Smaller, better

February 25, 2005|By Thomas Toch

WHEN THE nation's governors join business executives and education leaders at the National Education Summit on High Schools in Washington tomorrow, they'll be tackling one of education's toughest challenges - the troubling performance of the nation's secondary schools.

The governors and their allies should recognize that both sides in the national debate hold part of the solution to high school reform.

There's a lot of buzz in education about shrinking the size of high schools. Philadelphia recently became the latest big-city school system to announce plans to break its large, "comprehensive" schools into smaller, more personal places, a reform often associated with liberal educators.

This is important work. New research has revealed that high schools graduate only 71 percent of their students - and only 56 percent of their black students and 54 percent of their Hispanic students. Alarming percentages of students entering public colleges and universities must take remedial courses. Only 18 percent of the students who start high school manage to earn college degrees.

That many students attend large, alienating high schools is a significant contributor to these troubling statistics. A majority attend high schools of over 1,000, and many are in schools of 3,000 or more. Anonymity breeds apathy and alienation in such environments, sapping students' motivation to learn and teachers' motivation to teach.

Not all large high schools are bad, of course. And not all small ones are successful. But small schools are more likely to create a sense of connectedness among students and teachers - a sense of being known and valued - that spurs people to work hard. Small schools are more likely to create the conditions that make learning possible.

Other steps, such as permitting students to select their schools and granting schools autonomy over their budgets, staffing and curriculum, further increase the chances of high schools successfully engaging students and teachers. Students attending schools of their choice typically invest themselves more fully because they want to be in the schools they select. For staff members, the motivation of small, autonomous high schools is akin to that of small businesses: Teachers work hard because they have a sense of ownership.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been the catalyst of the small-schools movement, earmarking about $700 million in recent years to states, school systems and nonprofit organizations to create nearly 1,600 mostly urban high schools of 400 or fewer students each - some new, some in large high schools that have been subdivided. The foundation contributed $13 million to help reform Baltimore City's high schools. But reducing the scale of high schools is a means to a larger end: raising achievement and getting a wider range of students into and through college.

In addition to school cultures that motivate rather than alienate students and teachers, getting students into the college pipeline requires high, external standards and an accountability system that higher educators and employers trust. That's the premise of the Bush administration's proposal to extend to high schools the annual testing requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

But governors would be wise to reject the administration's calls for basic skills reading and math tests in favor of a system of end-of-course exams and presentations that would drive curriculum and teaching more effectively. To bring pressure on high schools from above, the governors should have their public colleges and universities require end-of-course exams for admission.

Such incentives for schools and students are an important part of the high school solution, as many conservatives argue. But it's ultimately not possible to ratchet up high school productivity significantly by relying exclusively on external rewards and sanctions to motivate students and teachers. Unless policy-makers address the dysfunctional cultures of many of large, comprehensive high schools, the performance of public high schools isn't likely to improve very much.

The best strategy would be to strengthen high school accountability and make high schools places where teachers want to teach and students want to learn.

Thomas Toch, co-founder of Education Sector, is the author of High Schools on a Human Scale.

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