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.


  1. Teachers in these 20:1 classes express a greater satisfaction with the performance of their students.

    I have two different freshmen classes, one with 27 students and one with 15 students. The differences in the productivity between the two is profound. Part of the reason for the success in the one class is that there are fewer distractions...fewer students, in my experience, means fewer distractions. The other reason is that it's easier to make certain 15 students are understanding the material.

    My school also splits up the lower-tracked classes to help those students in that class, and it seems to be working as they get more individual attention.

  2. I am a survivor of one of the 1st attempts to create leraning communities. The ideology and intentions were absolutley right on, our execution of it was miserable at best.

    The structures that are necessary to succeed include:
    *A master Scheduling Wizard
    *An agreement between all comunnities about schedule and curriculum
    *Time for collaboraqtion
    * An agreement between teachers and administrration about who works with who
    * An agreement between Staff regarding who gets the "Motivated kids" and for how long. Will faculty rotate between communities.
    * Standardized Core curriculum
    * An agreement about how electives are accessed

    We self impoded when 2 of our communities got the motivated kids, 2 got the un-motivated kids, and a small comprehensive HS of 800 was left with fewer choices and electives. Teachers in small communities felt they has "Squatter's rights" to their set of kids in perpetuity.

    Self -interest was cloaked in altruistic language and we began to not have to care about our collegues and their difficulties.

    The idea is a great one and I'd do it again provided the structural details were in place to mandate collaboration and mitigate against stakeholder self-interest.

    Hope that helps,

    Mike Milbrath

  3. I currently teach at a school that has just implemented Professional Learning Communities. This has been our first year. It has been a year of many challenges, and celebrations. We have really grown as a faculty and have worked toward aligning our curriculum and setting and monitoring smart goals. I like the idea of everyone working together for the best of the kids. I like being able to work with other staff outside of my grade level, and building. I agree that it all needs to be for and about the students. We also need to be willing to be more flexible. I recently attended a conference in which a teacher discussed "remedial lunches."
    Once a week the classroom teacher would invite 4-5 underperfoming students to have lunch with them. They would spend their lunch break making bonds and connections with these students to find out what was going on in their lives, and what they were struggling with. They also worked on additional strategies that the students might need. I think that smaller class size is definitely beneficial, but we also need to really get to know our students and find out where they are coming from. The more people involved in these students lives the less chance they have of falling between the cracks.