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small schools
Thomas Toch

This story was published online as part of a special report by Washington Monthly magazine that was guest edited by Richard Lee Colvin, editor of The Hechinger Report.

The Obama administration has pledged to lower the dropout rate through new investments in high school reform. It is planning to spend upwards of $5 billion over the next couple of years on “turnaround” programs that include closing schools and sending students elsewhere, replacing principals and staff, and turning over schools to charter school or for-profit managers.

One strategy that the administration isn’t talking about, but that some reformers have long championed, is breaking up the nation’s many huge and often dysfunctional high schools into smaller schools. Advocates of this approach argue that the anonymity of “comprehensive” high schools where as many as 4,500 students are educated under a single roof often engenders apathy, sapping students’ motivation to learn and teachers’ commitment to teaching. Beginning in 2000, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation poured some $2 billion into replacing these dropout factories, funding 1,600 new, mostly urban high schools of a few hundred students each, some of them in restructured comprehensive high schools, others in new locations.

The so-called small schools movement, however, has been labeled naive and utopian by other reformers who believe that regulatory reform strategies (like state statutes permitting more people to go into the public school teaching profession) were more likely to raise student achievement than trying to improve school cultures. And the Gates Foundation itself has moved away from the reform in the last couple of years, when its funding failed to raise test scores. “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way,” Bill Gates wrote in 2009. The foundation has shifted its attention and resources to teacher quality and other reform strategies.

But it would be a mistake to think it’s not valuable to address the failed cultures of large, traditional high schools simply because the Gates effort didn’t get great results. The premise of the foundation’s campaign for more personalized high schools—that anonymity, the lack of meaningful connections between students and adults in big urban high schools, undermines student achievement—is supported by a raft of research and student and teacher surveys. The reality in many urban high schools, say studies by Valerie Lee of the University of Michigan, Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins, Elaine Allensworth at the University of Chicago, and other authorities on dropouts, is that students don’t care because they don’t feel valued. “When adolescents trust their teachers … they’re more likely to persist through graduation,” write Lee and a colleague.

Many of the Gates experiments turned in weak results because the smaller schools, particularly those created by subdividing big existing schools, lacked the autonomy to create the strong sense of investment by students and teachers that the schools’ smaller scale made possible. Most importantly, many of the new schools were forced, often by union contracts, to inherit the teachers and staff already in the failing buildings, rather than recruit people who embraced the schools’ missions. That is precisely what happened in Portland, Oregon, whose ill-fated, Gates-funded experiment with small schools is documented by Betsy Hammond in this special report.

By contrast, when New York City shut down twenty large, failing high schools, it gave the principals of the 200 new smaller schools that were created as replacements the power to hire their own staff and teachers. As Sarah Garland explains in this special report, the performance of those small schools helped lift New York City’s four-year graduation rate from 47 percent in 2005 to 63 percent in 2009. Indeed, a study released in June that compares New York City students randomly assigned to either old, large high schools or new, smaller ones found that the latter group were 6.8 percent more likely to graduate. The study, by the respected research group MDRC, was funded by the Gates Foundation.

It’s true, of course, that a different school climate in the absence of high standards and good teaching isn’t enough. And there’s no guarantee that small schools will create good climates, as the Gates experiment proved, or that you can’t motivate people in larger schools.

But smaller schools are more likely to create the sense of connectedness among students and teachers that motivates them both to work hard, researchers have found, generating a level of genuine caring and mutual obligation between them that is found far less frequently in large, comprehensive high schools. Small schools, in other words, are more likely to create the conditions that make learning possible.

Student and teacher attendance are typically higher in smaller high schools (whether they’re in cities, suburbs, or rural communities), studies show. So are student involvement in extracurricular activities and graduation rates. Teacher turnover and student disciplinary problems are typically lower. “Of course you have to have good instruction” to get students to higher standards, says Balfanz, who directs the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins. “But you’ll never get there unless the school environment supports it.”


This special report was made possible with the generous support of (in alphabetical order):

The Boston Foundation

Carnegie Corporation of New York

Nellie Mae Education Foundation

Spencer Foundation

William Penn Foundation

Gates may have lost faith in the importance of smaller, more personalized school cultures, but some of the foundation’s highest profile grantees have not. The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and other successful charter school networks that the foundation continues to fund are intensely committed to building strong bonds between students and teachers to signal to their predominantly disadvantaged students that they and the work they’re doing in school is important. Principals and teachers, for example, pride themselves on knowing every student’s name—something the schools are able to do mostly because they’re small, with average enrollments of 300. Ironically, Bill Gates praised the KIPP schools in his 2009 critique of his foundation’s investments in smaller schools, attributing the network’s strong results to high standards and longer school days.

The best way, then, to think about smaller schools (and school culture generally) in the battle against dropouts is that they’re necessary, but not sufficient. Smaller school settings are a valuable means to an end: getting students and teachers in impoverished communities to invest in their work as an important step toward lifting achievement and getting a far wider range of students into and through the college pipeline. They are only one such strategy and need to be combined with others, as the Gates experience revealed. But the research by Balfanz and other dropout experts is clear: we ignore the reform at our peril.

Thomas Toch is executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington and author of High Schools on a Human Scale. His research for the book was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This piece reflects his personal perspectives.

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  1. It is the small class size that is critical in fostering “the sense of connectedness among students and teachers that motivates them both to work hard.. generating a level of genuine caring and mutual obligation between them”, and in creating ” the conditions that make learning possible.” It is in the classroom, after all, that learning takes place; not in the hallways or the principal’s office. Many small schools do have smaller classes; but not all of them do, but the Gates-sponsored studies obscure this critical factor because of the ideological biases of their sponsor.

    In NYC, class sizes at at small schools are about 5 students smaller on average; which also, by the way, helps the teacher “differentiate learning”, the new buzzword of the day. The sad thing is that Gates, Klein and the other privateers vehemently inveigh against the need to reduce class size in a systemic fashion, so classes grow even more crowded in the large schools where the highest need students, either ELL or sped, are most prevalent; indeed, they try to obscure the connection between small schools and small classes in every way they can.

  2. Red Tony Bryk et al’s Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago (U of Chicago Press, 2010) in which he discusses why he thinks small schools are still the right way to go, based on the evidence of his research. Its an impressive book.

    Deb Meier

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