Which school do you want to support?
The largest schools in California enroll thousands of children. These complex organizations are larger than many corporations. At their best, these large schools offer diverse course options, robust athletic programs and specialized arts programs. For students with an edge, these large schools can work well.
For many students, however, it is very easy to get “lost” in a big school, especially at the secondary level. If each course is taught by a different teacher and classes are randomly “mixed,” a student in such a school might interact with upwards of 150 students daily. In the course of a day, a teacher might be expected to sustain close to 200 relationships.
In the 1990’s, education reform organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation focused on data showing that large schools are systematically less effective than small ones at retaining students and advancing their academic progress.
The Gates’ leadership prompted a wave of “small-schools” reforms, partly aligned with the movement to create charter schools. This movement, with strong backing from the Gates Foundation and enthusiastic support from many small studies, led to the creation of thousands of small schools all over America. (“Small” in this context is usually defined as a school with about 100 students per grade level or fewer.) In some cases, large schools were converted into multiple small schools sharing a campus, sometimes referred to as "schools within a school" models.
Some of these small schools, particularly newly founded schools, became important models for how to create an effective school culture.
In schools of
a smallish size
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In a candid letter in 2009, however, Bill Gates conceded that many of the schools they invested in “did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.” Making a school smaller, on its own, did not make as big a difference as hoped.
But he may have spoken too soon. A series of three follow-on studies by MRDC in New York City showed graduation rates are higher by 10 percentage points or more in the city’s Small Schools of Choice (SSCs) than in other local high schools. In 2015 a further study led by Leanna Stiefel of NYU independently reinforced the MRDC finding: the movement to create new small schools probably boosted student outcomes in New York City.
But why did these reforms work, and for whom? The third MRDC report, published in 2013, notes that “Principals and teachers at the 25 SSCs with the strongest evidence of effectiveness believe that academic rigor and personal relationships with students contribute to the effectiveness of their schools. They also believe that these attributes derive from their schools’ small organizational structures and from the commitment, knowledge, dedication, and adaptability of their teachers.”
Even if teachers are adaptable, however, there are always tradeoffs. For example, it is impractical for a small school on its own to offer the range of courses and extracurricular activities possible at a large school. Small schools may be able to offer students access to specialized learning opportunities through partnerships and external programs, but managing such partnerships isn't free or automatic.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of small schools is who will lead them. As discussed in Lesson 5.8, a principal can make or break a school, and principals are in short supply, especially in California. Making schools smaller implies finding more leaders. The tradeoffs are real.
Lesson 5.12 examines the ultimate small-school model: learning at home.
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