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Archive for February, 2014

One of the most stimulating recent ‘think pieces,’  Houman Harouni’s  “What should a School be?has set the cat among the pigeons in the North American education world.  Originally published in The American Reader (Vol. 8, 2013), the Harvard researcher’s article essentially challenges educationists to think more broadly and seek fresh insights from outside their intellectual cocoons.  While many education observers claim that “the school system is broken,”  few actually stop to do what is known as a “deeper dive.”  In our post-modern era of globalization and connectivity, fewer still pause to ask whether the purpose of education should be completely subsumed by“dancing with robots.”

DancingwithRobotsEducation does matter but that is difficult to discern surveying the public debate over the current state and future of schooling.  Harouni, the agent provocateur, captures the  current dialectic in magical prose: “Whether test scores do or don’t measure learning; whether schools should be privatized; whether Wikipedia will replace the teacher; whether we will ever escape Algebra; whether we can measure the ways which kids of color ‘fail’ or ‘succeed’ on exams; whether to teach like a ‘champion,’ a ‘guide.’ or a ‘pirate’; whether the arts are a right or a privilege; all these questions owe their importance to the system of schooling that turned them into questions in the first place.” 

The entire North American education debate, Houman Harouni  contends, “keeps folding back into itself” because it accepts established parameters and is almost entirely based upon “self-referential questions” that perpetuate  “a system that has stagnated for seven generations.”  The promise of grace and salvation, in his view, is not enough to “justify the existence of the modern educational system.”  Leading philosophers of education from John Dewey to today’s ‘pedagodfathers’ , with few exceptions, “do a bang-up job of hiding their complacency behind idealistic cants on the potential of schooling.'”  While it endears them to educators, it is offered up to justify “the existence of schools as distinct spaces”  amid “the absolute dissolution of communities in urban areas.”

What is the purpose of schooling?  Contemporary platitudes are usually served up to answer this question expressing some variation on the theme of ‘preparing students for success in the competitive 21st century global world.’ Such statements are accepted at face value and anyone raising a question about its primacy is invariably ignored or dismissed as a ‘turn-back-the-clocker.’  This state of affairs alone demonstrates why the world needs more education thinkers and fewer technocrats.

Schools are vital civic and social institutions but schooling is never openly discussed unless it’s said to be “in crisis.” Education matters because five hours a day, five days a week, from September to June, children and youth are its captives, up to the age of 16 or 18 years.  At their best, public schools can  inspire student curiosity and instil civic responsibility; at their worst they become what John Taylor Gatto termed “weapons of mass instruction.”  For many education theorists, like Louis Althusser, they essentially serve to “reproduce social relations” and slot young people into jobs suited to their own social class. While schools play a vital societal role, Althusser correctly observed that “hardly anyone lends an ear to its music: it is so silent!”

Since the mid-1970s, Harouni claims that serious discourse about education was abandoned to ‘the educationists.‘ Cultural critics, sociologists, and outside scholars  simply “washed their hands of education.”  Progressive educators came to dominate the field, free to conduct research in pursuit of resources, and seemingly “not bothered by their seclusion.”  Today teachers, faculty of education students, and young researchers learn to show “open disdain for any opinion on education that doesn’t come from inside the field.”  Pointed questions are deflected with a wave of the hand and the dismissive statement, “but has she ever taught?”  Any economist or “crossover” academic is listened to politely, then safely ignored.

Today’s educationists thrive on their own isolationism. Political or sociological critiques that challenge the prevailing “liberal social order” or “progressive pedagogy” are not welcome inside the modern schoolhouse. This does  allow educationists to merely shrug-off the core contradictions of their practice. Student-centred learning and promoting student happiness, we are assured, can coexist with raising standards and expecting more from today’s students. Classes would be so much more creative if only we could rid them of student performance testing. It’s tempting to agree with Harouni that schooling has to be “built up as much as it needs to be torn down brick by brick.”

Progressive education as promoted by John Dewey’s later day disciples has always tended to see mass education as the cure for social inequities and underestimated the impact of the class division of labour.  Now progressive education is essentially ignoring what social critics term “the end of labour” and best represented by the slow disappearance of the eight hour work day.  Promoters of “21st century learning” see technology as the salvation and many now parrot “the rhetoric of international competition.”

Progressivism has spawned a new 21st century mutation. Today’s children must be schooled to survive and perhaps thrive “dancing with robots.”  The future success of North American “middle class children,” Frank Levy and Richard Murnane insist in Dancing with Robots (2013), will be determined by their preparedness for the changing “human labor market.”

Schooling, we are told, must adapt to the changing 21st century workplace. Does this sound familiar? Menial, unskilled job functions will be computerized and labour provided more cheaply in developing countries. Tomorrow’s economy will require three kinds of work: solving unstructured problems, working with new information, and carrying-out non routine tasks. Our educational future now rests upon our collective capacity to “sharply increase” the proportion of North American children with “the foundational skills needed to develop job-relevant knowledge and to learn efficiently over a lifetime.”

Educational futurists appropriating the rhetoric of progressivism and acting at the behest of “big data” and “big technology” are, somehow, preying on our weaknesses.  ‘Fresh thinking’ from “Third Way” researchers like Levy and Murnane, based at MIT and Harvard, seems to be trying to fill “the silence” in contemporary educational discourse. Critical  perspectives informed by Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Mis-Education and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) are simply being ignored or marginalized in the public domain.  Where critical, independent thinking perishes, schools do not normally thrive.

Preparing our kids for success is being reduced to “dancing with robots.”  And, for those who see a more noble calling for schooling, it is somehow disconcerting.  It’s time to ask “is that all?”

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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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