Small Schools are Beautiful

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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10 Responses

  1. Patrick Duffy says:

    Full disclosure: My wife is a high school teacher and I am a former school board member in a different district. Both are large districts.

    Every study I have seen (please correct me if you have seen otherwise) says that class size does not affect student performance unless the ratio is very low (I’m remember something like 14:1) or very high (I’m remembering over 40.) Therefore, unless you can get down very low on ratio, you may feel that you are doing something to improve education, but it isn’t going to actually affect anything.

    You are talking about ratios of 12 or 14 to 1, however, so that is very low. Unfortunately, there are huge financial barriers to going there. Private schools with ratios like that have tuition that normally approaches $15,000 per student per year and that isn’t normally the full cost, either (Fund raising being done to cover the shortfall) and that’s without the cost of special ed, busses, etc. [special ed typically eats about 1/4 of the budget.] Whether the federal government or the local government pays, they will still have to get the money from your taxes. You’re talking about roughly doubling the nation’s spending in this area.

    I see no political will to do that, particularly if it will only produce a marginal improvement. The teacher’s union does control the Democratic Party, but they are much more interested in higher pay and benefits for their current members than in expanding the number of members.

    Also understand that a lower student teacher ratio means that you need more classrooms. A lot of new classrooms and they aren’t cheap!
    If you believe that the Federal government’s money comes with no strings, you clearly haven’t heard of the golden rule. “Those who have the gold make the rules.” Even if they don’t have extensive rules in the beginning, they will down the road. Grandstanding Congressmen will be quick to hold hearings about this or that perceived shortfall in your performance and now we’ll have a new law to see that you do it their way, no exceptions.

    Most other countries that have national funding have a national curriculum, which is rigidly to be followed. The classic example is Japan, where teachers are expected to be on the same page of the same textbook every day, nationwide. (And look at their student achievement levels!) Do you really want to go there?

    I will also note that smaller classrooms AND smaller schools means fewer opportunities for the students. E.g. if you want to be in choir, and you are in a small school, there may not be enough other students interested in choir to form one. Science labs is another, similar issue for small schools.Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    What can we do to make the inner city more like Finland or Japan?Report

  3. E.D. Kain says:

    All good points, Patrick. Let’s see…

    Re: financial barriers – yes, hence “ideal” and yeah, I’m pretty well aware this is a pipe dream in a lot of ways. But it’s too bad. Spending on education is one area that really does pay off in the long run. And one area that absolutely needs our investment.

    I also understand that the federal money comes with strings, which is the catch of course. Again, ideally that’s what I’d like to see, and I think it could work. Yes, some national curricula would be a requirement, but that’s not the end of the world as long as there is breathing room for style and approach (i.e. not such strict adherence to arbitrary tests…)

    I addressed the small school/fewer opportunities problem briefly above but essentially with targeted or “magnet” schools kids could have focused learning and there would be schools for those who wanted to focus on choir or on baseball or whatever. Then, too, I think there is merit to the idea that schools could work together to provide extra-curricular activities.Report

  4. E.D. Kain says:

    What can we do to make the inner city more like Finland or Japan?

    Probably not a whole hell of a lot – but, we can intervene where corruption and dysfunction have essentially created inertia that locals simply can’t overcome. It sort of depends on what the problems are, though.Report

  5. Patrick Duffy says:

    If your description is a Platonic ideal and not expected to ever become reality, then, yes, sounds great. My greater concern than the level of spending is the level of importance that people put on education and that is not improved by spending. What I see is an on-going dumbing down of curriculums, because people can’t be bothered. There are a lot of distractions out there and the community tends to put inordinate importance on the peripheral and a correspondingly lower place for the heart of education. Home work not done, attendance okay, as long as I don’t have something else I’d rather do, and so forth. I’m not talking about the whole “kids who come from poor homes can’t succeed” thing (which is a cop out.) Rather, I see even blue collar, middle class and upper class families that place a low importance on educational success and that’s a dagger in the heart of our country’s future. Even the ambitious think first in terms of the formal measures (SAT scores, getting into the “right” schools, etc.) rather than learning, as in “knowing stuff.” Yes, there are always some kids who are super bright, but the average is slipping, in my humble opinion. I see a culture that says “Don’t be a geek,” rather than looking up to the successful, unless success is defined in terms of sports or entertainment.

    I would like to see more evaluation of schools in terms of value added. For example, I was on the board of a district that produced a lot of above average students by the 12th grade and the district staff just about broke their own arms, patting themselves on the back . But when they were tested in the 3rd and 5th grade, these were well above average kids. I don’t see school that take kids who are well above average and make them above average as being successful. On the other hand, there are schools that take kids who are in the 10th percentile and get them up to the 30th. No, they’re not at the 50th percentile, but they have made things better.Report

  6. E.D. Kain says:

    If your description is a Platonic ideal and not expected to ever become reality, then, yes, sounds great.

    Well – yes and no. I think it could become a reality. And I think it would be good, because I really do think that it’s not how much you spend but how you spend it (smaller classes for instance) that matters. I’m just very cynical that it’s very likely.

    Re: your other points – again, I agree. Measuring changes in performance is much more useful, and certainly we’ve started to devalue our priorities in this country. Education is one of those areas that is taking a back seat to – well – to pop culture I suppose. To consumerism. It’s sad. It’s the mark of a society in decline.Report

  7. Kyle R. Cupp says:

    I found that class size was more of an issue (at least for me) when grading and offering instruction on papers than it was during the time spent teaching in the classroom. I required my students to write several drafts of the same paper, so I spent a lot of time writing on their papers. The fewer students I had in the class, the more time I had to devote to each one.Report

  8. Kyle R. Cupp says:

    So I’m going to have to keep writing about this because I’m far from decided on any of these things. There are no clear or easy answers.

    I understand. I have pretty strong opinions about how I’d build or improve a school, but at the same time, I don’t think education is something I should be dogmatic about. What works in one place may not work in another. I believe my philosophy of education is right, but even so I wouldn’t want to impose it on the whole of the country. I’d rather see it and, at the same time, others tested at a local level and judged by their fruits. If an idea or practice proved successful, then it could be applied elsewhere while taking into consideration the particulars of each new school.Report

  9. Trumwill says:

    Fascinating. Despite howevermuch we’ve butted heads, we agree on a lot more than I might have figured EDK.

    I think that you’re placing insufficient weight on the importance of choice and testing. Some sort of accountability taken somewhere is crucial. As idyllic as the Finnish model is, it requires a degree of trust in educators that I simply don’t have.

    But beyond that, what you say sounds quite interesting.Report