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Archive for the ‘School and Classroom Design’ Category

The century-old trend towards school consolidation and ever bigger schools is driven by a peculiar logic. School consolidators, posing as modernizers and progressives, tend to rely upon a few standard lines. “Student enrollment has dropped, so we cannot afford to keep your small school open. Now don’t get emotional on us. It simply comes down to a matter of dollars and cents.”

What’s wrong with this conventional school planning and design logic?  A growing body of North American education research on the “dollars and sense” of school size is exploding the myth and now suggest that smaller scale schools are not only better for students but, more surprisingly, more cost effective for school boards.  Whereas school consolidation and “economies-of-scale” were once merely accepted truths, supported by little evidence, newer studies are demonstrating that true small schools also deliver better results in academic achievement, high school completion rates, student safety and social connectedness.

ClassroomDropOutsSchool sizes continued to grow until the first decade of the 2000s with little research support, coherent analysis, or public scrutiny.  One influential study, J.B. Conant’s 1959 book, The American High School Today, fed the growth hormone with a fateful recommendation that no high school should have a graduating class of less than 100 students.  High schools were then  increasingly consolidated and, in the United States, the number of high schools with more than 1,500 students doubled and, by 2010, 40 % of America’s high schools enrolled more than 1,000 students.

The most popular, safest and single most effective model of schooling, the small schools model, was not only overlooked but effectively marginalized by policy makers and school facilities planners. Independent scholarly research in support of smaller schools, especially for secondary school students, gradually began to surface.  Such empirical research, however, rarely made it to the table where policy is made –in the ministry of education, superintendent’s office, school architect’s workplace, or even the university faculties of education.

One of the first studies to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy was Dollars & Sense: The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools (Knowledge Works Foundation, 2002).  Written by Barbara Kent Lawrence and a team of recognized experts, it very effectively demolished the central arguments made by large school defenders based upon so-called “economies of scale.” Small schools, the authors, claimed actually cost less to build based upon the metric of cost per student. They made the compelling case that large schools, compared to small  schools, have:

  • Higher administrative overhead
  • Higher maintenance costs
  • Increased transportation costs
  • Lower graduation rates
  • Higher rates of vandalism
  • Higher absenteeism
  • Lower teacher satisfaction

In addition to dispelling myths about “economies-of-scale,” the authors proposed specific guidelines for Ideal School Sizes, specifying upper limits:

High Schools (9-12), 75 students per grade, 300 total enrollment

Middle Schools (5-8), 50 students per grade level, 200 total enrollment

Elementary Schools (1-8), 25 students per grade level, 200 total enrollment

Elementary Schools (1-6), 25 students per grade level, 150 total enrollment

The authors of Dollars & Sense also rejected claims that the benefits of “smallness” could be achieved by designing and creating “schools-within-a-school” (SWaS). They recognized that turning over-sized facilities into SWaS design schools may be practical, but recommended against designing new schools where large numbers of students (Grades K-12) were reconfigured into divisions in particular sections or linked buildings.

Craig B. Howley’s landmark 2008 Educational Planning article, “Don’t Supersize Me,” provided the concrete evidence that building small schools was more cost effective.  Comparing 87 smaller Grade 9-12 schools with 81 larger schools, his research demonstrated that the smaller schools (138 to 600 students) were, on average, no more expensive per student to build than the larger schools (enrolling 601-999 students), and were actually less costly per square foot ($96 vs. $110). Furthermore, the new planned larger schools were oversized when actual enrollments were considered, making them more expensive per student, the key cost metric.

During a nine year period, from 2000 to 2009, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation took a $2 billion run at the problem with mixed results. “Comprehensive” high schools were declared harmful to the academic advancement and welfare of American students.  Mega-high schools with as many as 4,500 students educated under a single roof were found to be breeding apathy, sapping students’ motivation to learn and teachers’ commitment to teaching. Beginning in 2000, the 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 massive Gates Small School initiative, centred on Portland, Oregon, ran into structural barriers, sparked teacher union resistance, and  did not produce quick results.  Trying to re-size schools and re-invent decadent school cultures proved more challenging than expected, and the Gates Foundation ran out of patience when student test scores remained stagnant. “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 then made a sharp turn and shifted its attention and resources to teacher quality reform strategies.

The campaign for more personalized urban and regional high schools—structured and designed to forge more meaningful connections between students and adults in a concerted effort to boost  student achievement—is still supported by a raft of research and student and teacher surveys. American  authorities on student dropouts consistently report that students don’t care because they don’t feel valued. “When adolescents trust their teachers … they’re more likely to persist through graduation,” claims University of Michigan’s Valerie Lee and a colleague.

The Gates experiments did provide some vitally-important lessons.  Reducing school sizes alone is not enough to turn around under-performing schools. In the case of New York City, shutting down twenty large, under-performing high schools worked better in improving graduation rates (from 47 to 63%) because the principals of the 200 new smaller schools that were created as replacements had the power to hire their own teachers and staff.

The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, created on the “small school ” model also fared much better than the mainstream reconfigured urban high schools.  Principals and teachers at KIPP schools, 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.  Even in his 2009 critique of the Small Schools Initiative, Bill Gates praised the small-scale KIPP schools. Their strong results may reflect the combination of smaller size, high standards,  longer school days, and employing their own teachers and staff.

Creating smaller schools and a more intimate school climate in the absence of high standards and good teaching isn’t enough.  There’s no guarantee that small schools, in and of themselves,  will create good climates.  Having said that, smaller schools are more likely to create the sense of connectedness among students and teachers that motivates them both to work hard, according to the Dollars & Sense researchers.  Generating a level of genuine caring and mutual obligation between students and teachers is also 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.

Writing in the Washington Monthly (July 6, 2010), Thomas Toch put it best.  Breaking up large dysfunctional high schools into smaller units may not work miracles, but is likely a step in the right direction. Smaller school settings are still proving to be one of a number of important means to the desired end:  getting students and teachers in impoverished neighborhoods or marginalized rural communities to invest more in their work still looks like the best route toward “lifting achievement” and getting “a far wider range of students” through high school and onto post-secondary education.

How big is too big when it comes to schools?  Why do ministries of education and school boards continue to subscribe to the myth of “economies of scale”?  What were the painful lessons of Bill and Melinda Gates’ 2000 to 2009 Small School Initiative project?  What can be done to bring public policy in relation to school size more in line with current research supporting the building of smaller schools and the re-sizing of  regional mega-schools ? 


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Two radically different Canadian schools, Regina’s Douglas Park Elementary School and Calgary’s Connaught School, have each been recently hailed as exemplars of 21st century advances in school architecture.  They also exemplify, in many ways, the advantages of “Fixing It First” over “Tear It Down and Start Anew” when it comes to building and sustaining true community-based schools for the future.

OpenConceptCommonsThe gleaming new Douglas Park School, a “new build” project designed by Fielding-Nair International, for the Regina Public Schools purports to be a “School of the Future” with its shiny glass walls, open area classrooms, and ‘learning suite’ interior design.  Its futuristic design, highlighted in a fully animated fly-over video, projects the outward image of progressive educational practice.  Presented as “innovative” design features, the open spaces , lack of walls and moveable partitions will be familiar to those acquainted with the infamous “open concept” schools of the late 1960s and 1970s.

ConnaughtNewOne hundred year old Connaught School, completely renovated in 2008-09, is the first sandstone modernization project in Canada ever to achieve silver status for leadership in energy and environmental design (LEED).  In addition to renewing the building, the Connaught project exemplified true community engagement.  Instead of mourning a school demolition, Connaught teachers and the so-called  CBE EcoTeam partnered to create  a series of educational resources using the heritage and environmental features of the school as teaching tools. That’s a leading edge curriculum innovation known among professionals as “place-based education.”

New build schools give the outward appearance of being innovative and “progressive” in embracing so-called “21st Century Learning.”  In the vast majority of cases, they are the creations of school design theorists like Prakesh Nair who are disdainful of traditional school architecture and make a living off disposing of old schools and building brand new ones.  School design visionaries describe traditional schools revered by generations of graduates as “obsolete” and only suited to “preparing students for a world that no longer exists.'”  During the building phase, school user groups are normally either used as ‘sounding boards’ or engaged in giving limited input into the placement of functions. Such designs are seen as such masterpieces that public input is more or less a bit of a nuisance.

One of the most innovative recent school design projects, John A. Johnson Elementary School in Saint Paul, MN, is sure to alter public perceptions.  Once a struggling, inner city traditional school, it has been reborn as “a beacon of academic excellence, design innovation, and community involvement.”  Very much in line with current school design thinking, it exemplifies “Schools as Centers of Community “ principles in opening its doors to the community, tapping into  local talents and resources, while offering community hub services in return.  Considered one of America’s “Great Schools by Design,” it  has also been recognized with the Richard W. Riley Award for Excellence for Schools as Centers of Community.

School  authorities facing financial pressures are finding it simply too expensive to build new as they have for the past fifty years.  Some school boards and districts have responded by focusing on building fewer bigger “super schools” giving rise to “Big Box Elementary” and “Super-Sized High,” and allowing the existing “fleet” of  buildings to run-down strengthening the case for new build replacements.  A few, more far-sighted, smarter school planners are awakening to the “Fixing It First” approach of targeting investments in school renovations and working to re-invigorate urban and rural communities. School projects here are seen as ways of revitalizing targeted neighbourhoods and communities. Central to that strategy is the removal of barriers to “construction and the rehabilitation of schools in established areas.”

The “School of the Future” may not look anything like Douglas Park in Regina.  In its design philosophy and building principles, it looks very much “old school” in the sense that design experts deliver the school and the public stands back in awe.  One of the few academics specializing in school architecture, Neil Gislason, remains cautious about anointing the Fielding-Nair creation as the ultimate in school design. Some of the promoters claims are not supported by evidence, he recently told CJME News Talk 980 Radio, and a surprising amount is “bound up in rhetoric.”

Will schools like Douglas Park alone produce better student learning?  On this question, Gislason, says that Nair is mistaken when he says that the science shows the physical environment has a profound affect on learning.   It simply does not work, his research shows, without proper curriculum alignment and a staff of teachers capable of, and committed to, providing quality instruction in “an open classroom environment. “

What is “progressive” about the “21st Century School Models”now being planted in empty lots or fields in North American urban and rural communities?  Should community groups and parents be engaged from the outset in determining whether the school will be renovated or completely replaced?  To what extent are the new school designs repeating the mistakes of the late 1960s and 1970s?  How long after a heritage school is torn down does it take to re-build the sense of community?

a struggling St. Paul, Minn. public school that is reborn as a beacon of academic excellence, design innovation, and community involvement. In keeping with the latest thinking in school design and planning, John A. Johnson opens its doors to the community so that it may both benefit from local resources and offer social, fitness, and educational services in return. John A. Johnson is a recent winner of the Richard W. Riley Award for Excellence for Schools as Centers of Community. – See more at: http://www.archfoundation.org/2008/06/schools-as-centers-of-community-john-a-johnson-achievement-plus-elementary-school/#sthash.4n1JPhhS.dpuf
a struggling St. Paul, Minn. public school that is reborn as a beacon of academic excellence, design innovation, and community involvement. In keeping with the latest thinking in school design and planning, John A. Johnson opens its doors to the community so that it may both benefit from local resources and offer social, fitness, and educational services in return. John A. Johnson is a recent winner of the Richard W. Riley Award for Excellence for Schools as Centers of Community. – See more at: http://www.archfoundation.org/2008/06/schools-as-centers-of-community-john-a-johnson-achievement-plus-elementary-school/#sthash.4n1JPhhS.dpuf

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School design architect Prakesh Nair is a crusader for 21st century schools who believes that “the classroom has been obsolete for several decades.” In a July 2011 Education Week commentary, the visionary leader of Fielding Nair International  claimed that the classroom was “the most visible symbol of a failed system” — an archaic system of  “classroom-based schools.”  “The classroom is obsolete, ” he added, and that’s a problem because it was now “established science.”

Nair’s visionary speeches, writings, and designs provoke an immediate reaction in the real educational world. Concerned parents and teachers invariably raise their hand or take to an education blog exclaiming : “But the open classroom experiment of the ’70s was a dismal failure.”  It does raise a fundamental question, one recently posed by The Globe and Mail’s Kate Hammer – ” If open concept was a flop, why are we going back?”

Futurists like Nair are resurrecting the Open Concept School and presenting that model of school design as the key to re-engineering schools for 21st century learning, preparing students for the Digital Workplace. His firm, based in Minneapolis, MN, has designed 400 schools in 36 different countries, and is now establishing a beachhead in Western Canada.  Nair and his partner Randy Fielding have completely sold the Regina Public Schools on the idea and are building one in Vancouver, Lord Kitchener Elementary School.

The new Open Concept Schools touted by Fielding Nair International are based explicitly upon “education design principles for tomorrow’s schools.”  Classroom-based schools are considered a “relic” of the Industrial Revolution, and they are seeking to re-invent schools to promote critical thinking, collaboration, and flexibility among students. The first six of the dozen underlying principles reaffirm the return of “progressive education” ideas in a new guise: “1) personalized; 2) safe and secure, 3) inquiry-based, 4) student-centered, 5) collaborative, and 6) interdisciplinary. ”  Grafted onto the list are: “7) rigorous and hands-on, 8) embodying a culture of excellence and high expectations, 9) environmentally conscious, 10) connected to the community, 11) globally networked, and 12) setting the stage for lifelong learning.”

The Fielding Nair schools, and others of similar design, are visually impressive, but largely based upon contemporary design theory rather than school-based research. One of Canada’s few school design academics, Dr. Neil Gislason, author of Building Innovation, is skeptical about the firm’s claims and the likelihood of ready teacher acceptance.  He finds the new design environments, like the old Open Concept model, to be too susceptible to exterior noise, distractions, and disciplinary interruptions.  Today, with the higher proportion of “special needs” children, he sees great potential for distractions.

School design architects like Nair are inclined to base their designs upon the “form follows function” principle. Perhaps that is why, whatever the intention, the new designs tend to conform with so-called “progressive” learning theories and to undervalue the need for more contained learning spaces better suited to direct instruction and knowledge-based pedagogy.  They also completely ignore or are oblivious to the many studies documenting the decline and fall of “open concept” schools and classrooms from 1968 until 1979.

Open area school design is making a comeback, in spite of the evidence that it failed miserably three decades ago. Most of the initial research on open area learning was driven by its proponents and it virtually evaporated in the late 1970s when teachers and parents intervened to undo the damage inflicted by such “experiments” with open, largely unsupervised or regulated  “learning spaces.”

What happened to  restore order to those chaotic and “learn at your own pace” classroom environments?  Regular classroom teachers, supported by parents, asserted their autonomy and showed remarkable ingenuity in fashioning “purposeful learning environments” out of the seeming chaos.

One British Columbia teacher, M. Costa, has described the response in the trenches of teaching.  Writing in Educational Insights (March 2004), Costa artfully described the “teacher adaptations” rendering open area schools suitable for teaching students much more effectively. “The lack of walls and the absence of barriers,” he wrote,  proved unbearable in many schools as “noise” was “amplified through sheer aggregation.”  Voices, moving desks, cabinet doors opening, footsteps, pencil sharpening, PA announcements, cries, shouts, and laughter made it next-to-impossible for students or teachers to concentrate on their lessons.  Teachers responded instinctively, creating partitions, hiving-off quiet areas, and successfully lobbying for the return of self-contained classrooms.

Curricular programs that demand effective teaching, quiet reflection, and analysis will never go out of fashion, especially with today’s parents. Special needs children also thrive in quiet, safe, and secure learning environments free from student traffic, noise, and distractions. Taken together, academically able students and “special needs” kids represent a significant proportion of today’s students and they will continue to thrive better in smaller, contained classrooms where the focus is on learning not fraternizing with your peers.

Why are Classroom-Based Schools under attack, again, in public education? Will the “Learning Suite” design models ever supplant the traditional classroom, especially in Canadian high schools? Why in the world are regular classroom teachers rarely consulted in the initial design of today’s schools?  Why do school design architects like Fielding and Nair simply ignore the lessons of the past?

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