Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Reviewed in "Improving Schools"

Michael and Susan Klonsky (2008) Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society
Routledge ISBN 0 415 96123 8 £14.99 208 pages

Mark Berends, Matthew Springer and Herbert Walberg, eds (2008)
Charter School Outcomes Lawrence Erlbaum ISBN 0 8058 6222 6 £21.99 300 pages

Reviewed by Terry Wrigley, University of Edinburgh

One of the key differences between secondary education in the UK and USA concerns school size. Across Britain, the common assumption is that secondary schools below about 800 students aren’t really viable. The average secondary school size in England grew from 820 to 1000 between 1992 and 2002 (Newman et al., 2006), though at the end of this period 29 per cent of secondary schools still had fewer than 800. There has been little policy interest in small schools, though small size is often used as the pretext for closure and (increasingly) privatization. Ironically, those who make this argument seem unaware that in PISA-prizewinning Finland there are few secondary schools with more than 500 students, and half are below 300.

The few UK-based research studies point to some attainment disadvantages of smaller but also of larger than average schools, but this is slight and sometimes incestuous in its citation. Spielhofer et al. (2002) in their empirical study acknowledge that this may be due to the quasi-market system of English schools, especially in urban areas, which seems plausible: the publication of league tables and their impact on parental choice
systematically leads towards school rolls declining in schools that have lower attainment than their neighbours, even if this is caused by socio-economic factors. Thus, it is probably relatively lower attainment which leads to smaller schools rather than the reverse.

This is in contrast to the many US-based studies that associate smaller size with higher attainment, particularly for poorer and ethnic minority students, and that point to an improved ethos and social development for all kinds of students in smaller schools. There are clear parallels to school-within-school or year-group structures in (already quite small) Norwegian and Swedish schools.

The USA has seen a remarkable movement towards small schools. Some of these replace existing schools, while others are the result of restructuring large high schools to make several schools-within-schools. It is surprising that England’s policy-makers, who have borrowed so much from the USA, have such little interest in the small-school movement.

For an outsider it is difficult to disentangle the question of small schools from the Charter School reform, and there is substantial overlap. In brief, Charter Schools are publicly funded but privately managed schools. There are already 4000 in 40 states, with heavy concentrations in some politically conservative areas and states. Many are small but others aren’t. They vary from community-run schools with progressive teaching teams and curricula to chains of schools run by edu-businesses. It is important for English educators to understand this, since they seem identical to England’s City Academies, which are also publicly funded but privately run. This controversial programme has hit many obstacles and much resistance. Significantly, the English government set a price tag on these by requiring academy ‘sponsors’ (i.e. the private management) to contribute £2,000,000, thus precluding more progressive community based initiatives.

Michael and Susan Klonsky’s book helps enormously in understanding the relationship between the small school reform and Charter Schools. They present a revealing account of ‘two trains running’, the drive towards smaller secondary schools on the one hand, and a business takeover of schooling on the other. They are committed advocates of small schools, tracing the origins of this movement to the Freedom Schools and Citizenship Schools of the 1960s civil rights campaign. They see them as a re-invention of Deweyan progressivism in the Information Age. They emphasize the need for community among students and closer student–teacher relationships, as well as the professional learning community of staff. Staff were empowered to rethink education and respond to the challenge of ‘savage inequalities’ (Kozol, 1991). There is currently
enormous diversity of small schools, often as small as 200 or 300, supported by such networks as the Coalition of Essential Schools.

The drive towards small schools has attracted extensive support, from the libertarian left to big city councils and global businesses. Though some of the business support has been benign and hands-off, the Klonskys describe an accelerating process of privatization, in terms of both control and a redirection of educational aims. The Klonskys tell a powerful story of the corporate takeover of public schooling, involving some of the world’s biggest corporations. These include the gigantic Wal-Mart, through its Walton Foundation. The earlier progressive orientation has been undermined by the Neo-Cons, though often sheltering behind a pseudo-progressive rhetoric. Thus the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools, sponsored byWalton,
are singled out as an example of ‘the most mind-numbing and cultish’ charter schools. Particularly widespread in low-income neighbourhoods, such schools seem bent on disciplining and exhorting the poor rather than developing human potential (much likeWal-Mart as a workplace with its relentless company cheers and deadend jobs). (Liza Featherstone, writing in The Nation, quoted on page 110)

The authors also raise questions about a recent change in direction of the Gates charitable foundation, which originally gave hands-off support to a range of models of small school and schools-within-schools, but appears now to be committed to the closure and replacement (privatization) rather than restructuring of existing schools. Good examples are given of supposedly not-for-profit organizations sub-contracting
schools to for-profit management companies to overcome the terms of the charter. Many of the Charter Schools, far from empowering staff, have forbidden union organization.

The school reform has simultaneously been distorted and undermined by the so-called No Child Left Behind policy. Under duress from the NCLB, the district (Chicago) pulled the rug out from under this first wave of school reform, and all traditional schools were put on a strict testprep regimen. Across the city, principals were told to discontinue small-schools initiatives and to focus instead on test preparation. However, the small-
movement had gone too far and attracted too much investment and popular support to turn back… Surviving small schools were pressured to give up many of their innovations and conform to standardized, and even scripted, modes of instruction and assessment. (pages 39–40)

The situation is also complicated because some city councils are strongly backing small school reforms in order to retain schools within the public sector and keep Corporate America at bay. There have been contradictions between city bureaucracies and the dynamics of small-school foundation. The book includes a case study of a large high school whose staff were simply informed by letter that their school was to be broken up into smaller schools, causing massive resentment and the failure of the restructuring. The Klonskys call for a return to the original aims and direction of small-school reform. They remind us that the reform was never just about size, but was about rethinking the nature of education and strengthening professional initiative and control. According to Professor Michelle Fine of City University New York, many of the new small schools have become ‘big schools in drag’.

All too many small schools have the same authoritarian principals, disempowered and uninspired educators, dubious high-stakes tests, and Eurocentric curricula as the large schools they were designed to replace. (Fine, quoted on page 92) The other book reviewed here (Berends et al.) is a less exciting read but important in
its own way. It examines some of the claims that Charter Schools are more successful than public schools, and advises caution. The earlier chapters consider carefully the flaws in some school effectiveness research which doesn’t take important factors into account. For example, it looks at the various reasons why pupils may be transferred by their parents to a Charter School, leading to differences in prior attainment or progress,
and involving different degrees of parental and pupil engagement. It also reviews quantitative research on a range of issues such as engagement, personnel policy, wage setting and management.

The case studies in the final section focus on areas with high concentrations of Charter Schools, and conclude that overall the experiment has not succeeded. They also show that they have tended to lead to greater racial segregation. For example:
Our results from California show that charter schools generally perform on par with or slightly below the achievement levels of traditional public schools, they have not closed the achievement gaps for minorities, and they have not had the expected competitive effects on traditional public schools. (page 190)

* * *
It is useful to read these books in conjunction with Small Schools and Urban Youth (Conchas and Rodriguez, 2008), which illustrates some of the tensions and differences between school ‘designs’. Their book, based on three case studies, shows how internal divisions can, in the worse cases, lead to inequality rather than overcoming it (for example, when one ‘academy’ or internal division has higher status and requires good
skills levels for admission). This book, like the earlier High Schools on a Human Scale (Toch, 2003), also contains many inspiring accounts of innovative and successful small schools.

Book Reviews 281 Improving Schools
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