Education Week has a live chat on school size coming up, and gives some good links to recent background articles on current thinking on this topic. From EdWeek's newsletter today:

---start of quote:---
Live Chat

Topic: Making Big Schools Smaller
When: Tuesday, Oct. 30, from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Eastern time
Where: (link...)

Submit questions in advance here:

Please join us for a live chat to talk about how large schools can be converted into smaller learning communities.

Much has been written about this topic for years and debates are ongoing about whether converting large schools into smaller learning communities results in improvements in student learning and teaching. But the guests for this chat argue that if such efforts are executed properly, they are likely to improve schools.

What models of success should schools follow? What missteps have been taken by schools that tried to transform bigger schools into smaller learning communities and failed? How can schools work to avoid such mistakes? And what are the financial costs of going from big to small?

For more information, read these related articles:
• Commentary: The Not-So-Inevitable Failure of High School Conversions:
• High Schools Nationwide Paring Down:

Guests include:
Lewis Cohen,the executive director of the Coalition of Essential Schools; and
Stacy Spector, the principal of the Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment, one of three autonomous small schools converted from a large, comprehensive high school in SeaTac, Wash.
===end of quote---


OneT - how about some clarification for me, OK?

I'd really like to know what is meant in this discussion by "small" schools.

I understand, and at least somewhat concur, in your stated premise that small schools are (or can be) good, and that big is not necessarily good, etc.

But school size is relative. To many in our county, RCHS (Kingston) is a big high school. However, to many in our state and nation, it is a small, neighborhood-sized school. See what I'm trying to get at?

I also posit that big school does not necessarily translate into big classes or even a totally impersonal approach. Consider a "big" school broken up somewhat like universities are, e.g. School of Arts & Sciences, Liberal Arts, Science & Technology, Medical Arts & Sciences, etc,etc. With clusters of classrooms of appropriate size appropriately clustered near each other, etc. I'm aware that sub-specialization can be carried too far. Balance is somewhat on my mind :-) But I think you can get a concept of what I mean.

So, if we're "paring down" - what are we paring down to and from what?

I'm about as wary of a non-specific overly general goal of small schools as I am of a non-specific overly general goal of big schools.

Can you help me here, kiddo?


Some issues from this discussion...

Folks - I "attended" this online chat. Very interesting. What I've pasted in here is long. But it's not hard reading. Check it out, and let's discuss - in smaller chunks. There is much worthwhile for thinking in these questions and responses.

Below are some germane quotes from the discussion OneT referred us to (this is NOT all the discussion):

"Getting a district to overcome the bureaucratic imperatives of their central office is probably the most important barrier to surmount."

"Conversion efforts are also likely to fail if they are seen as stand alone experiments instead of part of a larger district vision of school improvement. To realize the benefits of knowing students well, site staff must have the autonomy and flexibility to adjust their program to the needs of the specific students they serve. This requires autonomy over budgets, curriculum, staffing and facilities. Districts are not generally set up to treat different schools differently so they too must be committed to changing practice to support these new types of schools."

"But two key points I would make are, first don’t embark on this work without adequate planning time. This involves creating clarity on why change is necessary, involving all stakeholders especially student and parents, in developing your mission, and getting district level commitments and processes in place before the conversion takes place. Secondly, high schools have a special place in the heart of many people in the community. They often attended these schools and expect them to continue unchanged. Therefore, it is imperative that community organizing and education take place so that there is broad based support for these difficult changes."

QUESTION: What essential steps should a school with a rich history (over 128 years)take to provide a transition from a large school (2,900 students)to an SLC that will not compromise the long established values held by the community?
RESPONSE: It is essential that when converting from a comprehensive school into a small one, we do not need to throw the baby out with the bath water. There very well might be shared practices in place that are serving the needs of some students. The question really needs to be: In what ways are we serving ALL students? When working from this premise, the conversation is less about holding on to old traditions and programs and more about developing new rituals and practices that meet each student at his or her place of need and moves their learning forward. In order for this to occur, the very best principals and teacher leaders need to be in place so that the ways of "doing school" are fundamentally changed to focus on the work of student thinking and understanding, rather than on task completion and student compliance.

QUESTION: How can the small school experience be produced in a large high school after it's divided into "smaller" learning communities, when: 1. the building population remains the same (at about 130% capacity), 2. the school budget is reduced, and 3. your student population has a greater percentage of high-need students (special ed, and ELL) than most small schools. 4. class sizes remain at 34 students? Where does the "smaller" come into play?
RESPONSE: This question directly addresses every need and concern that my school faces on a daily basis. "Smaller" comes in to play by making sure each student connects with multiple adults throughout their time w/us that know them well and are their advocates and staunchest supporters and mentors. As a group we have met these challenges head-on and overcome many of them by acting upon the following: we developed a clear and compelling theory of action that placed improved instructional practice as the basis for which all other work and decisions would follow. From this shared vision and core set of beliefs we developed structures and practices that are always relentlessly and intentionally connected to improved teaching and learning.We eliminated extraneous practices and expenditures that did not support a focus on improved pedagogy, we ensured that we provided regular and on-going ways for teachers to work together on shared practices and approaches that have proven to increase student achievement, we ensured that time and learning opportunities for students are structured to result in their application and transference to a variety of contexts, we use a backward planning design to scaffold and differentiate learning for all students, including students with special needs and those acquiring English as a second language, we are transparent in modeling the thinking and process we engage in as adults learners that are also applicable to student learning, we utilize CES' 10 Common Principles, consistent habits of heart and mind, common approaches such as a balanced literacy model, and we constantly assess and monitor learning as matched to identified outcomes so that we can adjust and modify our instruction in flexible and manageable ways to meet the varied needs of students. It isn't always easy or convenient; often it is messy but the pint is we are always working to make sure that what we do meets the needs of students first. Our kids are at the core of everything we say and everything we do.

QUESTION: What lessons can already small schools learn from the efforts to scale down larger schools?
RESPONSE: There is much for these schools to learn. As I have said, smallness in and of itself, does not constitute the change we are advocating. There are many historically small schools that don’t behave differently from other traditional schools and don’t get any better results. The process of determining how best to use smallness to improve schools has many lessons for already small schools. How to use smallness to promote a coherent educational program, a shared pedagogical stance, and teacher collaboration are just a few of the valuable lessons to draw on. Managing the change process and involving all stakeholders in decision making are things that successful conversion do well and that those who are small but who haven’t taken advantage of their smallness can learn from as well.

QUESTION: Where can I find evidence that small schools have better results (how are results defined?) than large schools AFTER CONTROLLING for class size?
RESPONSE: Kathleen Cotton’s New Small Learning Communities: Findings From Recent Literature available online at (link...) is one of the best sources of small schools research. She cites Howley, C.; Strange, M.; and Bickel, R. “Research about School Size and School Performance in Impoverished Communities” as one such study showing that school size has a more beneficial effect on achievement than class size.

QUESTION: How do we create small schools without limiting opportunities? I understand the benefits of small schools for the struggling student, however what methods work best to serve both that struggling student and the succeeding student who desires a variety of learning opportunities?
RESPONSE: I work from a notion that all students have the desire to learn, and that all have hopes and dreams of knowing passion and success in their daily lives. Therefore, I believe a small school by philosophy and by design has the most potential to serve both the student whose learning needs to accelerate to demonstrate basic competency and the student whose learning needs to be accelerated to demonstrate advanced mastery. By focusing on 'depth over breadth' a small school can best ensure that students have the time and opportunities to demonstrate proficiency in ways beyond those assessed through standardized tests. We use exhibitions of student learning, culminating projects and presentations, and student led conferences as opportunities for students to use their minds well and apply and transfer learning from one context to another.

QUESTION: I know that small has the capacity to be beneficial in terms of building relationships and working from strengths, however how do you screen for staff that can really make the investment and use this tio advance students? what are some of the criteria you have used to be successful?
RESPONSE: This is a very important question. The type of teaching that can take maximum advantage of small learning communities is not, generally, the type teaching that our teachers have been prepared for. Our experience is that we have to invest in building the capacity of the people we have rather than focusing primarily on finding the right people. This means that small learning communities must have control over their professional development to tailor it to the specific needs of their staff and the needs of the students they serve. Having said that, it is important at a minimum, for small learning communities to have the ability to select staff on the basis of a shared commitment to the schools pedagogy. Your experience in Boston, with the pilot schools is a real model in this regard.

QUESTION: Please respond to the following statement, "The size of the school doesn't matter, what really matters is what and how the people in the school are organized to care and support the students."
RESPONSE: I don't necessarily agree that it is in how schools are organized for learning that gets the best results. To me this is still just structure. I believe that what matters is that structure and organization should serve the purpose of the work. Our schools is organized and structured to improve instructional practice that directly results in improved student learning. When this remains our focus then time, opportunity and structures find a way to organize around this guiding principle.

QUESTION: If we assume that breaking large high schools into smaller learning communities makes for educational success, is it measured more by standards and testing or by some other, more difficult-to-measure criteria like independence, happiness, ability-to-earn etc?
RESPONSE: Thank you for asking this important question. We strongly believe that we are using measurements designed for the schools we have instead of the schools we need. Nonetheless, standards and testing are the currency of the land and available research has judged small schools to outperform their traditional counterparts in this regard, though the data for conversion small schools is limited. In addition, however, we are looking at other measures. CES in particular is interested not only in college going rates but college success rates. Our New York affiliate center has been engaged in a longitudinal study showing small school graduates are faring better in college. And our Minnesota affiliate center has a study looking at hope, happiness and resiliency among graduates of its small schools. Summaries of these studies are available on our website at (link...)

QUESTION: In my community, the powers that be are looking at making the high school with disproportionately more high risk students bigger so that it is equal in size to the more affluent school. What else could a community consider to enhance the experience of disadvantaged high school students?
RESPONSE: If, as a nation, we are going to truly close the academic achievement gap, then I believe a community needs to look at issues of equity to ensure that the needs of every student are being met. Leaders must be prepared to address issues of disproportionate distribution of access, opportunity, time, staffing and resources. I would question if decision are made research based, data driven, practice proven, and value added or if they are made based upon outdated notions that equal translates to equitable. When the focus remains on deep personalization and improved instructional practice that results in increased student performance, then I think communities are best positioned to make difficult decisions in the best interests of students and not of adults.

QUESTION: I'd like to know of any research that directly and conclusively points to the academic benefits of small schools vs. large. Also, what's the biggest mistake schools and districts make when converting to small schools?
RESPONSE: Again I want to refer you to Kathleen Cotton’s survey of the available research to be found here: (link...) . To give you the gist of this report here’s Cotton quoting small schools researcher Mary Anne Raywid who says the superiority of small schools has been established “with a clarity and at a level of confidence rare in the annals of education research” On the second part of your question I would argue that focus on structure over instruction is the biggest mistake schools make and that districts that think they can change schools without changing the way the district operates are unlikely to realize their goals.

QUESTION: How does one ensure the success of the program when in one building there can be principals with different educational philosophies and attitudes towards the handling of discipline problems?
RESPONSE: To the extent possible you need to create a distinct space, ideally contiguous for each school, so that visitors to your interconnected schools will feel like they have left one school and entered another. In addition it is important to establish a building wide decision making structure so that the principals or others have a place to make shared agreements about the space. To quote our book on this subject, this body needs “to create common expectations around hallway noise level, skipping classes, attendance and tardiness because those issues affect the climate, sense of space, and the ability to shape relationships at every school.” The challenge is to create ways to hold each other accountable for these common expectations.

QUESTION: Can small schools within schools be truly heterogeneous and non-tracked? How do you account for students with special needs and talented and gifted students within the setting?
RESPONSE: At ACE we do not have tracked classes. We believe that all of our classes are taught at rigorous levels and in such a manner as to prepare all students to have choice in their post secondary life- be it college, career and citizenship. To this end we use an inclusion, co-teaching model to provide the necessary supports, differentiation and scaffolds necessary to support each student at their place of need and move them forward.For some students this might be an extended literacy or math block, a double dose of content, one on one and small group mentoring from student learning ambassadors, participation in before and after school programs, or an intensive coaching cycle. We view our work through the lens that if we are addressing and meeting the needs of our most struggling learners that we are also most likely meeting the needs of all students. As we assess and monitor learning, where we find this is not happening, we have the flexibility of being small to make the necessary mid course corrections needed so that we can meet their needs.

QUESTION: How does funding impact the Small Schools Initiative? It seems to me that the places in which these schools are most needed, are also the places that are the hardest pressed to be able to afford them.
RESPONSE: First, I believe our social investment in education is inexcusably low when you see what other priorities are generously funded. Having said that, the places that need these approaches the most are currently spending funds without acceptable results. Small schools are certainly easier to initiate with additional funding streams but they have been created in places without these funding streams. What is involved is the will to abandon things that aren’t effective and rethink ones priorities. This may mean challenging various sacred cows such as the range of electives or extra curricular activities offered, or more ideally finding new ways to access these experiences for students. The point is we need to consider fundamentally different ways of doing things if we are going to address problems like are unacceptable drop out rate in urban schools.

QUESTION: There has been significant discussion regarding the benefits of dividing a large high school into a series of smaller schools. What are the major pitfalls which a school district must avoid when moving in th direction? What are the short-term benefits? What are the long-range benefits? Are there any economies of scale when moving from a large school to a number of small schools?
RESPONSE: Steve Fink, Executive Director of the Center for Educational Leadership, University of Washington, and Max Silverman, Executive Director of Secondary Learning for Highline School District answer this question best in a recent article. Major pitfalls include, but are not limited to: the conversion process drags on for more than three years, failure to hire exceptional instructional leaders, a lack of instructional knowledge, skill, and vision at the district and site level, the avoidance of community unrest, failure to staff schools with the appropriate mix of teachers who can get all students ready for college, career and citizenship, and failure to dismiss staff who are not successful teaching students. Short and long term goals are best reached when these pitfalls are addressed. Economy of scale depends are several factors: belief in equitable staffing, allocating money and resources to areas of greatest need, and being clear about how resources are accessed and utilized to support improved instructional practice. Economy of scale means understanding that small schools can't do it all. We need to identify what is most important to us and focus on that. Smart, strategic, and intentional attention needs to be paid to building the capacity of adults to meet the needs of students.

QUESTION: Our small schools within the large schools experiment is floundering. Perhaps further segregating kids already segregating themselves by race and gang is a bad idea. Has it really worked in other poor areas? Is the failure because we sometimes schedule students into other "schools"?
RESPONSE: We think student choice is important to establish student ownership and buy-in to for new small schools. However, it is also necessary to develop a student assignment process that prevents academic, racial, gender, language or other segregation. There is a well documented history of the success of these efforts particularly for poor students and students of color. I think you are on to something when you acknowledge that you don’t really maintain the integrity of your schools and allow students to cross over. When students are known well and have a caring, knowledgeable adult who is invested in their success great things can happen. Cross over makes it more difficult to foster these kinds of relationships.

QUESTION: There is a public perception that smaller schools means smaller class sizes - yet that is neither the intent nor the outcome. Are we prioritizing small schools over smaller classrooms? Are ninth grade houses better? Single gender houses? Grade level houses? Are K-6 Elementaries better? K-8? 7-9 Junior Highs? 6-8 Middles? Three or four year High Schools? Should college admission requirements and high school graduation requirements be the same? Should high school exit exams assess high school accomplishments - or middle school? Should SLC's be themed by subject and interest - or is Gryffindor and Slytherin better? Passporting anyone? What is the connection between the SLC and the larger school? We all want to separate these questions and answer them individually …but in reality they need to be answered together.
RESPONSE: This is the big question isn’t it? Our Essential schools movement began from the premise that the comprehensive high school was by the nature of its design incapable of meeting the needs of all of its students. This notion rejects the very idea of reform for reform implies fixing what is broken where what we wish to consider is how to replace that which is obsolete. Having arrived at this point it is then our duty to begin anew from the question “what is it that our students need to know and be able to do and how do we help them achieve this?” Having begun to answer this question with the simple idea that the purpose of schools is help students learn to use their minds well, we have identified small learning environments as the best vehicle for achieving this goal. That’s because we are looking at students as individuals with different needs and ways of learning and we think you need an approach that is flexible and responsive to each student whether low or high achieving by traditional measure. This philosophical stance does not lend itself to a one-size-fits-all best approach but instead requires multiple approaches for different circumstances and different local contexts. And this approach in turn calls for a whole new set of measures that are more aligned with the outcomes we need to be pursuing.

QUESTION: What lessons can already small schools learn from the efforts to scale down larger schools?
RESPONSE: There is much for these schools to learn. As I have said, smallness in and of itself, does not constitute the change we are advocating. There are many historically small schools that don’t behave differently from other traditional schools and don’t get any better results. The process of determining how best to use smallness to improve schools has many lessons for already small schools. How to use smallness to promote a coherent educational program, a shared pedagogical stance, and teacher collaboration are just a few of the valuable lessons to draw on. Managing the change process and involving all stakeholders in decision making are things that successful conversion do well and that those who are small but who haven’t taken advantage of their smallness can learn from as well.

Once they wade through it...

... and I assume they will - I'd be interested in hearing comments from Messrs. Nall and Overstreet.

Anybody else, for that matter.

I'm still chewing on my responses. They will NOT be as long as the post of the comments. They're not bad, though, when you break them down into individual sets of question with response.



Not so obvious at first glance is that they are not advocating a small school on a separate and distanced building, but rather a separate organizational unit, that may actually be contiguous with other small units which may function within an umbrella of the larger administrative entity.

I have no problem with that, and it may well be that we can have all of these "schools" at the Roane State Campus. This is actually how universities operate in a general sense.

OneT - I can't believe...

Nobody has had anything to say about ANY of the wide-ranging comments, questions & responses this discussion generated. Reckon they done said it all?

I thought the discussants raised some good questions (some I would have raised) on the issue of small schools or small school communities.

I thought WC's comment that they weren't necessarily advocating small schools literally was insightful. I got the same thing out of it. They were talking about some of the things I mentioned in my comment to you BEFORE the online discussion actually happened.

Ah well, we'll see...


Hang in there, RB! :)


I only speak for myself but can regretfully say I'm all tuckered out trying to keep up with September and October :) and November does not promise much respite.

Maybe some of RoaneViews' many lurkers will join the discussion? Please feel free to jump in, folks. It's actually fun! :)

Also, I haven't weighed in more again on these latest educational details in part because I was hoping my last month's proposal for partial virtualization of schools ((link...)) would generate at least a little comment. And my mention of a solution to the problem of raising math skills here ((link...)) also has no takers so far. Folks must still be mulling those over too. :)

These things take thought and research. The county could use more systems engineers. :)

Anyway, maybe I won't feel so worn out soon! "Hope springs...." :)

-- OneTahiti

Oh hey - you mean REAL life intervened?

ROFL! Trust me, after having completed a month in which I worked 2 weeks of 12hr night shifts! I understand.

So heck - lemme look at your links and see if I can rustle up something germane to add to them. Never let it be said that I ignored you :-)

And I agree - it takes time, effort - God knows it takes TIME for me to THINK - to respond to these things. I reckon this old fart just expressed himself to impatiently!

Mea culpa, mea culpa...


Lots of "REAL life" going around :)

Thanks, RB,

You weren't too impatient at all. It is only human after working hard to research and write a post to hope for a fast response. I know because I am often guilty of the same myself! :)

-- OneTahiti

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Lost Medicaid Funding

To date, the failure to expand Medicaid / TennCare has cost the State of Tennessee ? in lost federal funding.