Small schools: A position of integrity for progressives?

In 1930, the US had 262,000 public schools for 28 million students.

Guess what those numbers were in 2002?

In 2002, the US had 91,000 schools for 54 million students. That’s a drop of 170,000 schools while the student population nearly doubled. The average public school has gone from serving 100 students at a time to almost 600 students. This doesn’t seem like a positive trend to me.


Here’s the EPA presentation where I found these facts. Turns out big schools have some environmental and social costs to go along with their scale. Especially mega schools out on the edges of communities. With minimum acreage driving site selection, neighborhood and downtown schools are becoming things of the past. (I think high schools in NC require 30 acres nowadays, but haven’t been able to confirm.) These ‘edge schools’ generate more and longer vehicle trips than in-fill schools – burning more fuel, creating more emissions, and destroying productivity all the while.

So what’s the appeal of a big, edge school? Is it about economies of scale? Does it justify bureaucracy? Does it enable better facilities and better equipment? Or maybe it's just an obsession with certain kinds of organized sports that require big fields? Your guess is as good as mine, but whatever rationale, it seems hard to argue against the case for having smaller schools too.

For conservatives, vouchers appear to be a kind of holy grail for all things educational. And while vouchers may have a role in a comprehensive strategy for making progress in public education, the discussion cannot start there. It has to start from the progressive position of common good.

My fear, though, is that average Americans see progressives as advocating some version of status quo, while wingers have stood for something different, something called privatization (surprise, surprise). We on the left have not articulated a coherent path for improvement, and maybe we haven't even acknowledged the scope of the need.

These are gross generalities I know, and many of my friends in public education are as frustrated by the Current View of the Situation as I am. But a Better View of the Situation has not been fully framed . . . and a path for getting there has not been mapped.

Maybe we should start with a commitment to smaller schools.

Disclaimer: I have no credentials in this area beyond being a parent.


Interesting proposition

I went to a 2,500 student high school, but it was in a densely populated area. All of the new schools in my hometown are equally as big but are now being placed out in the 'burbs (or "out east" given that I lived on the west coast of Florida).

I would not only advocate smaller schools but more focused. The requisite base of knowledge can be taught in elementary and middle school and high school could be more interesting to teens if it gives them a more in depth and focused experience.

I agree and disagree

About the requisite knowledge base. North Carolina doesn't teach most students Algebra until high school, and that's something that every citizen should understand. That's one example (but I'm sure there are others) of where a middle school education alone would fall short of serving our community's needs.

On the other hand, the high schools I have known have focused on squeezing most students onto the college-prep track. I read some Dept. of Labor statistics from the 90s showing that only 20% of new jobs required a college degree, while the school where I taught graduated 80% of its students from the college-prep program. The programs we offer for kids who don't want to go to college, kids who don't want to learn trig, are appalingly limited. In my top five changes to public schools would be better and more broadly available vocational programs.

I graduated 62.

There are definite benefits to a small school, but they come at a cost in today's society, that is equipment. Small schools are usually rural schools with low budgets, low pay, etc.
One problem with changing the trend is that each smaller school would probably cost more to run than the large school combine.

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

They might cost more

but they might also be better. That seems like a fair trade off, to me.


PS I write all this as a father who was lucky enough to have the money to put his daughter in a private high school with 60 students. The don't have great equipment, it's not a haven for science and math, but man oh man do the kids learn to learn -- and love learning too. But it's not because of the teachers. I saw plenty of equally dedicated teachers in public schools . . . maybe even moreso. It's really about size. The teachers really, really know the students and it makes a huge difference.

My suspicion

Is that there is one way to do neighborhood schools right, and another way to do big schools right, and then there are schools too big to serve students properly. 600 students in a school is small for a high school, small enough that a principal and a couple of assistants can know every student's name (in other words, where anonymity isn't a potential shield for failure or bad behavior).

Put another way, I think teaching a classroom containing four or five students would be great -- it would be almost like teaching them individually. But teaching a classroom of 20 can also be done very well, with individual students getting the attention they need to succeed. Teaching a classroom of 35 takes a really good (if not exceptional) teacher.

I guess what I'm saying is that small is a good, but large may be a distinct evil. I think that the large school model (education factories) can work well if not overburdened.

I'll just add this: one of the problems is funding -- smaller schools do cost more. And part of the funding problem is the fact that parents just don't trust teachers. I'm not sure why (though I suspect it's that teachers can't help but teach values and culture, even when they're teaching Algebra, and that this makes parents nervous). Here's a recent local example.

Don't get me wrong

I'm a big fan of small schools, I would back it all the way. We moved to SV partially because it had a "neighborhood" elementary school.

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

If I told you guys what my girls went through

at their 1000 student elementary school it would absolutely chill your blood. Let's just say that sex and violence aren't just for high school in Charlotte. Emily had nightmares for months after watching her second grade teacher get beaten by an 8-yr-old during a lockdown. It was the graded lockdown and all she could do was block him with her body to keep him from harming the other students. Legally, she couldn't touch him even to defend herself. She had to be hospitalized for treatment and had months of physical therapy afteward. Emily was 7 when she witnessed this. Violence was a daily thing at this school.

The final straw was later that year when two girls "serviced" 9 boys in the boy's bathroom on the 4th/5th grade hall. All 11 were suspended. I worked in the media center and was president of the PTA, so I didn't "hear" this through the grapevine. I was there when the department of social services was called in to meet with the parents. The police, DSS(or family services) and school officials were all there because some of the kids were over 13 and could have faced charges.

Emily(5th) is still taught at home and is #1 on the waiting list for Carolina International School. It's a state charter International Baccalaureate school. Katie(7th) is there and loves it. It is K-8 growing to K-12. They are in mobile units until the GREEN facility is built. There are 40 students per grade level. When you have been in a situation where your child isn't safe in school, you are more than willing to accept a situation where they may not have the most high-tech science lab or well-stocked media center, but they will come home in one piece.

The best thing about the school is that if you go there you accept their approach, their rules, etc. If you don't like the workload. Tough. If you don't like the liberal thrust of the education. Tough. If you don't like the uniforms. Tough. They have raised the bar and the only exceptions made are for students with IEPs or other special needs. Four of the students in Katie's class have some type of EC classification and all four are excelling. The compassion demonstrated by the students toward their classmates is amazing. While I know this can happen at a large school, I think it is more likely to happen at a small school.

My children would return to CMS over my dead cold body.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

You highlight an important point

in your first paragraph. School boards have legal counsel who tell them what they can and can't legally do with the goal in mind of staying out of trouble. In the gray areas, the school board relates the lawyers' advice to the principals with all errors being on the conservative side. The principles further restrict the advice when they pass it on to teachers and counselors. They're all trying to be on the safe side. The result is that there's little uniformity amongst teacher views of what is or isn't permissible, and their ideas are often wrong. I don't know that this teacher was wrong in this case, but I suspect that she would have been allowed to physically restrain the kid.

That said, CMS sucks. Atlanta is in a similar situation, where even good public-school lovin' progressives can't send their kids there. We have a long way to go.


I'd like to think this is an unusual story, but it's not. And it's the same reason I took my kids out of public schools. Fortunately, I have the resources to pay for private education . . . it's been great for my kids . . . and I'm seeing first hand the awesome potential of small-scale schools in action. I want them to be available to everyone, regardless of their income. At the same time, a headlong rush to vouchers would be incredible destructive and chaotic. I wish I knew the answer.

People on the other side of Charlotte

would not believe this story. It's amazing and all depends (sadly) on where the highest concentration of high poverty/at-risk students is. Our school at the time was 68% free and reduced lunch. We did our best to make it work. I went from idealist to realist in a very short period of time and since it was my own children who were at risk I made the decision to leave.

Charter schools might not be the only answer, but they are one answer. CIS is pure lottery giving only siblings priority. Believe it or not this is a very diverse school. The best part is that it is a choice made by the parents, so most are supportive of the academic standards.

I'm not a fan of vouchers and I can't really put my finger on why. I think it's because they don't address the root of the problem with public education. School size also doesn't address the entire problem, but I think will impact a greater number and more diverse group of students.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

Quick update

A slightly different version of this diary has been picked up at Orange Politics.

Some school facts worth noting

From a poster over at Orange Politics.

“The only rigorous study was conducted by Valerie E. Lee of the University of Michigan and Julia B. Smith of Western Michigan University. Lee and Smith analyzed federal data for nearly 10,000 students in 789 public and private high schools of varying size. They sampled the performance of these students in mathematics and reading as they progressed from eighth to 12th grade. Lee and Smith concluded that the ideal size for a high school is 600 to 900 students. Size matters, they said, because it affects social relations within the school and the ability to mount a reasonable curriculum. Schools that are too large lack any sense of community and cannot shape student behavior; schools that are too small cannot offer a solid curriculum.

In their study, low-income students made the greatest academic gains in schools of 600 to 900 students. Indeed, the performance of low-income students was worst in schools with more than 2,100 students. Size did not make as much difference for students from advantaged backgrounds, but even their performance peaked in the schools that enrolled between 600 and 900. Academic gains for both low-income and high-income students declined as enrollment fell below 600, and declined again in schools that enrolled fewer than 300.”