March 03, 2007

Smaller is better?

The future of public schools in California is getting smaller, not bigger. Our high school is in the early stages of creating a Small Learning Community or SLC. We’ve received grant money and are now in the first year of the process making structural plans for next year. As each high school is unique based on the needs of its students, our high school has its own unique challenges when addressing our students’ needs. What works as an SLC at one campus may or may not work at our campus. Being a veteran teacher I have seen the pendulum swing back and forth a number of times on a variety of issues, but this is the first time that I have been involved in the process of making a school smaller.

Some research shows that lower achieving students accomplish more and increase their feeling of connectedness to their teachers in smaller educational environments. However, the research also shows that just changing the structure of a high school to create smaller and more intimate learning groups is not enough to improve student performance. To me it’s really about student connectedness and teachers taking a more active role and interest in the lives and success of their students. My question is: Do we really need to restructure the whole high school experience just to get teachers to pay more attention to their students and students to pay more attention to their studies and invest in their own educational experience?

It sort of sounds like I’m saying that the key to student success is simply more caring teachers. That’s nutty. Caring is not enough. The key to student success includes teachers who are invested in kids, and kids who are invested in their education. But is it possible that there are more investment opportunities in a smaller setting? Maybe. Some classes are already staffed at 20 students to 1 teacher. Teachers in these 20:1 classes express a greater satisfaction with the performance of their students. Students feel like they get more and better attention from their teachers. So there is a starting point.

It seems to me that no major changes are needed for the students who are already high achievers. I believe that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That approach can be applied to the programs (i.e. AP) and structures (bell schedule, subject alike departments, and classrooms) within which the higher achievers currently participate. These students perform well in their courses earn high marks and outstanding test scores with the opportunities that are currently available.

However the lower achieving groups need some more attention if they are going to begin to perform like the higher achievers. Our task is to figure out how to best assist them in their development. Our high school currently addresses the challenges of the 9th grade middle and lower students by placing them in “houses” where three core teachers are joined to teach a specific group of students. After a year and a half of application, the results of this type of consortium appear to be positive. We are now looking for a way to expand on this model and carry it into the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades. “Aye, there’s the rub.”

Master schedule. What changes do we make to best help the 10-12 population of middle to lower achieving students that take advantage of smaller learning environments that will still work with our master schedule? The logistics are challenging here. I am not an AP nor have I ever had to create a master schedule for a school of any size, much less one of 3400 students. I can imagine an approach that includes chicken bones and tea leaves in order to make it work. Scary. I believe its more possible to design a working schedule then to implement one, especially with a veteran staff who is more than comfortable with the “classic” 6-period day. I recently became aware of a high school that offers 8 extended periods to their students swapping odd and even periods on alternate days. Hmmm.

But working out the schedule is the easy part. The difficulty lies in providing time for teachers of like populations of students to collaborate, and then getting them to actually work together on thematic units, projects, and assessments. I think that all teachers would agree that this type of teamwork is a fine idea, but getting it to actually work is an entirely different story. The day of the maverick teacher is gone with the old west. Once upon a time we teachers were in charge of our classroom curriculum, we could choose our own assignments, and created our own assessments. If we wanted to spend a semester on Hamlet, we could. Now with NCLB, CSTs, CSTPs, CAHSEE, and the curriculum standards combined with district pushed scope and sequence documents the “Art” of teaching is quickly being replaced by the “Science” of teaching. I can’t argue the positive results as measured by API and AYP, but it feels like more and more the individuality of the teacher is being ignored.

But teaching isn’t about the material, or the delivery, or the assessment. It’s about the people, the students. Teaching is about building people, and making connections between people. Our job as teachers is to be respectable role models for our students, to share our passion for learning, and to let them know that no matter what difficulties they may face, they too can be successful in their lives. To help them find their voices, and express themselves. To help them achieve their deepest desires. To assist them in realizing their dreams by giving them the tools they need to be successful. Everything else is just the pedagogy we use to achieve these goals, and pedagogy should not get in the way.

If a smaller learning environment can better help build people then I am in favor of exploring the idea further, and will continue to volunteer to work with the exploratory design team.