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Big Value from Small Schools (Joe Nathan)

Last month, in the huge city of Chicago, educators gathered to discuss the values and value of small public schools, like those found in many rural Minnesota communities. People from all over the U.S., and a few from Great Britain, generally agreed that smaller schools work better for many youngsters.

Convened by the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation, educators and philosophers considered the connection between values and evidence in education. As Michael McPherson, Spencer Foundation president pointed out, “we need much more discussion of the connections between these two.” I agree.

Millions of dollars from the U.S. Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have and are being given out to help growing numbers of urban and suburban students attend small schools, or small schools within schools. Why?

Studies in Georgia, Ohio, Montana and Texas found that attending smaller schools helped reduce the impact of poverty. A federally funded review of research by Professor Mary Anne Raywid found several years ago, the value of small schools in increasing achievement, graduation rates, student, parent and family satisfaction and improving student behavior has been “confirmed with a clarity and a level of confidence rare in the annals of education research.”

Offering a vast array of courses does not mean that most students are well prepared for college. And small schools are not necessarily more expensive than large schools, especially when graduation rates are included. That’s because when similar students – rural, urban or suburban are compared, graduation rates are higher in smaller high schools. Professor Anthony Bryk of the University of Chicago has found a “dis-economy of scale” in many large schools. And Cincinnati’s KnowledgeWorks Foundation in Cincinnati concluded that rural consolidations can end up costing more money than they save.

Over the last several years, Congress has allocated millions of dollars to help create new small schools, and small schools within large buildings. That’s in part because students are safer in smaller schools.

This does NOT mean that all small schools are great, and that all big schools are bad. Professor John Goodlad wrote, “It is not impossible to have a good large school; it is simply more difficult.”

Unquestionably teachers have a huge impact. Many at last week’s conference stressed the importance of respecting and honoring excellence teachers, and using them to help other teachers improve their skills.

This year, the Center for School Change, where I work, is looking carefully at some of Minnesota’s best small schools. We’re defining ‘best” as schools that have a low percentage of graduates who take remedial courses on entering Minnesota public college and universities. Naturally I’ll be sharing the results.

Americans often love big – whether it is in malls, movies or sports stadiums. Last month’s conference encouraged us to use values and evidence as try to improve schools. As Joseph Kahne, Dean of the Mills College School of Education reminded us, “the way things are is not the way they always were, nor the ways they must be.”

Joe Nathan, a former public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.  This article originally appeared here.


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