Small is difficult

The Gates Foundation is spending $1 billion to convert large high schools into small schools that are supposed to improve teacher-student relationships, thereby improving achievement and graduation rates. Seattle Weekly looks at the Gates-funded conversion of a high school near Seattle with 1,800 students, one third of whom don’t graduate. With $833,000 in Gates’ money, the old school was carved into five new schools. Success isn’t guaranteed, the Weekly story points out.

Student test results in “conversion” schools (large high schools divided into smaller schools) have yet to show dramatic changes, graduation rates remain flat, teachers are split about the effectiveness of the changes, and students are generally lukewarm.

Mountlake Terrace teachers had voted overwhelmingly for conversion but the effort of creating new schools was exhausting. Students could choose:

Achievement, Opportunity and Service (AOS), a “traditional high school experience in a small school setting”; Discovery, where students “design your own projects instead of taking tests”; Innovation, “aimed at creative thinkers: writers, artists, inventors”; Renaissance, a bridge to four-year colleges with the bulk of Mountlake’s advanced placement classes; and Terrace Arts and Academic School (TAAS), a 2-D and 3-D arts-oriented program.

Soon Discovery became the “ghetto school,” while AOS was the preppy, white school. Staff members complained that competing for students was divisive. The workload was high; one quarter of the teachers quit after the first year. Tom Vander Ark, who runs the Gates Foundation, concedes the results have been disappointing.

Vander Ark readily admits the foundation is on a steep learning curve. “Many of the schools are spending two years figuring out what to do, and another two years making structural changes. They never get to the heart of the matter, which is improving teaching and learning.” The experiences at Mountlake Terrace and other struggling large schools are changing the foundation’s approach. “It is harder and more expensive than our first grants provided. In our early grant making, small became the goal. To the extent it became the main focus, that wasn’t productive. It’s probably more important to improve the curriculum, the school culture, the relationships in the school. That’s my mistake. I should have formed programs with the initial focus on teaching and learning, and ended with structure.”

This is a very well-written story on — thanks to Gates — a very hot topic in education.

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Comments

  1. A friend of mine just finished his dissertation about this plan to carve up large HS into smaller, schools within schools. He found that the same social class segregation exists, but now between the smaller units.

    So one HS unit is where the “preps” go, and another is for the “jocks,” another for the “dumb kids,” and probably another for minorities.

    If I had advice for Vanderark, it would be to drop the schools within schools model, hire three or four extra guidance counselors to provide face time for students (and lean on these folks to work HARD), and then make every student take a demanding load of rigorous courses.

  2. SuperSub says:

    I don’t believe the social segregation is much of an issue, or at least one that can be realistically dealt with in school. Whether you have 2000 or 2 students, they’ll find a way to segregate themselves from others.
    Shriking “school” size would have some benefits if the plans are implemented correctly. Students would be less able to melt into the crowd, teachers would be able to better collaborate within content areas and without. Also, resources would be better distributed among different conceptual and ability-grouped schools… I’m guessing a majority of the Special Ed and resource students are focused in one or two of the schools. There could easily be flaws in the specific plan or the school’s implementation of the plan, but those are correctable with time.

  3. There are too many variables here. Is the idea to test the effects of smaller size or test the effectiveness of these different models (or choice)?

    I think small is the way to go, but not this way. Small as in small districts and actual buildings. I’ve never liked the school within a school model. You still have a couple thousand kids running around — even worse — most of them you won’t even know.

  4. And 4 years is hardly “never” — one of the problems with education is people want instant results. It takes time to implement changes. And you need to get at lease one whole graduating class through to see what progress is being made.

  5. Here’s a possibly-relevant analogy from another field. In his book on how to run a manufacturing business (“Let’s Fix It”) Richard Schonberger argues that–unless technical or economic factors make it impossible–a manufacturing plant should not have more than 400-500 employees. He considers the “plant-within-a-plant” model, and concludes that it is not sufficient to establish the small-plant spirit unless the sub-plants are completely divided (walls) and have separate parking lots, cafeterias, etc.

  6. hardlyb says:

    One of my cousins went to a high school within a high school. I attended (for about 6 months) this school before the reorg (I’m 3 years older), and the school facility was the biggest I’ve ever seen — there were over 6000 kids for a 3-year high school. The place was somewhat alienating when I was there, but it went downhill in a big way while my cousin was there (which may not have been entirely due to the organizational changes). Also, my cousin opted for the “hippy self-managed” school, and while he liked it, his (older) sisters said that he didn’t learn much, and he did flunk out of the first college that he attended. He is very smart, so he eventually got himself together and has a BS and an MS, but he would probably have gotten a PhD and been a college professor if he had done things on a more compressed schedule.

    Anyway, based on my one experience with splitting a school, I think that the plan described here stinks.

  7. As a high school student many years ago, I went from a small high school where I knew everybody, to a large high school, where I was anonymous (except to my circle of friends). It was a huge adjustment. I was allowed to slide by only using half my brain at the small school. The large school, being an academic powerhouse at the time, was filled with teachers who expected me to really work. They didn’t care how big or how small their school was compared to my old school. If I needed help, I was given help. I don’t think it’s the size of the school that matters.

  8. Smaller schools are easier to manage – that’s simple enough. It is possible to have a poorly-run small school and a well-run large one. But the opposite is more likely.

    There is also a certain logic to having specialized schools for young artists, scientists, athletes, tradespeople, politicians, heirs, and all such possibilities. Many of these these schools already exist, in some form or another. After all, adults usually segregate themselves by occupation, vocation, education, interests, and personality type.

  9. Mike in Texas says:

    To me this is one of those typical ideas where a non educator has an idea but doesn’t think it all through beforehand. Granted Gates is a little better than your average reformer. If he wants to do this right then he needs to help these schools build smaller schools, not divide a big one up into smaller areas. Doing so doesn’t make them a seperate school.

    The questions this article didn’t answer are:

    Does each school have its own buses? Cafeteria? auditoriums? atheletic teams? If not how are they supposed to form an identity as a seperate school?

  10. Mike in Texas wrote:

    Does each school have its own buses? Cafeteria? auditoriums? atheletic teams? If not how are they supposed to form an identity as a seperate school?

    And with all those different concerns you could almost forget that this is a school we’re talking about and that education is it’s reason for existance. At least theoretically.

  11. Mike in Texas says:

    Allen,

    Without a seperation of all of these things you may as well just stick with a big school.

  12. superdestroyer says:

    What most of the small school arguments really actually mean are arguments for homogenous schools. The small school movement is a tacit admission that busing, diversity, and multiculturalism are failtures that hurt academic education. If you put all of the Asian and white kids who want to go to college into one school, the achievement goes up but if you mix in ESL, gangbangers, and special education, the amount of academic education goes down.

  13. Not at all, superdestroyer. Having a small school doesn’t preclude diversity, busing, or any of those things you mention. High School students will always self-segregate to some degree, but you can mitigate that with a healthy school culture (easier said than done, and very dependent on family support).

    Magnet schools are a philosophy of homogenous education. The Gates model is conflating the two concepts and not doing either real well. Which goes to prove that you don’t have to be an educator to blow large wads of money on ineffective policies.

  14. Mike in Texas wrote:

    Without a seperation of all of these things you may as well just stick with a big school.

    Oh, and why would that be? Because education can’t occur without a sports program? Because education can’t occur without buses? Because education can’t occur without institutional cooking?

    It seems to be that you’re trying to intimate that the only way education can occur is within the realm of the conventional, district-based model. What a shock.

    RCC wrote:

    Which goes to prove that you don’t have to be an educator to blow large wads of money on ineffective policies.

    And that has never been an issue.

    The critical difference is that Mr. Gates is blowing his own money on ineffective policies. Until foolishness is criminalized, he’s safe. But educators don’t blow their own money. They blow other people’s money, public money.

    That ought to result in a higher standard but the inevitable inefficiency of democracy and the conflict of different interest groups means that the standard of performance is lower. It’s not that Mr. Gates is all that much smarter then educators, he just has to live with the consequences of his foolishness: a diminished fortune and nothing to show for it.

    So, long after Mr. Gates has grown tired of throwing good money after and bad and stopped doing so school districts will still be hiring chief instructional officers who’s job it is to teach grandpa to suck eggs, buying computers that collect dust and paneling administrative offices while allowing the roofs of schools to go unrepaired.

  15. Mike in Texas says:

    Allen wrote:

    Oh, and why would that be? Because education can’t occur without a sports program? Because education can’t occur without buses? Because education can’t occur without institutional cooking?

    Because you will still have the same kids missing together for athletic events, on the buses and in the cafeteria, library, etc. Just b/c you divide a large school into several small groups doesn’t make them small schools. It just makes them compartmentalized large schools. Isn’t this supposed to be about creating small schools?

    The real title of this should’ve have been:

    Smaller schools are more expensive

  16. ragnarok says:

    MiT said:

    “Smaller schools are more expensive”

    Ah, yes, the old familiar pitch for more money. I was kind of wondering what was holding it up, but Mike’s come through in the end.

    I think Gates is mistaken, but I admire his concern and his willingness to put large amounts of his own money to push his ideas.

    Education should be a serious business, not to be mixed up with rubbish like diversity, multiculturalism, sports, faddish new books every year, not to mention the Susan Blacks of the world decrying competition. You can certainly overdo competition, but to ban it is ludicrous.

    It would also help to hire teachers who do not specialise in torturing the English language – “seperate” for separate, “Doing so doesn’t make them a seperate school” for ‘separate schools’, “kids missing together for athletic events” for ‘massing together’ and so on. Typos are one thing, not knowing the correct form is quite another.

  17. Ragnarok: no offense, but people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. You type some doozies on here yourself, bud. Not that Mike is excused –.

    I’d love to see high school sports become far less important than they are now. The reality is that football (and to some extent basketball) drives many of these large schools — the larger the pool of kids, the stronger your team. It’s insane. I could rant all day about HS sports. But there’s a reality there that has to be dealt with (even if it is a reality that sucks). Schools don’t exist in a vaccuum. If we eliminated these programs, communities would NOT be happy. And the trickle up effect to colleges and the NFL, well now…

    I just had an oddball thought. I typically spend about 3% – 4% of my income on stuff for my classroom. I wonder what percentage of his income Gates is spending? (And I wouldn’t weep for his lost money, much of which was made on those dusty computers sitting in schools.)

    FWIW, I use novels that were purchased in the 70’s — now THAT was Vinaclad! Some of my kids find themselves issued the same books their parents used.

  18. ragnarok says:

    RCC,

    “Ragnarok: no offense, but people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. You type some doozies on here yourself, bud. Not that Mike is excused –.”

    Two points: (1) I’m not a teacher, and (2) apart from the occasional typo, I rather doubt that I’m a font of doozies. American English came late to me, and I choose to retain some of the usage I was originally taught. And in case you still have doubts about the quality of my language, I’ll plead FAVE (Foreign American Vernacular English), with its own grammar, much of which is hard for SAE speakers to understand. You wouldn’t want me think you multiculturally insensitive, would you?

    Mike’s guilty of repeated offenses, and he’s a teacher. Shouldn’t he know how to spell (and without the aid of SpellCheck!)?

    Should you be interested in what I would consider proper grammar, try G.H.Vallins’s books.

  19. ragnarok says:

    RCC wrote:

    ” I wonder what percentage of his income Gates is spending…”

    The Gates Foundation has assets of more that $28B, which is more than half his net worth. Quite impressive, don’t you think?

  20. You make errors, ragnarok, believe me. And I know the differences among the English grammars and usages. I’m pretty much a Warriner’s/Chicago Style chick, myself. I have about a dozen or so different grammar books, some British, but not Vallin’s. I’ll look for it to add to my collection. Looks like it is out of print.

    Regardless of anyone’s grammar (I’m ridiculous when it comes to grammar — love the stuff — but it has nothing to do with this topic), good on Gates for putting his foundation’s money into education. I wish he would do so more productively, though, and my original points still stand.

  21. ragnarok says:

    Everybody makes mistakes; that’s part of being human. That includes me, as it includes you (try SpellCheck on your previous post). The question is, does somebody who makes such glaring mistakes, who spells so badly, whose prose so closely resembles that of Miles Crabtree (see “Brothers In Law”, by Henry Cecil) deserve to be a teacher?. Not if he is to be judged as a professional. As a union hack? Sure, why not?

    Ther power and the beauty of English are directly traceable to its irregularity and malleability. Grammar is only the first step; beyond it lies the ability to break the rules in order to create passages of incredible passion. Try Marlowe’s “Dido, Queen of Carthage”. Do you really think that this would have been given an ‘A’ by the so-called grammar teachers of today?

    I say “Should you be interested…” instead of the more common “If you’re interested…” because I believe that the former is more elegant. Yet most grammar teachers in this country would probably not understand the distinction, though there are people in other countries who probably would.

    For the record, I started looking at American grammar texts because I was concerned about the book my son was using. What I found, to my surprise, was that the vast majority of of the grammar texts used in American public are crap. The best sources I’be been able to find so far have been the Calvert School and K-12.

  22. Which word do you think is incorrectly spelled?

    As far as the flexibility of English is concerned, you’re preaching to the choir. Rules are tools. Know them and use them until you wear them out.

    (I understand the difference between “if” and “should” — another example of the malleability of English — the form is falling into disuse — fwiw, I have to think about lie/lay and who/whom because they’re not part of my native vernacular, although they are part of other regional vernaculars.)

  23. ragnarok says:

    “Schools don’t exist in a vaccuum [sic]”.

    I’m not particularly interested in grammar. I learnt it in school, haven’t worried about it since then. My point is that teachers should have a certain basic competence, whether it be in Math, English, Science or any other subject. We can argue about where to set the bar, but the basic principle remains. Just as I think you were shocked by Sara Boyd’s inability to pass the CBEST, I’m shocked by Mike’s apparent inability to spell, and, more seriously, his inability to form sentences.

    I think Mike runs a blog called “Education in Texas”; here is a sentence from a recent post: “And the most grevious accusations against him:…”

    Grevious? What be this?

  24. Whoops. Oh well. Wet noodle treatment for me!

  25. Mike in Texas says:

    Yes Ragnorak, I admit it. I spend more thought on what I’m saying than my spelling and grammar. I’ve noticed you can’t attack the validity of my arguements so you resort to personal attacks.

    I grew up in an age when we were taught (before high stakes testing) to get your ideas down on paper as they come to you, and worry about the other things (spelling and grammar) afterwards. I just choose not to go back over them here.

  26. ragnarok says:

    Quite the opposite, Mike, you’ve proven yourself a master at dodging the issues, evading the question, fudging the numbers and generally refusing to have an honest discussion. I could go back over my posts and list the questions that you’ve evaded. So could Allen.

    What example do you set as a teacher? That an inability to spell is OK? That an excuse trumps work? That you can’t even spell “argument” correctly? That you don’t know what Ragnarok is, and misspell it?

    If this is how you teach science, I fear for your students.

  27. Mike in Texas says:

    Ragnarok,

    You are the master of dodging questions, you have yet to answer one I’ve ever asked you, while I’ve attempted to answer the loaded questions you sling out.

    I supposed I could write my posts in MS Word and use the spelling and grammar check to make it perfect. Or I could sit down and carefully check my posts for misspellings and poor grammar but the truth of the matter is I don’t care to. I am not on the clock as a teacher and you are not my student.

    Besides, they give you an arguement you can win, since you can’t win any about education.

  28. Mike in Texas says:

    If this is how you teach science, I fear for your students.

    As I always tell Allen, resorting to personal attacks merely indicates your arguements are weak. You know nothing of my teaching abilities or even much about me period but your attitude is typical of so many of the “reformers”.

  29. Mike in Texas wrote:

    As I always tell Allen, resorting to personal attacks merely indicates your arguements are weak.

    Don’t be so modest. You also tell me about the groundswell of public revulsion that, any minute now, will sweep aside the NCLB. There’s also the – proven to work! – class-size reduction that’s supported by editorials in union publications as well as the pay increases for teacher’s that’ll attract a better class of new-hires without generating unfavorable comparisons to the incumbents.

    You know nothing of my teaching abilities or even much about me period but your attitude is typical of so many of the “reformers”.

    What possible difference could your teaching abilities make? Oh sure, there’s the occasional parent who might feel you’ve gone out of their way for their kid but as far as any professional recognition of whatever skills you possess, fugedabudit.

    We’ve already covered the inconsequentiality of the Teacher of the Year awards and what that means.

    And how could it be otherwise? You work for the government in an industry dominated by unions and, until fairly recently, largely ignored by the public under the assumption that the experts were on the job. Well, the public’s taking an interest and I don’t think you’re going to like the results because the cozy assumptions that allowed the public education system to get as far out of control as it has are being questioned.

    So, you might as well get used to the reformers you prefer to insult with your scare quotes, we aren’t going away.

    You know, the funny thing is that the changes you obviously detest so much are liable to be the only thing that’ll save public education. They may or may not do you any good, depending on your actual skills as opposed to your assumptions about your skills, but the value of a teacher’s skills are going to become a pressing consideration for the management of schools who can’t blithely assume that the kids will just show up.

    But that’s not really what you’re interested in, is it?

    You’ve got a cozy, utopian future in mind which features constantly increasing salaries and benefits, constantly diminishing expectations and rock-solid job security. Start drawing pictures because that’s the only place your going to see that future.

  30. Mike in Texas says:

    Allen wrote:

    We’ve already covered the inconsequentiality of the Teacher of the Year awards and what that means.

    That’s because in your reality all teachers are lazy, stupid, incompetent, (fill in your favorite anti-teacher slogan) and intellectuals like you know more than the people who do the job day in and day out.

    You know, the funny thing is that the changes you obviously detest so much are liable to be the only thing that’ll save public education

    How interesting, you’re defending legislation written in part by Ted Kennedy. That alone should set your moral compass spinning.

  31. Mike in Texas wrote:

    That’s because in your reality all teachers are lazy, stupid, incompetent, (fill in your favorite anti-teacher slogan)

    I’d invite you to offer an example of me stating that I thought all teachers are lazy, stupid, incompetent or whatever my favorite, anti-teacher epithet might be, but you’d simply ignore that request since you have no examples to offer, since I’ve never stated any such thing.

    And, although it won’t do any good, I’d like to point out that this sort of tendentious self-pity doesn’t look like wounded valor to an uniterested party. To the folks who don’t obsess about the public education system and who don’t depend on it for their livelihood, the excuses you offer, the blame you throw around, the self-pity combined with self-rightousness, isn’t convincing. That’s part of the reason the teacher’s unions are losing political influence.

    How interesting, you’re defending legislation written in part by Ted Kennedy. That alone should set your moral compass spinning.

    Politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows. And although the image causes me to shiver with disgust, if Ted Kennedy can get his snoot out of a scotch bottle long enough to pass a piece of legislation that’ll bring the concept of accountability in public education to the national stage then I’ll grit my teeth and shake his hand. But that’s as far as I’ll go, old, political saying notwithstanding.

    and intellectuals like you know more than the people who do the job day in and day out.

    Uhh, yeah. That’s me. Intellectual de lux.

    I have a ThD from the Universitartus Committiartum E Pluribus Unum. It’s my proudest possession.

  32. ragnarok says:

    Mike in Texas wrote:

    “I am not on the clock as a teacher”

    Yep, there’s that good old union mentality again, shouldn’t expect you to do anything unless you’re on the clock. What will we do next, expect you to act like a professional?

    “Or I could sit down and carefully check my posts for misspellings and poor grammar but the truth of the matter is I don’t care to.”

    Right, I forgot that it takes a lot of effort to spell it right the first time. And there are some big words in there, like “atheletic”. Why bother? Besides, constant struggle builds character, and English seems to be made to order for it.

    “…intellectuals like you know more than the people who do the job day in and day out.”

    Violins to set the stage for bathos, unless you’re sincere. If so, no need for public obeisance, a simple touch of the forelock would do.