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Thinking Big About Getting Small: An Ideological Genealogy of Small-School Reform

by Judith Kafka - 2008

Background: Support for small schools, and specifically for the creation of small, autonomous schools of choice, has grown considerably in the past decade—particularly in the context of urban schooling. Funded by private and public monies, small-school initiatives have been implemented in most of the nation’s city school districts and have become a favorite reform strategy among grassroots community groups, corporate foundations, advocates for teacher autonomy, social activists, policy makers, and school superintendents alike. Although some opposition to small-school reform has emerged in recent years, criticism has primarily been confined to issues of how the strategy is being implemented and by whom and is rarely directed at the concept of the reform itself.

Purpose: The purpose of this article is to explain the widespread appeal of small-school reform. It asks, Given the multiple school reform strategies that have emerged over the past quarter of a century, why does the creation of small, autonomous schools of choice attract such varied and strong support? I seek to answer this question not by looking at small-school reform on the ground, but rather through an investigation of the ideas and beliefs on which the reform is based. Specifically, I offer an ideological genealogy of small-school reform by tracing the public arguments offered in support of the reform back to a set of political, cultural, and economic assumptions about the larger purposes of public education.

Research Design: I conducted my analysis by examining the vast array of popular and scholarly writing on small-school reform, as well as media reports, unpublished papers, conference proceedings, e-mail lists (LISTSERVs), Web sites, promotional brochures, requests for proposals, and other documents related to the reform effort. These sources allowed me to identify the salient beliefs and assumptions embedded within support for small-school reform and to explore how the reform strategy functions as a unifying framework for reformers with disparate goals and agendas.

Analysis: I begin by examining the political purposes ascribed to small-school reform, which I argue join together ideologies on the political left and right through an emphasis on local empowerment that reduces the role of the general citizen in educational governance. I then explore the cultural goals associated with small-school reform and assert that they are largely embedded in nostalgia for the small, bounded communities of yesteryear that seek to reconfigure the large public square into multiple, and narrowly drawn, small ones. Finally, I consider the economic purposes attached to small-school reform and find that they are rooted in the twin assumptions that a central function of schooling is to increase productivity and that the best way to achieve this objective is to model schools after businesses that compete with one another in an open educational marketplace.

Conclusions: This analysis demonstrates that although tensions and contradictions exist both within and across the various strands of support for small-school reform, they are unified in promoting a notion of public schooling that privileges private interests and constructs the “public” in public education in narrow and fragmented terms. Thus, the widespread appeal of small-school reform should be understood as part of a broader trend in the United States to reduce the role of the citizen in educational governance and to frame the public purpose of education as a private good.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 9, 2008, p. 1802-1836
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15168, Date Accessed: 7/24/2021 6:47:07 PM

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About the Author
  • Judith Kafka
    Baruch College, City University of New York
    E-mail Author
    JUDITH KAFKA is an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College, City University of New York, where she teaches courses in educational policy and school leadership. Her research and writing focus on the development of educational reforms and policies aimed at urban schools, teachers, and youth. She is currently working on a book on the history of school discipline policies in the second half of the 20th century. Her article, “‘Sitting on a Tinderbox’: Racial Conflict, Teacher Discretion, and the Centralization of Disciplinary Authority” will be published this spring in the American Journal of Education.
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