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Schools Within Schools: Possibilities and Pitfalls of High School Reform

reviewed by Rosetta Marantz Cohen - June 08, 2007

coverTitle: Schools Within Schools: Possibilities and Pitfalls of High School Reform
Author(s): Valerie E. Lee & Douglas D. Ready
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807747521 , Pages: 211, Year: 2007
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For the past two decades, one of the few areas of consensus among school reformers has been the belief that large, comprehensive high schools have outlived their function. Comprehensive high schools were originally created in the early 20th century in response to a series of enthusiastic national reports, which saw regionalization as a remedy for any number of educational ills. At the time, large schools were seen to promote real curricular choice for an increasingly diverse youth population; they could accommodate (through tracking and leveling) a broad range of student abilities and career-goals; they could promote social mixing and later, racial integration. Large schools meant more tax revenue available for swimming pools and football teams, and also for the growing ranks of special education students whose complex needs were becoming financially burdensome to many small districts.

Now, the certainty that “big is bad” pervades the literature on school change, as local districts and charter enthusiasts work to break up massive schools into smaller ones. Just as the comprehensive high school was seen to herald a new age of educational benefits, so the small schools movement has arrived with promises of significant change. Small schools are credited with making all students known and appreciated, with encouraging intellectual engagement, and with revitalizing faculty and staff. The small schools movement received its greatest boost, of course, from heavy-hitter reformers like Bill Gates, who has made massive investments in the creation of small schools throughout the United States.

There are, however, various different kinds of small schools. Most districts without access to the Gatesian coffers have turned to other, cheaper strategies for deriving the benefits of a small school environment. One fairly common approach has been the creation of schools-within-schools; large institutions designing self-contained subunits within their structures. These structures are often conceived as theme-based, mini-schools where students can derive the benefits of a small, supportive community without the price tag of a new building and a new staff.

How successful are these school-within-school structures in achieving the goals of excellence and equity? Have these subunits succeeded in creating intimate learning environments where student choice leads to higher motivation and success? Valerie Lee and Douglas Ready’s new study provides a fascinating, inside view of five schools that have made the transition from large, comprehensive high schools to schools-within-schools. Tracking these institutions over the course of six years, Lee and Ready offer a rare, longitudinal perspective on the successes and failures of this approach—a cautionary tale that looks beyond the surface of a new reform, and traces its progress long after the first, glitzy changes get implemented.

The five schools tracked in Lee and Ready’s book fall into a specific category within the SWS model. All approached their restructuring by creating what the authors call “full-model SWS structures,” autonomous subunits within their original institutions. Though the five schools differed from one another in significant ways (geographically and socio-culturally), all shared a commitment to improving curricular offerings, to expanding student choice, and to improving access and equity in their buildings. All five schools began with similar structural plans, hoping to create distinct autonomous sub-communities—with autonomous faculty and administrations—within the context of the larger school.

Though successes play out differently in different schools and within different subunits of the same schools, common difficulties occur across all five institutions. Early on, for example, all five schools gave up the ideal of a fully autonomous curriculum, opting for a kind of hybrid curriculum instead: in each school, students took courses both in and out of the SWS subunits, undercutting the sense of small-school intimacy while gaining access to electives, honors courses, and other special offerings not available within the SWS. Lee and Ready demonstrate vividly how the desire for a comprehensive curriculum is simply incompatible with many of the practical and conceptual underpinnings of the small-schools movement. Outside pressure—including state-level demands and parental expectations—make the narrowing of available offerings very difficult to implement.

A second common difficulty, across all five schools, was in implementing equal access and equity. Lee and Ready report that they found “considerable ambiguity” (p. 140) around these issues in all the institutions they studied. By giving students “choice” in electing their preferred subunit, SWS subunits became sorting grounds based on race and class. Reformers had ideally imagined that students would choose their subunits out of genuine interest. Instead, most chose them for friendships, or as a way to avoid hard work, or to appease their academically ambitious parents. Across all five schools, sub-units became hierarchical, with students (whether consciously or unconsciously) complicit in their own oppression. As a result of this self-sorting, the SWS schools have been unable to boast anticipated academic gains. Poor students still perform poorly. Good students still perform well. While the social environment may improve, the intellectual environment stays much the same.

Lee and Ready end their book with both a list of lessons learned and recommendations for future SWS reform. Among the lessons is the fact that schools-within-schools, for all their potential, have done little to alter the social and academic stratification of high schools. Indeed, the authors come to wonder whether size really matters: while constituent parts in the erstwhile comprehensive schools got smaller, class sizes did not necessarily shrink. Students continued to get lost and fall through the cracks. Finally, Lee and Ready remind us how reforms of all kinds are undermined by state mandates that limit autonomy, by poorly trained teachers whose competence is unaffected by school size, and by deeply engrained assumptions about what curriculum should look like. Real change, in other words, is desperately hard to enact.

Given the eloquently described catalogue of difficulties confronted by the five schools in the study, one cannot help but be slightly pessimistic about Lee and Ready’s final list of recommendations. The authors admonish reformers to (1) strive to reduce stratification, (2) move to a core, common curriculum, (3) be flexible enough to change reforms when they prove ineffective, (4) ask hard, fundamental questions about the goals and principles of the school, and (5) show real willingness to rethink all the “givens” of the traditional school, even when they open the door to unpleasant questions about race and class. These are admirable and logical recommendations, but it is hard to believe that the schools profiled in Lee and Ready’s book didn’t begin their journey towards reform with the same goals in mind. The bitter truth, which emerges in this study, is that even the most enlightened and intelligent reforms may well implode towards the status quo. Hope for best, the book implies, but expect the worst.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 08, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14512, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 1:57:40 PM

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About the Author
  • Rosetta Cohen
    Smith College
    E-mail Author
    ROSETTA MARANTZ COHEN is Professor of Education and American Studies at Smith College. She teaches and writes on the history and philosophy of education. Her most recent book is Teacher-Centered Schools: Re-Imaging Educational Reform in the 21st Century (Scarecrow, 2004).
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