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Off the Record—Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue: Observations on the Small Schools Movement

by Floyd M. Hammack - 2008

This Off the Record commentary addresses some of the issues raised by the articles included in this special issue of Teachers College Record. In particular, it explores the relationship of the goals of personalism and academic press in small schools serving urban students.

The problems of secondary education are not new, nor are the means available to address them. The reason for the creation of the much maligned comprehensive high school in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was its rapidly expanding enrollment and the resulting diversity of student interests and levels of prior preparation (Krug, 1972; Reese, 1995). Diverse curriculum streams were added to the college preparation focus that was the traditional concern of private academies and the public high schools that followed. These different routes through the school, including a variety of occupational and vocational programs and a general program, were created because many students did not want the college preparation curriculum but did seek out other routes that they and their parents thought beneficial. As publicly funded agencies, local schools were responsive to student and parent choices. Of course, these changes were not without discussion and debate at the timea debate that continues to today (see Angus & Mirel, 1999).

At about the same time that the large comprehensive high school was becoming dominant in the United States, as Semel and Sadovnik (2008) show, some public and private school educators were creating experiments that centered their focus on the child, sought to integrate subjects, brought the community surrounding the school into its classrooms, and took the classrooms into the community. Small in size, these schools were personal and engaging for students lucky enough to attend them. These schools stood in sharp contrast to the more rigid large schools that cities decided they could afford. They provide for us models useful for the small school of today.

One of the issues that Semel and Sadovnik (2008) highlight in their article is how the autonomy that these schools enjoyed gave them the space and time to work out their approaches to teaching and learning issues. Both Sadovnik and Semel, and Shear and Means (Shear et al., 2008) identify the constraints of the current policy environment as limiting the ability of the schools they study to secure their place; even though the schools may survive administrative turnover and curriculum and assessment mandates, their distinctive approaches usually are at least at risk, if not eliminated. Whether the debate over the Regents Exams in New York (vs. portfolios) or the demands of state implementation of No Child Left Behind, high schools have less autonomy in critical curricular decisions today than ever before.

It seems clear from the reports of Ready and Lee (2008) and Semel and Sadovnik (2008), among others, that smaller schools are creating more friendly and personal environments for students. This improvement seems to translate into better attendance and higher graduation rates, along with the expressions of greater comfort in school by students. But it may be such comfort, Ready and Lee argue, that has an ironic consequence. Students, when given the choice, will usually stay within their comfort zonewhether that zone involves friends or academic effort. In our context, the question is, Under what circumstances would a student select a curriculum option (courses or a subunit, for example) that extends beyond his or her comfort zone? Because student choice is an integral part of the small school concept, it is important to study the options that students actually have and their perceptions of them (Hatcher, 1998).

We need to think through the relationship between improvements in students comfort level in school and in their academic achievement. Both of these goals are explicit in virtually all high school reform systems, especially those of the small schools movement. For these reformers, small size translates into more personalism between teachers and students, and this in turn helps to prevent students from falling between the cracksbecause there are no cracks. Because of the smaller scale of their schools, teachers know their students, and students know their teachers. This reciprocal knowledge, it is held by these reformers, empowers teachers through their commitment to students. These teachers then have the right to expect students to meet their expectations; students understand this as a legitimate obligation because teachers make themselves so available to students. This is an explicit example of the norm of reciprocity. However, it is a delicate balancing act. As teachers make school more comfortable for underachieving students, their ability to demand higher levels of effort can be compromised. Perhaps demand is not the right word; social-psychologically, what is going on here is complicated. On the one hand, teachers who are able to make school comfortable for underachieving students have the right to expect a return from their students. Yet, rigorous expectations (academic press) of effort may undermine the comfort zone that teachers hope to extend to students. It appears, then, that the goals of personalism and higher levels of achievement may be at odds with each other. Achieving one can undermine the other. This dilemma seems to be at the heart of many school reform efforts, especially the small schools movement (Lee & Smith, 1999; Phillips, 1997; Rosenbaum, 2001).

The line of research concerning academic press and personalism has not received much attention recently (Cook, Murphy, & Hunt, 2000; Griffith, 2002; Shouse, 1997, 2004). However, work on the social aspects of schooling has continued to grow. For example, the recent article by Crosnoe, Johnson, and Elder (2004) covers some of the same ground in its examination of the correlates of intergenerational bonding in schools. Although these researchers are concerned with the structural conditions that foster the development of these teacherstudent bonds, they do not explore the effects of school size in their analysis.

The task is to extend to students who have a history of failure (or at least of a lack of success) in school a feeling that they can succeed, but to do so with an understanding that an important key to success is greater effort than they have previously expended. We need to acknowledge that learning entails frustration and effort; for most of us, the proper use of a semicolon is not self-evident, nor is finding the value of an unknown quantity in an algebraic equation. This learning is certainly not easy for 14- or 15-year-old students with a history being unable to quickly identify the proper use of semicolons or solve for the unknown. Motivating these students to choose to enter into educational options that require such achievements from them is not logical. In their own self-interest, they are likely to choose the path of least resistance, or of least effort. Perhaps this is even more likely if they feel, at last, comfortable with their teachers and their school.

Teachers are likely to accept the achievement of student comfort as success because it leads to better student attendance, improved behavior, and stronger feelings of belonging. These behaviors produce higher graduation rates and lower crime statisticsnot an insignificant achievement. Yet, there is scant evidence that the smaller schools that produce better behavior and attendance also produce higher test scores and higher levels of academic achievement. As more and more information becomes available from the new small schoolswhether as schools-within-schools or as new freestanding small schoolswe need to be alert to the tensions between motivating students to work hard and aspire to educational success, and helping them to continue to feel comfortable and connected. Academically successful schools will be ones that exert considerable press for achievement on their students, yet manage to do so in a manner that is perceived by the students as in their favor. This is unlikely to be an easy task.


Angus, D., & Mirel, J. (1999). The failed promise of the American high school, 18901995. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cook, T. D., Murphy, R. F., & Hunt, H. D. (2000). Comers school development program in Chicago: A theory-based evaluation. American Educational Research Journal, 37, 535597.

Crosnoe, R., Johnson, M. K., & Elder, G. H., Jr. (2004). Intergenerational bonding in schools: The behavioral and contextual correlates of student-teacher relationships. Sociology of Education, 77, 6081.

Griffith, J. (2002). A multilevel analysis of the relation of school learning and social environments to minority achievement in public elementary schools. Elementary School Journal, 102, 349366.

Hatcher, R. (1998). Class differences in education: Rational choices? British Journal of Sociology of Education, 19, 524.

Krug, E. A. (1972). The shaping of the American high school, Volume 2, 1920-1941. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Lee, V. E., & Smith, J. B. (1999). Social support and achievement for young adolescents in Chicago: The role of school academic press. American Educational Research Journal, 36, 907945.

Phillips, M. E. (1997). What makes schools effective? A comparison of the relationships of communitarian climate and academic climate to mathematics achievement and attendance during middle school. American Educational Research Journal, 34, 633662.

Ready, D. D., & Lee, V. E. (2008). Choice, equity, and the schools-within-schools reform. Teachers College Record, 110(9).

Reese, W. J. (1995). The origins of the American high school. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Rosenbaum, J. E. (2001). Beyond college for all: Career paths for the forgotten half. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Semel, S. F., & Sadovnik, A. R. (2008). The contemporary small-school movement: Lessons from the history of progressive education. Teachers College Record, 110(9).

Shear, L., Means, B., Mitchell, K., House, A., Gorges, T., Joshi, A., et al. (2008). Contrasting paths to small-school reform: Results of a 5-year evaluation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations National High Schools Initiative. Teachers College Record, 110(9).

Shouse, R. (1997). Academic press, sense of community, and student achievement. In J. S. Coleman, B. Schneider, S. Plank, K. S. Shiller, R. Shouse, & H. Wang (Eds.), Redesigning American education (pp. 6086). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Shouse, R. (2004). Democratic spirit and moral learning in comprehensive high schools. In F. M. Hammack (Ed.), The comprehensive high school today (pp. 6986). New York: Teachers College Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 9, 2008, p. 2067-2072
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15182, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 3:35:13 PM

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About the Author
  • Floyd Hammack
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    FLOYD HAMMACK is associate professor of sociology of education and of higher education in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University. His research has focused on secondary education and its links with higher education. He edited the recent collection, The Comprehensive High School Today (Teachers College Press, 2004) and, with Scott Davies, authored the article “The Channeling of Student Competition in Higher Education: Comparing Canada and the U.S.” in The Journal of Higher Education (2005). Most recently, he has coauthored the sixth edition of The Sociology of Education: A Systematic Analysis with Jeanne Ballantine, forthcoming from Prentice Hall in 2008.
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