Jun 23, 2008

smaller schools aren't better schools

On the heels of Ryan's series on diplomas comes this analysis of Oregon's small high school experiment. Backed by the Gates Foundation, districts created 400-student academies, hoping the smaller schools would cut dropout rates and prepare more youngsters for college.

Didn't happen.
In Hillsboro, Ore., Liberty High broke into small schools four years ago, but its dropout rate remains the highest in a district with three other traditional high schools. Despite progress in getting more students to take college-prep courses, three in five Liberty graduates fall short of entry standards for the University of Oregon — the district's definition of college-ready.

Twyla Baggarley, who graduated from Liberty this month, passed Advanced Placement calculus as a junior but worries that she might not be primed for college after a lackluster senior year. Tired of teachers who taught straight from the textbook, she chose to take just one full-year core course, AP English, and padded her schedule with photography and two periods of PE.

She and other students say administrators seemed so caught up in tinkering with the small schools' structure that they didn't pay enough attention to the quality of teaching.
It's the program's a-ha moment, but for me, it's a no-duh moment. Smaller schools, or, for that matter, smaller classes, make zero difference if the pedagogical model stays the same. Canned, derivative, disengaging teaching and curriculum will be as ineffective in a school of 400 as they are in a school of 4,000.

At least the foundation is learning from failure:
This fall, Gates probably will switch the focus of its grants for fixing high schools to target teaching and raise teacher quality, says Vicki Phillips, who directs Gates' education initiatives.
Repeat after me: there is no single panacea for education.


Anonymous said...

There is no single Rx for better education -- but an important step would be for school districts to have better options to move out those few individuals who really should not be educators. One year one of my kids had five teachers who were outstanding and one who was. . . ghastly. Guess which one warped and perverted each day? And, despite many complaints from many students and families, that teacher is STILL in the classroom.
Educators DO need protection from principals or parents with inappropriate agendas -- but better schools will not come until the worst of the worst employees can be shown the door -- We hang onto problems MUCH too long.

calebteaches said...

Reported "panaceas" usually end up as snake oil - and it looks like that's what happened here.

I went to high school in Hillsboro, and Liberty's first principal really did a lot of damage. From what I hear, the faculty never really bought into the idea of smaller academies (not to mention the students' reactions). Ideas simply don't work unless you can get people to buy in and commit - and even then, nothing is absolute.

I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the only way to really fix education is to (a) find better teachers and (b) train teaching candidates better.