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Facing The Problems Of Creating Small Schools

I’ve ranted many times in this space about the current movement in some areas towards creating "small" high schools, always with the emphasis that creating these schools means that the entire concept and structure of these institutions must change. An educator with far more experience and knowledge in this area offers up nine major problem areas faced by those creating these small schools in Education Week.

Despite calls for “reform,” most high schools continue to function as comfortable environments for adults, displaying few tangible changes in operations, values, priorities, professional culture, and, most important, teaching methods and student engagement.

He makes a good case for teachers making large contributions to running the schools, with the proper training and authority. He also addresses the issue of serving special needs students in a smaller setting by noting that "current practice in special education, and the cognitive theory that supports it, is decades old". We need to completely review how these students are served, again with the appropriate training and support for their teachers.

This, however, is my favorite of the nine points, a reaction to those who fear students will lack the large selection of courses offered in most comprehensive high schools.

One of the most frequent complaints of small-schools leaders has to do with the difficulty of offering the traditional breadth of courses that has, for a century, reflected our linear (curriculum as sequential and cumulative) and compartmentalized (history separate from literature, for example) thinking about the disciplines and student learning. “How can I offer nine levels of math with a math faculty of four?” is a frequent complaint. Lists of content standards continue to swell. Although significant advances have been made across the country as people reconsider and update curriculum approaches, now, ironically, the high-stakes-testing movement has breathed new life into the old curriculum paradigm under the guise of “accountability.”

Responding neither to brain research nor common sense, the broad and anachronistic sweep of high school courses defies the ability of small faculties to stretch to fit the old mold. Small schools provoke complicated questions about which functions of the old “department head” job might remain valid, how to support teachers’ instructional needs, and how best to capitalize on the potential of the 360-degree perspective provided when core-subject teachers work in unison to address their students’ intellectual and social needs.

Interesting idea. Subject area teachers working together to education their students instead of remaining compartmentalized in their own little boxes. I suspect this one change in the culture of high school will be the most difficult to accomplish.

It’s a long but excellent commentary and well worth your time to read.

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1 Comment

  1. superdestroyer

    The only way small schools work is if the student body is homogeneous. Imagine a high school of 250 students. That means the senior class has roughly 60 students. Only if all 60 kids are homogeneous can any of the kids benefit. But imagine a very heterogenous high school. The kid interested in science fair, advance math, etc will be left out in the cold and the school has to cater to lowest common denominator.

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