how often has the Congress done its Constitutional responsibility and actually declared war over the past sixty years, a period of massive foreign intervention?

The Constitution can be interpreted as usurpation of power and suppression of the people. Why on earth would the Constitution ever be interpreted to mean, by those who control it, that one of its units could vote itself free, and especially in education?

It is no wonder why Albert Jay Nock called the creation of the Constitution a Hamiltonian Coup (big toryist-mercantilist government). Brit historian Macaulay wrote President Madison warning that the Constitution, as compared to the libertarian Declaration of Independence, was "all sail and no rudder".

By the way, Ed Jones, Spooner got in trouble when he challenged the US postal monopoly. I bet Fred Smith knows about it.

One could argue "That's too bad. You live here and that means you have consented." But this makes no sense. I was not at the convention and no contract is binding without my consent. Even in the democratic sense, why would a minority who made the Constitution, be able to claim dominance over the rest of us?

Lysander Spooner, the great 19th Century abolitionist, summed up the contradiction of constitutional consent:

"Our constitutions purport to be established by 'the people,' and, in theory, 'all the people' consent to such government as the constitutions authorize. But this consent of 'the people' exists only in theory. It has no existence in fact. Government is in reality established by the few; and these few assume the consent of all the rest, without any such consent being actually given."

If seen from an inalienable rights perspective, those of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, how could the Constitution be seen as an instrument of liberty in either case, whether it created power for a majority or a minority?

Spooner nails the enslaving and tyrannical Constitution:

"But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain - that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist."

The Declaration of Indpependence says that when a government does not serve the happiness and rights of the people then they can alter or abolish it. Given that the Constitution neither serves proper democratic aims (by your wants) or libertarian goals (by mine), what do you think ought to be done?


Your story about the physics teacher brought to mind a principal's conference I recently attended. (I was there to present something for my school.) One of the workshops focused on ways of combatting teacher attrition. While the two presenters had found their way to different approaches, there seemed to be an assumption that one retains teachers by giving them a "career ladder" to ascend.

What about retaining teachers by giving them room to teach in an interesting way? As teachers gained experience and seniority, they could enjoy a lighter teaching load and more opportunities to teach special courses. For some, this would be much more rewarding than a move into an administrative position.

Also, there is much to be said for letting a teacher stay put. Many schools apparently assume that in order to keep up the energy level of a school, teachers must be faced with newness all the time. As soon as they get comfortable teaching one grade, they are moved to another. Teachers who showed prowess in the non-tested grades are moved into the "high-stakes" grades. All this shuffling, unfortunately, keeps the teaching superficial, as teachers must scramble each year to get used to the new curriculum and requirements.

There is no dreariness in repetition. There is no boredom in teaching the same grade, year after year, if that is what one loves. Rather, it gives a teacher an opportunity to go deeper into the subjects. To improve the schools, we must abandon our worship of constant change and frenzy--what Irwin Edman calls "moral enthusiasm for the drunkenness of getting things done."

Diana Senechal

Deb, we seem to agree wholly that 100,000- to 1.1 million- student districts can never work.

If I read you right, your belief is that one day soon, the stars will align and a working version of small public school districts will be enabled in NY?

The current mayor and team believe the fastest path toward accountable, small schools is via the chartering process. The President agrees. You clearly disagree.

What !politically viable! plan are you seeing on the horizon to get these students into smaller, more responsive schools?



What Bloomberg is doing to promote "smallness" is more than just chartering schools. He has broken up many of the large high schools into "smaller" units. These are regular public schools. The drastic negative effects of that are documented in a recent study by Clara Hemphill that was reported by the NY Times several days ago. And really from personal experience, whatever little credit is given to the small schools in the report is way too much.

I am not a believer at all in small "schools" as THE answer, especially when they are housed in a building with five other "small" schools, creating an authoritative and logistical nightmare for many students and teachers. (Can these principals even agree on a bell schedule after arguing about it for three inefficient hours?)

No, if small schools are to work, they have to be in their own building with their own culture. (Quite an expensive proposition, though quite worthy.) And they have to be part of a larger system that offers medium and large (not overcrowded) sized high schools to best serve the entire student population.

Think about the university system. Would an all-small university system serve the needs of every college student? Would the quality of research and school offerings be the same in a less-resourced setting? The unequivocal answer is no, as Bloomberg/Klein have proven without a doubt in their giant social experiment on "not-your" children. Would they serve the needs of some students who need the sometimes more personal setting. Yes.

So I guess my point is that while we can think about smaller districts as part of the solution, a blind fealty to small SCHOOLS as THE solution to the "size" issue will ultimately hurt not help urban education.

Jason, it sounds as if you are working to convince yourself Bloomberg is such a bad egg! :-)

Again, agreement here in principle. However, sometimes real life makes you choose the right path before all the optimum conditions are met.

About big high schools: Do you really believe in 5000 student schools? In high poverty areas? I attended an internationally leading university. It has only 5800 undergrads, and believe me, we had no real relationships with the full adults there. Why put this burden on impoverished hs students?

Here's the article Jason references.

What I read is that the biggest probelems are with the large schools still standing.

Equally interesting is an earlier article where Hemphill must find a school for her own child. The choices she has are wonderful!

In my high school days, my family moved and I transferred from a large suburban (oddly the same school is now considered "urban") school to a small town with a small school. Personally I much preferred the larger school because of what it could offer. One advantage of the large school was that it had many "niches" for people other than the mainstream. In the smaller school, not only were there fewer niches, but there was considerable overlap in what there was: the student council, the football team and cheerleaders (no to mention the basketball team) were pretty much one and the same. Future Farmers, Future Teachers and National Honor Society were the other possibilities.

What I also found to be disturbing was an illusion of being well-known by others. I found that I was far more strongly identified as the daughter of my parents, for instance, and assumed to be headed down a similar career path--not necessarily where I wanted to go. The quality of education in the larger setting was probably better, although are a good many reasons (beyond size) for this.

Jason is right about most of the efforts that I have seen to make "small schools" from large ones. One local experiment (I think that they gave up before the Gates money ran out) ended up with one strong "school" and two others. The kids self-sorted into clique-ish designations. One "school" was for the smart kids, one for the not-so-smart and one for the misfits. I applaud efforts to ensure that every kid in every school is known well by someone with a responsibility for seeing that their educational needs are met, that they get connected to what they need, who can provide a sounding board, run interference when needed or troubleshoot when things are going off track. But, I don't know that this whole element is paid careful attention to in setting up new "small schools." Too much time goes into such inanities, as Jason pointed out, as figuring out the bell schedule and who eats lunch first (I know one fairly informal--and successful--charter where they decided to just bring lunches or order out).

We put so much effort into things that are in the end merely mechanical--school size, governance structure (charter vs public vs private), k-8 or k-5. These things are not the essences of education. And our forays into researching them generally find infuriatingly mixed results. Maybe we are looking at the wrong things.

Margo, points well taken, especially about what we focus on.

And yet, I think again you are making the case for more charters or for vouchers.

Lunch is a great example. Here this summer, the public is up in arms about bringing in a private contractors to deliver meals. No one, of course, is offering to pay more for the old staff prepared meals. Yet they expect the Board to bite the bullet and pay for them.

Who cooks the meals? If I run a restaurant, who do I hire? A couple moderately seasoned chefs and a bunch of minimum wage workers to fill out the staff. Yet District cooks retire with 25, 30 years in. Someone has to pay for this.

Indeed cooks do not affect the essence of education. Yet what preoccupies Boards? Cooks, closing the swimming pool, the viability of a 50 student elementary building, and a permanent vs a temporary stage,... these have all been the main preoccupations of the local school board the past few years.

That's the down side of many small districts. So I feel for Mike with his 16 districts in a county of 18000 students.

And, its why I look at Akron and ask...what is the focus on there? Apparently not improving the teaching of reading.


Sorry, Ed but I don't have to convince myself of anything regarding Bloomberg. I live and breathe it, it's a disaster, and no ideologue can tell me that what I see in front of my own eyes might be something else.

As for large high schools, I think I was very explicit in saying that I supported large high schools, not OVERCROWDED large high schools. The mayor, DOE, BOE, whatever, have no problem overcrowding the large high schools as if those population sizes were what those buildings were ever intended for, and then blame the oversized school for the problems that they themselves created so that they can take political credit for the inevitable success of their babies, the small high schools. Sorry not taking the blame for that one either.

As for what the article says about the performance of large high schools, it is very clear that they are placing a large part of the blame on the degradation of them on the creation of the small high schools themselves. Hardly a fair indictment of large high schools and a serious misreading of the study.


Your observations regarding the small schools within a large building are right on, especially the segregation aspect of it. In our building, the vast majority of the black students both native and immigrant wound up in one school, most of the special education students wound up in another because their principal was the only one of five to recruit them, the bi-lingual students all wound up in the bi-lingual school, and then there was music school strictly for music students. I'm still wondering where the NAACP is on this one... seems they've given up on desegregation since in their minds it hasn't worked out since Brown vs. BOE (even though it was never really fully or well implemented).

And you're right, they're all dillying around the margins while the real educational issues go unaddressed.

Hi Ed:
What no English or French Literature? Sociology? Only Economics? My heart moans…

Actually, I share your position that an understanding of market economics is essential to understanding modern society. Where I differ is in your assumption that market economics underlies everything else in society. Admittedly your position is an old and established one—shared by the likes of Milton Friedman and Karl Marx. But this is where we part company. I would argue that what makes market economics worthwhile in the first place is the pursuit of aesthetics. Why engage in business, unless you can spend your profits on that which makes life worth living, like art, music, architecture, and even French literature if it is your inclination?

Unlike you (and the neo-classical and Marxist economists), I do not believe that the primary purpose of schooling is simply recreating the marketplace. You need the various disciplines. Including, for that matter sociology—which is what Paul and Mike are discussing when they wrestle with the problems created by the United States’ legacy of slavery. I think that this is what educating for democracy and citizenship includes.

What I think Deb is asking is that our students (at least the 17 and 18 year-olds) be invited by the schools to engage in the kind of informed discussion we have here. Certainly, an understanding of supply and demand, market economics, etc., is necessary to do this. So is an understanding of race and ethnicity. So is a capacity to grapple with philosophical questions about the nature of beauty, good, evil, etc. This is a life-long pursuit for most of us, and our teenagers need to begin too! I’m just not sure that the best way to invite our students to engage in this is a rigid high stakes curriculum focused on multiple choice tests, or a narrow focus on creating workers, rather than citizens.

And a final thing, Ed: Thanks for your persistence in helping me evaluate my own positions.


This might be fairer but I am pretty sure the best return will be from the best students. As a former governor of Colorado argued teaching retards to roll over doesn’t provide much return to society.
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