In Education, Small Is Sensible

          June/July 2006

It’s not an antipathy to bigness that makes me a fervent champion of small schools. Rather it’s the conviction that unless we start thinking small, none of the recent consensus that has developed around needed school reforms is remotely feasible.

Small schools are not the answer, but without them none of the proposed answers stand a chance.

What teachers need is a direct voice in the decisions they implement. ”Teacher empowerment” is on everyone’s list of needed reforms.

But what does this mean in a school with 100 faculty members who rarely see each other work, don’t share the same students and differ widely in their pedagogical assumptions? We all agree that a good school can’t work without greater trust and support from families. But trust comes from parents, teachers and students knowing each other over a period of time. Parental apathy develops as a rational response to large, anonymous schools.

We agree that students fail to use ”higher-order thinking skills” — intellectual reasoning, engagement and curiosity. But we still place these neophyte intellects in schools where they rarely witness strong-minded, articulate adults defending ideas, exchanging views or making reasoned decisions. Hugeness works against lively intellectual intercourse.

No one denies that school reform won’t get far until we do something about drugs, violence and vandalism. But the solutions appropriate to a large anonymous school – metal detectors, quasimilitary pass systems – increase the depersonalization that contributes to antisocial behavior.

We claim that young people need settings that help them develop strong values and moral vision. But large schools operate, of necessity, on the basis of bureaucratic values. In a bureaucracy, the worst ”crimes” are those that create disorder.

Young people cannot learn democratic values in a setting that does not value individual achievement, that cannot notice triumphs and defeats, has no time to celebrate or mourn, or respond with indignation or recognition as the situation requires.

Small schools offer opportunities to solve every one of these critical issues. School-site empowerment can be tackled efficiently and naturally. Staff can meet to discuss issues and differences without complex governance structures; understanding the budget does not require an advanced degree in accounting. Looking in on colleagues and, sharing ideas, becomes possible.

In small schools, parents hear about the same teachers, students and families year after year in a variety of formal and informal ways. Trust builds and issues that arise get settled handily. Accountability to parents, as well as to the community, is a less knotty problem.

In a small school, strangers and strange behaviors stick out and can be addressed with dispatch. Trouble-making strangers can be identified and peer pressure has an inhibiting effect on violence or other antisocial behavior. It’s hardly surprising that private high schools in New York City have always had student bodies of under 500. That’s the right size.

Are small schools economically feasible? Huge school buildings may have been pennywise, but they are pound foolish. But just as the Empire State Building houses many companies, large school buildings can house many small schools.

That’s happening right now. In New York City’s District 4 in East Harlem, there are now 51 small schools in the same 19 buildings that contained 19 schools in 1974. Each cluster of small schools can choose how to share equipment and space, based on the trade-offs they want to make. District 4 schools have become nationally known as schools that are good to teach at and good to attend.

Yes, small schools, like small towns, can be small-minded. But they offer the flexibility and structural simplicity needed to tackle the complexity of learning.

Just as language immersion is the best way to learn a foreign language, immersion in a small, caring school community is the best way to learn what is a foreign language to too many of our young: the language of participation, that difficult public language necessary to becoming a member of a democratic society.

(originally printed in the New York Times, September 8, 1989)

Afterword

Guess what? That was written 17 years ago as we were, we thought, about to embark on a large-scale project to create an autonomous Learning Zone, consisting of networks of small empowered schools –supported by the Mayor, the Chancellor, the NYC School Board, the UFT and the State Commissioner of Education. It was funded by the Annenberg Foundation. The plan: putting small empowered schools at the center of the reform, and designing the rest based on what they most need rather than vice versa. A system to fit schools, not schools to fit a system. The 150 schools that would be involved were promised a waiver from all regulations that were “waivable,” and NYU and Columbia University offered to track the project’s work to see when and how it could be expanded to the rest of the system. At it’s heart was respect and trust for the constituents of each school, who together with self-chosen colleagues, would be the “deciders” about everything important, and would design a way to hold themselves accountable for their decisions, and their outcomes.

The project never got off the ground, interrupted by a change of administrations at the Board of Ed level. Instead the small schools involved just got some extra money, to spend as they pleased. The project helped many schools improve their practice and stabilize their more innovative work, but otherwise died a quiet death.

In the past few years the idea of small schools has made it back to NYC in a big way, and the words “autonomy” and “empowerment” have too. By an odd twist of fate the most top-down managerially-oriented administration in the history of NYC education has adopted all three of these Big Ideas as their own. So it will be interesting to see whether this is another Orwellian twist or the real thing; are we being offered an ever more tightly controlled system—tied closely to test-mandates and test-prep teaching, with everyone accountable to a single un-elected Chancellor—or a real opportunity to rethink paradigms of teaching and learning that have not served us well in an age when we demand that “all children” be truly well-educated? NYC now leads the nation in drop-outs, kids who have given up on the idea that schooling can work for them. The kind of re-engagement with schooling, the article above suggests, rests on a re-engaged faculty, and a community that sees itself as respected and that has the time and power in is hands to dream big.

Some of us are dubious about the latest NYC plan, following in the path of so many similar management schemes blossoming across the nation, all borrowed from the business world. It’s time for us to form an Educators for Better Business, to introduce ideas of accountability and innovation in a sadly lacking American business community who have sold out our industrial capacities for a mess of pottage. Write me if you want to join. Meanwhile, back at the schoolhouse, we need to hear from the voices of those most immediately affected.

© 2006 Deborah Meier

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