Perspectives on Urban Schools - Part 4 - The Small Schools Study


by Linda Powell - November 21, 2000

A discussion of the benefits of small schools

So let me talk briefly about the Small School Study. Has anybody seen Small Schools/Great Strides? Thank you. I can see how much we got for the quarter of a million dollars to the PR firm.

Speaking of polluted studies, the Joyce Foundation in Chicago has put many millions of dollars into working on an intervention in Chicago that provides smaller schools for the most at-risk youngsters. Now it's of interest for us to think about this. They had to spend money to create an intervention in urban high schools that every last one of us would want for our kids if we were sending them to school. But to create organizations, not just classes, not simply class size, but organization size of 300 to 400 kids in order to provide a different kind of education. The Joyce Foundation obviously thinks these schools work. So they didn't really send us in there to find a lot of bad news. Right? They backed this. But it is of interest that study after study after study have indicated that school size is a critical variable especially for the students most at-risk. The study is on the Bank Street web site. If you are interested, click onto it. We have got really provocative things.

Art Powell, who wrote Lessons from Privilege, says that this notion of school size is the most critical factor in American education today. So the question might be why is it that it's taken for granted for kids of privilege but we have got to sell it for poor children. We have got to make the case for it. So to the tune of 2 and 1/2 million dollars, here is what we have discovered. The short version is kids do, definitely high school kids, do better on everything. Elementary school kids do at least as well, sometimes better. What we discovered is that high school kids do far better on reading and make more progress than in the schools that they are situated in and that many of the kids do better in math, but math is still a struggle. Math is not yielding to this.

What we discovered though are, on every what we would call persistence variable--do the kids come, do they pass courses, do they stay longer than they would--on every single one of those variables we saw a dramatic increase. More passing classes, more kids graduating. Now we also discovered that care is not sufficient. Liking the kids is not enough, although it's interesting how critical care is. The Chicago Consortium on School Research gave us their survey where they survey every 4th Grader, 8th Grader and I think 11th Grader. But we had the benefit of massive work done and the single statistic that leapt out at us was, if you had a problem, how many adults in this school do you know well enough to talk to about it. Right? It's a pretty cool question. And in the magnet schools the kids said four or more. And in the schools that we were studying, the bottom quartile, it was zero or fewer. This is a real math problem. But this is what we determined. That this notion of being embedded in a community where you are known, where you can tell the truth about your experience, where people are instructionally prepared to teach you and the organization is small enough to support an ongoing monitoring and continuous improvement of this, that all of this made a dramatic difference for the kids we have given up on. Two and a half years it took us to do this.

I give a version of the talk in Chicago, and I'm from Chicago actually, and so my mother comes. Now my mother is a senior citizen, fixed income, like she is the one we worry about that she is going to the polls voting against increased finance. So you know my mother is like a good case. And she comes and she hears me do this talk and then we go home, and she says well let me be clear about this. And then I know I'm in trouble. And she says you've been coming to Chicago to do this study, and she names the high school because she's lived through this with me. She says you have been coming here two and a half years and talking to kids and teachers and parents in the business community and spending two and a half million dollars to discover that kids do better when they are treated well.

And at some level that is the fundamental finding of the study. We can make it more glamorous, and we can break it down around instruction and culture and school climate. We can make it fancier, but my mother pretty much captured it. So here is what I'm inviting you to think about. To what extent was doing the study a social defense? Like this makes every bit of sense. This seems logical. It fits with previous research. We have got I should say a fair body of research now that says small schools do better for kids most at-risk. That's not a controversial idea. So to what extent was completing the study for us an expensive and long-term avoidance of facing the issue. Now this is the question that I would raise for you about research as a social defense. But it also raises the notion of policy as a social defense.

Why do small schools work? I mean let's just riff on this for a minute. What is it, just sitting here as practitioners and parents and people who went to school, why would a small school be a more supportive environment for somebody?

Student:

It's a family unit ... 10 to 3 in the city and it's really hard, we have got four different family workers calling all the time but we are on them, we know everything that is going on.

Linda Powell:

And attendance is high.

Student:

Yes.

Linda Powell:

So the kids, the students, respond to your initiatives to know them and be on them.

Student:

Right.

Linda Powell:

What else?

Student:

We talked about numbers earlier. You're ... you're a person.

Linda Powell:

You are much more likely to be known as a human being and treated like one with all your strengths, weaknesses and dreams. But you are not that at-risk kid, which a number of young people said to us that that's the most demoralizing part of their life, that they are that at-risk kid.

Student:

I would also think a lot of small schools, especially being studied or reconfigured schools, so they are new, I mean it's an initiative and it starts in a school so the ten teachers who really want to meet those individual needs, you know, go over there. The one administrator wants to do things differently and it's like a self selected, and the parents you know ... who add the case to their kids to get in there.

Linda Powell:

We found half and half of that to be true. We found some of it be true, the young, totally engaged teachers. We also found some teachers so desperate to get out of the big school that they didn't really care and they didn't intend to get involved. We did find a self selection effect for parents.

Student:

Good for them.

Linda Powell:

And good for them was what we said. But let me just say this. One of the arguments about the small schools is that they creamed students. You will hear this about small schools. And here was our discovery. If you can find a creaming effect in the difference between taking a kid who is 11 months behind and a kid that is 10 and 1/2 months behind, we could not justifiably call that a creaming effect. Did the small schools take "stronger" students? Yes, if you look at effect size. As a human that measurement seemed to us to not be quite useful. So the idea that they took the best students, which is why they got the best, didn't seem to hold water. They did have parents, however, who would be more involved in the small school, but that was because the small school called them. It's hard to know what's what.

Student:

Accountability and ... because even student accountability is from teacher to teacher, teachers are more likely to know what's going on in one class and as a system to be ... in school. But also teacher accountability because it's a smaller environment and the principal is more likely to know what is going on in the classroom.

Linda Powell:

Absolutely. And student to student accountability. One of the most interesting things we found was that in the small school the seniors take on the juniors and say look this is how we do things here. And there is a way in which that both supports community and also supports academic achievement in that they model for young students that we do well here. We do not mess around here. We do well in the small schools. So accountability, being able to get your hand around everyone--parents, teachers and students-- in terms of outcomes.

Student:

I have a question. Is social defense an unconscious or a conscious reaction?

Linda Powell:

It's a great question, and there are two major theorists. Elliot Jacks and a woman named Isabel Menezes, both of whom are living, but they created this idea. And they disagree, to make it interesting. But I think what I have seen in public school systems is it is profoundly unconscious and does not yield to a simple interpretation. When we are, for example the anonymity thing, when we tried a simple intervention in Philly that would just make sure that some adult knew every kid in the school, what it did was open up the unconscious of the school, and what it got flooded with quite frankly were issues about racism and sexuality that nobody was prepared to deal with. So this idea of let's not know them, you know a teacher said to me, "I teach English I don't want to know these kids." That is an element of a social defense. But the other side of the social defense is none of her colleagues took her on. So it means that they all sort of agreed to that.

When she said that her department head doesn't say "Well then you can't get your check." Like that's how we know that it's not a social defense. When people have differences, but the professionalism is asserted. If the professionalism isn't asserted and everybody just gets to sort of do what they want to do, then we know that we could be in the presence of a social defense. That's Menezes' position. Jacks' position is that they are essentially conscious and that leaders sometimes employ social defenses. This is also the ... idea, that sometimes a social defense is appropriate for managing distress in the organization. Like we probably did open up much too much with the family group idea, and if we had-- which is this intervention we did with young people--and had we been more respectful we would have realized that consciously this anonymity was serving some useful purpose to keep the place afloat.

When you are in that situation though you have got to make the call about what to do or what to say about what you worry about. And that's a calibrated idea. We didn't know how deeply routed and primitive, I mean these people got into fights about food. And it took us a long time to realize that the fights about food were not about food. They were very primitive discussions about nurturing and being cared for and being held and that that's what came up once they started to get to know young people.

Student:

We did a reading by Jean Anyon who worked in a small school in northeast ... there were 500 students to 25 teachers and it was ... differences between, I mean that's a fairly small school and these small schools.

Linda Powell:

One of the questions we tried to answer in the study is small is not necessarily good. We think small is necessary but not sufficient. So we have studied some really lousy small schools.

But in saying that small is necessary, what we are arguing for are conditions where people can at least get their hands around their social defenses. Once a school reaches a certain size, or goes beyond that, the tendency in the school for chaos, for the necessity of social defenses that can't be interpreted; size makes certain kinds of processes impossible. So we argued that size must come first, that small must come first. And then in the report we argued for a couple of things. One, professional development around instruction; and two, for ongoing support and involvement from outside of the small school, especially schools of education, the business community, etc., to provide resources both human and financial to the small schools. But they can't do it all by themselves. But we argue that you can't, I would argue that you can't do anything in a school of 3,000. But until you start breaking that down, what you are doing mostly is being slammed around by the social defenses of the anxiety around 3,000 kids. Who would want 3,000 adolescents in one place. I mean let's just think about that just practically. There is not enough ego strength, adult ego strength, to hold them to 3,000 adolescents.

So let me see, what else do I want to say about the Small School Study. So we discovered that small, surprise, surprise, was necessary if not sufficient. And so the superintendent makes a decision that there will be no school bigger than 400.

Student:

Can I just ask a quick question. The small schools are only high schools or all levels?

Linda Powell:

We studied all levels. The effect is more significant at the high school. If you think about it, elementary schools kind of rotate around their classrooms. So even though we did find an effect for elementary schools, it wasn't nearly as dramatic as high school.

Student:

I think a few schools in the nation probably, ... 4,000 or 5,000 but you know the school…

Linda Powell:

Absolutely.

Student:

Because it had so much money. That's why it probably worked. I mean there are a lot of others that they are going to right now but I mean I didn't necessarily like the school because of issues of classes and everything but it came to kind of where people graduated and I think...

Linda Powell:

I was on an exchange program with New Trier High School in 1968. And we will talk about that later. But there is an unpublished study about New Trier, and if you repeat this I'll deny it, but a team of researchers at New Trier had discovered that they educate a top strip of students really well. And then there is a middle group of students that falls completely off the map. But that's not the reputation that New Trier wants to cultivate. So what this unpublished study suggests is that large size does not serve anybody, and that's the Columbine argument. The worst, the worst of that is the Columbine argument. Did people see the FBI report that came out last week? It basically says, forgive my language, that it's bullshit that they didn't know these kids were in trouble, that there was every sign and structural opportunity that they could have identified these young people. And they actually give much of what we have seen already in the press, but they organize it in a way that talks about school culture.

Student:

The kids said that in all the interviews.

Linda Powell:

All the kids,

Student:

Every one, they were outsiders. They could have stood up there and said oh they are so wonderful, da-da-da-da, no, they blamed these several kids were outsiders.

Linda Powell:

And the idea that the school was structured around the size of the school so that they could have known it is absolutely untrue. The school was structured around a series of social defenses so that nothing that would disturb the adults would actually get through from young people. That that was the school's way of managing it's anxiety.

Just as a stray question, we don't have to discuss it--Brian's got his hand up--but it is interesting to think about how this country was revolutionized. None of you were born, but when three kids were killed in a Birmingham church, it changed the course of this country. And yet somehow Columbine has in some ways slipped our consciousness. And it's interesting to think about, what 35 years, 36 years, what is different for us now in that we weren't galvanized about anything. And there are a bunch of issues you can take up after Columbine, a bunch of them about school reform, a bunch about how we treat young people. And yet there is something happening in the culture now so we don't get jabbed anymore. And it's something I'm interested in thinking about. Brian?

Brian:

Dr. Powell you were saying that there are three conditions or three conclusions of your study reached, and what were they? For small schools, teacher collaboration with the outside community, and there was one other.

Linda Powell:

Yes. What was my third one. I'm not doing a good job of the three big ones.

Brian:

I just wondered in connection with ... having read the book that evolved from that article it seems as though ... had those conditions just mentioned in school actually working. And one of the interesting things about that book is I think the institutions in its proper context and that's in its relationship with all other urban institutions. And how microbehaviors are impacted by these larger political economic decisions. Given that structural reality, how do you then change the behaviors in the students and teacher when they are placed in a situation that is outside their control and reading Anyon you get that sense of hopelessness.

Linda Powell:

I have not read Anyon. I have only heard her speak so I'm not familiar with this work.

Student:

It's about the recreation of ... economy is really just causing poor interaction in urban institutions -- family, education, health, whatever. And that to me is having read that and having sat through the course, you do .. with that family's hopelessness.

Linda Powell:

I guess part of my dilemma is that at 5 minutes to 9 I just don't agree with Anyon. And I think what I have,

Student:

You don't so,

Linda Powell:

And she is a colleague worth disagreeing with. It's good work. But what I have discovered is that over and over again the external situation is used as an excuse not to teach kids. That there are definitely things in the environment that prevent young people from being 1950's young people in school, without question. And yet in my experience educators who are committed and innovative can shape conditions inside the school so that young people get educated. Here is the real challenge though, having said that. For the most part those educators, not all of them, but a good number of them, teach how schools short change girls. Remember that study a couple of years ago? Center for research on women at Wellesley did a study called How Schools Shortchange Girls, and they looked at every study on gender on schools done in the last years. They got from those studies what they call the evaded curriculum. It's a very useful phrase, remember it. The evaded curriculum is the curriculum of power, which we routinely do not teach in schools. And they said that the evaded curriculum includes things like race and gender and sexuality and violence and making those, making those part of the curriculum and being willing to open up to young people's experience about them. The schools that are successful, go deeper into the evaded curriculum than others. That is, that's my anecdotal finding, and I can't defend that yet with numbers. Although there are a lot of us in the field who are looking to find out if that's so. If young people feel that they have to leave their experience, which is of poverty and racism and I don't know how many of you live on the upper west side but we have got this thing going on now where a van of cops pulls up and just stops a bunch of high school kids. Be on the look-out for this. And the kids are all wearing their tags from local schools with the numbers. And the cops just stop and ask the kids let me see your ID cards.

Student:

Prop 21 in California.

Linda Powell:

It is somewhat of Prop 21. But at 86th and Columbus you're a little stunned by this. And when we, Michelle Fine and I are doing a study about this, the most depressing thing we found is that the kids assume that's constitutional. When we say do you get, that you don't just get to be stopped on the street in America, it is so much a part of their experience that they don't realize that's against the law. Schools that are more successful with these young people teach from their real lives, which means they may have to ask them about that. Obviously that's more possible in small schools. You have got a school of 3,000 you are not going to open up anti-semitism or police brutality. I mean it's just not a reasonable discussion to try and have.

So what's the one thing I want you to take away from this? I want you to remember all this stuff about an unconscious understanding of what urban schools have come to represent for this culture. Urban schools I would argue are being scapegoated when we are actually failing many children in this country. But urban schools take the heat. What that means is, and this is my article of the achievement, what that means is it gets more and more difficult to change urban systems because they are kind of holding failure for all of us. So my quick story about this is I was in Aimes, Iowa, and this school, all white, had every at risk program you've ever heard of, every at risk program known to humankind. They had a clothes closet for kids who were homeless. They had a group for kids who were abused by their partners or their parents. They had remedial work for academics. They had everything you have ever heard about and thought was a good idea. And I didn't get it because they had a drop-out rate of like 3%. So why do they have all this at risk stuff? And the 3% that dropped out, they knew where those kids were. They knew those kids were working at the gas station or went into the service or, and I had called back in the middle of the night and I asked Michelle Fine, and I said I don't get it. Why do they have all this at risk stuff if none of the kids are dropping out, and she said you're missing the point. They don't have any dropouts because they are doing what the kids need done. Da. So I'm trying to figure out what frees them up to do it, What frees them up just to go get the money to have a psychologist full time to talk to kids about their academic difficulties. How did these teachers manage to get free of it. And I happened to go to the school board meeting, and they were having a very interesting casual conversation before I came in that basically said their kids were wonderful and valuable and perfect. Keep in mind that this county has the highest alcoholism and spouse abuse rate in the midwest. So this is not an untroubled place. But in their mind they said our kids are perfect, our kids are wonderful, our kids are valuable. But the really troubled kids are in Dubuque. Those to them are the urban kids. And those are the black kids. So in their mind our kids are not at risk. Those kids are at risk.

To the extent that we continue to think of them as those kids who are at-risk, we need to get more sophisticated about what kinds of interventions we think will work, and there is some sense that partnerships between New Trier and my high school, my old high school, are one way to go at that. Rather than let the schools be split in that way, they are now offered some visitation programs where teachers and students from schools perceived to be very different actually meet and talk and work together. So that's the other thing.

But I guess the major thing if you take nothing else away from this long rambling evening is the idea that policy must--high stakes testing, finance equity, standards, all children can learn--whatever is the intervention, whatever is the policy, if it does not grapple with the unconscious dynamics in the system, it will serve as a social defense. If it does not, in its substance and intervention as the way it's applied, if it doesn't do both, it's doomed to failure. So here is the example, in Chicago. We do this great study, We find out all these kind of nuanced things that make a difference in small schools and what does the CEO do? He sends out a memo that says thou shalt now be in school ... hundred. Now do we really think that will make any difference? It doesn't capture any of the complexities of what is about to happen to people if they get into smaller units and the things they are going to hear and the things they are going to discover. So that's policy as a social defense. And he is getting such resistance, I love this part, he is getting total resistance about the numbers. Is it 400 or is it 375. I kid you not. I could have, you know, flown to Chicago last week to discover is it 400 or 410. That's policy as social defense as opposed to thinking about the adaptive work of preparing teachers and students to know each other more intimately as part of a better education system. Anybody have a one minute question?

Student:

Yes. I don't know if it's one minute but so basically you were saying all this ... and so all of this is kind of ... from the real issues at hand.

Linda Powell:

We need to be careful that it's not. I guess part of what I want to argue is very few policy people think about the unconscious in a system. And very often policy people want to reduce everything to the rational. The problem is that might work for widgets or for microchips. It will not work for a socially dynamic system with a history of urban education. We have to start being smarter about the kinds of things that we all feel and hope for and were in your drawings. And I do want your drawings if you would let me have them. Thank you very much. Do we have administrative announcements?



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 21, 2000
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10658, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 11:38:47 AM

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