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The small-school hype


Dear Deb,

Don't worry about our agreeing too much! If we are really going to "bridge differences," then we should constantly seek common ground.

I like small schools, but I also like middle-size schools. About ten years ago, Valerie Lee of the University of Michigan did a study in which she asked what was the ideal size for a high school, and she concluded that the ideal school was small enough for kids to be known by the teachers, but large enough to mount a reasonable curriculum. The best size for a high school, she decided, based on a review of student progress in schools of different sizes, is 600-900 students. You may think this is too large, but it sure beats schools of 2,000-3,000. I think we can all agree that the mega-schools that were created in the past forty years or so are hard, difficult environments for adolescents, where they can easily get lost in the crowd. Anonymity is not good for kids or for adults, either.

Anyway, American education seems to be engaged in yet another statistical sham, this time involving small high schools. Everyone wants Gates money, so almost every big-city school district is breaking up big schools into small schools. To make sure that they look good and get good press (the same thing), the leadership of some districts stack the deck by screening out the lowest performing kids—the special education students, the limited-English speakers, and kids with low test scores.

Sorry for referring once again to the city where I live, but in New York City, we have had a barrage of publicity about the success of the new small high schools. The barrage, needless to say, emanates from the NYC Department of Education, and the local media (and national media) embrace whatever is doled out to them, without thinking or investigating. The facts have been ferreted out by, among others, David Bloomfield of Brooklyn College, who filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education for excluding disproportionate numbers of special education students and LEP students from the new schools; and also by Leo Casey of the United Federation of Teachers. Casey did an analysis in which he compared the qualifications of the students in the new small high schools to those in the large schools, and found that these were very different groups of students. On the UFT blog, called Edwize (www.edwize.org), Casey demonstrated that the Department of Education had tilted the playing field towards their little schools. He wrote:

"In every specific comparison between a new small school and a large comprehensive school, the small school took in higher percentages of students meeting standards and ready to do high school work, and lower percentages of students at risk for dropping out. Much larger percentages of the incoming ninth and tenth grade of the new small schools had met or surpassed standards on the 8th grade New York State English Language Arts [ELA] and Math exams than the incoming class in the large comprehensive schools. Most strikingly, in one instance the small Pelham Prep had five times as many students meeting ELA standards and more than three times as many students meeting Math standards as the large Columbus HS."

So when the DOE puts out press releases touting the new small schools, they are not comparing apples to apples.

It is a shame to see the public taken in by these shenanigans. It is a disgrace to see the press going along with the charade.



Wasn't it Michelle Fine who worried about faux small schools as "big schools in drag"?

For an interesting discussion by two major small-school (rural education) researchers, see the Howley and Howley 2006 article.

Hi Diane,
What do you mean by "...big enough to mount a reasonable curriculum"?

What would make a curriculum function better for 900 than, say, 200 students?

Also, I think that any good idea, no matter how sound, becomes vulnerable to cheapening once politicians, policy makers and the media get a hold of it.

This is because these groups tend to grab hold of something that looks promising or that has already caught the public's attention, and they are over eager to make promises of fast, furious and dramatic transformation -- three adjectives that do not describe the time, care and vision that go into creating real improvement, meaningful change.

If you want to compare apples and apples, compare the best small schools -- ones created with a strong vision like Central Park East in New York and Mission Hill in Boston, to the best (not the worst) large ones; I do believe that the best small schools are inherently better than even the best large ones because, among a myriad other reasons, students receive more attention -- it's just common sense.

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