Big or Small Schools? What’s really going on?

Full Disclosure: I am the intellectual product of small schools!  I went to a College that has an enrollment of about 300 students, and my cohorts in the two graduate programs I attended were 7 and 13 students respectively.  The “small school thing” worked out for me particularly as an undergraduate.  

But conceptually, it never made sense to me that smaller schools necessarily produce a better education for every student, every time.  The flaw in thinking that small schools are superior for learning is based on the critical assumption that a smaller school will provide better instruction.  At best, this is an assumption that requires reflection and critical thought.  I, for one, can imagine an ineffectual teacher in both a large or small institution providing equally poor instruction in both settings!

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Which begs the question — if the size of the institution does not necessarily lead to a better education, then what does?  It seems reasonable that the answer would have something to do with the quality of the instruction and the teachers who provide that instruction.  

To this point, there was an interesting article about Brockton High School (Massachusetts) in The New York Times on September 27th entitled, “4,100 Students Prove ‘Small is Better’ Rule Wrong” which also cites a Harvard Study on the “Achievement Gap” that included Brockton’s High School.  

Brockton High was in trouble in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.  The article points to changes in the state’s secondary education standards:

Massachusetts had instituted a new high school exit exam in 1993, and passing it would be required to graduate a decade later. Unless the school’s culture improved, some 750 seniors would be denied a diploma each year, starting in 2003.

With the school in a potentially disastrous position, the teachers acted:

Dr. Szachowicz [the current principal] and Paul Laurino, then the head of the English department — he has since retired — began meeting on Saturdays with any colleagues they could pull together to brainstorm strategies for improving the school.

 The group eventually became known as the school restructuring committee, and the administration did not stand in the way. The principal “just let it happen,” the Harvard report says.

Among other things the committee,

put together a rubric to help teachers understand what good writing looks like, and began devoting faculty meetings to teaching department heads how to use it. The school’s 300 teachers were then trained in small groups.

These weren’t just the English teachers, but included every educator including math and science teachers and “even guidance counselors.”

This story is definitely worth reading!  But I think the real story isn’t so much about the controversy over “small or big” schools.  No, I think the deeper story is in this line in case you missed it.:

…meeting on Saturdays [emphasis added] with any colleagues they could pull together to brainstorm strategies for improving the school.

On Saturdays!  This story is really about teachers who empowered themselves and changed and are changing their world!


2 responses to “Big or Small Schools? What’s really going on?

  1. Jonathan Groves


    Thanks for sharing this story. Among high schools, this one is quite a big one. Among colleges, it would be considered quite small, so a similar story about success in big colleges would be good.

    I have always believed that the quality of teachers’ instruction matters more than school size though small size can be a big advantage. No huge classes of 100 or 200 or even 600 or more students in one lecture hall. Classes that huge are not good for most students because the teacher cannot give individual attention to students. However, not all big colleges have classes that large, of course, but there is no guarantee that a large college will avoid them. Small ones will.

    Teachers meeting on Saturdays to try to improve education: Now that’s a good sign! Teaching is not just a job for those kinds of teachers.

    It does not surprise me that many of the teachers needed assistance with incorporating writing into their teaching. Not all of us were trained to be writing teachers.

    The rising test scores over the years are good signs, but I personally am far more interested in searching deeper than that for determining how good their education is. Standardized tests tend to be shallow and very narrow-minded and cannot include the real kinds of questions and problems that students need to know how to answer or solve. Certain essential learning objectives for mathematics, such as explaining reasoning and writing a mathematical solution that makes sense and uses correct language and notation cannot be tested via the typical standardized exams. Similar arguments apply for other subjects, not just for mathematics. That’s why I think these exams focus on the shallow stuff. And the same ones who insist that these standardized exams are enough to test students’ learning in K-12 are often educational conservatives who think that traditional education–the way Dad and Granddad was taught in school–is just okie dokie, but I have noted lots of flaws in this old style of American education, at least in mathematics. At least my experiences on Math-Teach tell me this.

    Math-Teach is riddled with extremist educational conservatists who hate innovation, and they are also the same ones who worship these standardized tests. My search for innovating math education is clearly poison to them, and their response: Find whatever excuses they can to attack and insult me. One of them said earlier today that my attacks on NCLB and Race to the Top are just excuses for me to avoid responsibility for the problems in K-12 American education. Education is often a messy, dirty field to work in, especially when you have to deal with extremists everywhere who enjoy fighting and slandering each other more than trying to identify problems and take action to fix them. The name “Math Wars” is certainly not an exaggeration in the least bit!

    Jonathan Groves

  2. Jonathan and Will,
    You both called attention to the key component in any effective teaching environment, large or small schools, large or small classes, inclusive classrooms, etc. Unless instructors come up with innovative ways to tap into the creativity of their students and actually teach them how to learn, not merely to regurgitate information, our schools are doomed repeat the same ineffective patterns of teaching and learning. Thank goodness for the internet and so many available resources. Now we need to allow students to go and explore, to become pioneers in their own virtual worlds and enable them to become their own teachers in a sense. We can point the way and provide tools; they must apply what we provide to their own real world experiences.

    As a Composition and English instructor, I learned long ago that it is my job to present the best materials possible to assist students on their educational journeys, but ultimately we are a learning team and they also have to participate in the process.

    Great topic to ponder!


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