Alarmed by high failure rates and primed by large foundation investments, urban districts from Los Angeles to New York City are breaking up low-performing high schools into small learning communities.
What's the Idea?
Statistics on dropouts, failure rates, and low student achievement all underscore the dismal condition of most large urban high schools. For students, such schools commonly offer impersonal environments and irrelevant, watered-down courses. Advocates for small learning communities argue that these problems cannot be solved without fundamentally restructuring the schools.
Drawing on the history of small alternative schools and schools within schools that have succeeded in creating more nurturing environments for students and their teachers, the notion of breaking large high schools into smaller units has found favor as a way to increase personalization, relevance and rigor of coursework, and teacher collaboration.
Although some small learning communities are newly created small schools, most result from converting large high schools into several subdivisions, which might be identified by a theme or become autonomous schools with their own administration and budget.
What's the Reality?
Under pressure from No Child Left Behind to "restructure" low-performing schools, urban districts find themselves with limited options. With the added incentive of substantial funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a growing number of districts are breaking up large low-performing high schools into small learning communities.
In most districts, schools can choose how they will reorganize themselves. Some turn to models developed by external consultants; others create their own designs. Either way, the territory is largely uncharted, and no particular strategy has demonstrated a proven track record on a large scale.
Converting large high schools to small learning communities is a mammoth undertaking: What is the curriculum? What happens to the orchestra? The football team? How are students matched to learning communities? Which community gets the calculus teacher? These decisions require lengthy preparation to engage teachers, students, and the community in thoughtful discussions. District pressure to move quickly can, and usually does, undermine the effort.
What's the Research?
Researchers have looked across a range of high schools of different sizes and asked whether size is associated with achievement and dropout rates. These studies produce mixed results. For example, Lee and Smith (1997) analyzed data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS:88) and found that schools with 600–900 students and those with 900–1,200 students show slightly higher gains in reading and math achievement than either smaller or larger high schools. They caution that schools can be too small, limiting curricular options for students. On the other hand, using the same national database, Rumberger and Palardy (2005) found that achievement gains averaged across four subjects were slightly higher in larger schools (more than 1,200 students). However, these larger schools all had higher dropout and transfer rates.
Recent studies ask whether purposely created small learning communities result in desired outcomes, such as increased attendance, decreased dropout rates, more personalization, higher test scores, and more teacher collaboration.
A national study commissioned by the Gates Foundation (Evan et al., 2006) looked at 50 schools, including both new schools and redesigned or conversion schools. Researchers found more positive climates in the new smaller schools, including more personalized relationships for students and collegiality among teachers, compared with traditional comprehensive high schools. Redesigned schools also moved in this direction, but more slowly. Each type of school had its own drawbacks: The newly formed schools strained teacher capacity, leading to teacher burnout; one-half of the redesigned schools had lower attendance than traditional high schools.
The study team also compared samples of student work from the small schools with samples from traditional high schools. In the new high schools (but not the redesigned ones), the team found some evidence of work that was more rigorous and more relevant to the real world in English, but not in mathematics. The authors concluded that successful small learning communities rarely result from breaking up large high schools.
The Chicago High School Redesign Initiative, begun in 2001, launched the conversion of five large high schools into small autonomous schools. Evaluators found a more personal and supportive climate for both students and teachers in the small learning communities, but no evidence that this climate produced changes in instruction or in student achievement test scores. The researchers did find some evidence of reduced dropout rates (Kahne, Sporte, & de la Toree, 2006). Quint (2006) synthesized findings across a series of studies of three high school redesign efforts and reached the same conclusion: Although such reforms may improve school climate, the change in climate is not reflected in achievement gains.
These studies converge in finding that small learning communities can create more positive relationships among students and among teachers, more often in new schools than in redesigned large schools. Although no studies find higher achievement test scores in redesigned high schools, one study suggests a plausible connection between increases in personalization and student success. Allensworth and Easton (2007) conclude that a strong relationship with the teacher and a perception that the course is relevant results in higher student attendance and that 9th grade attendance and course grades are powerful predictors of high school graduation.
What's One to Do?
For both teachers and students, creating a more personalized climate is a valuable end in itself and can certainly set the stage for changes in instruction. But expecting achievement to improve in the short term as a result of reorganizing students and teachers is unrealistic.
For small learning communities to influence learning, plans for improving what takes place in the classroom must be as explicit as plans for changing the school's structure. What's missing in current efforts is a substantial investment in teachers—for example, providing opportunities to learn what it means to teach in a rigorous manner and how to achieve relevance by changing the nature of curriculum and instruction.
The planning and birth of small learning communities ask teachers to take on many new roles, which can leave them less time for professional learning. Moreover, fewer colleagues who teach the same courses are now part of their immediate community. Without a focus and investment in teaching and learning, structural changes can actually inhibit teachers' motivation and ability to improve their instruction.
Allensworth, E. M., & Easton, J. Q. (2007).
What matters for staying on-track and graduating in Chicago public high schools. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.
Evan, A., Huberman, M., Means, B., Mitchell, K., Shear, L., Shkolnik, J., Smerdon, B., et al. (2006). Evaluation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's High School Grants Initiative: 2001–2005 Final Report. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research and SRI International.
Kahne, J. E., Sporte, S., & de la Torre, M. (2006). Small schools on a larger scale: The first three years of the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.
Lee, V. E., & Smith, J. B. (1997). High school size: Which works best and for whom?
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 19(3), 205–227.
Quint, J. (2006). Meeting five challenges of high school reform: Lessons from research on three reform models. New York: MDRC.
Rumberger, R. W., & Palardy, G. J. (2005). Test scores, dropout rates, and transfer rates as alternative indicators of high school performance. American Educational Research Journal, 42(1), 3–42.
Jane L. David is Director of the Bay Area Research Group, Palo Alto, California;
firstname.lastname@example.org. She is the author, with Larry Cuban, of Cutting Through the Hype: A Taxpayer's Guide to School Reform (Education Week Press, 2006).
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