Small-School Reform Through the Lens of Complexity Theory: It’s “Good to Think With”

by Patrick J. McQuillan - 2008

Background/Context: In light of the consistent underperformance of the comprehensive high school, districts across the country, mostly urban, have begun creating small schools, believing that they may offer a more personalized, supportive, and demanding learning environment. To explore this assumption, this article examines small-school reform through the lens of complexity theory, considering both the promise and problems associated with this approach to educational change.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: With complexity theory as an analytic lens, this article looks at extant research in the area of small-school reform. Specifically, the article draws on fundamental features of complexity theory (e.g., initial conditions, distributed authority, control parameters, fractals, and synergy) as a way to assess both the problems and promise of small-school reform.

Intervention/Program/Practice: This article focuses on the effects of small-school reform—specifically, the impact of small schools, defined in general as those that enroll between 300 and 450 students, have an explicit thematic focus, promote broad democratic participation for all community members, and attempt to personalize students’ education as a means to enhance educational achievement.

Research Design: Drawing on the lens of complexity theory, this article offers a secondary analysis of research that I and others have conducted. Employing specific features of complexity theory, this article offers an analysis of these studies from a new analytic perspective.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Overall, complexity theory is “good to think with.” It offers a systematic way to conceptualize and direct reform in a dynamic, nonlinear system. It is not precise, and certainly not predictive, but complexity theory—with its attention to changed interactions, initial conditions, distributed authority, control parameters, and fractals—offers a holistic framework for understanding the systemic nature of educational reform. Too often, efforts at educational change have been atheoretical, ignoring the multiple, interrelated, and interacting elements of our schools and school systems. Viewing the educational system as composed of isolated and discrete structures, such efforts assumed that complicated phenomena could be understood by analyzing their constituent parts, when in fact the sum of the whole was greater, and more complex, than the sum of the individual parts. Consequently, reforms modified one or two elements in a system apart from related elements, assuming that these actions would produce the intended outcome through a linear, cause-and-effect relationship. But often, the status quo endured. Rather than assuming such predictable and linear interactions among discrete elements in an educational system, complexity theory draws attention to the evolving interrelationships among system elements at various levels of the system. It offers a means to analyze emerging patterns and trends to illuminate how the disparate system parts are, or are not, working together.

During a conversation with a colleague about the merits of small schools and the intuitive logic behind smaller learning communities, he commented, “You know, it’s like in The Graduate where the family friend goes up to Dustin Hoffman and says, ‘I have one thing to say to you son, “plastics.”’ That’s how it is for me. ‘Oh yeah, “small schools.” Of course.’”

My colleague is far from being the only person to feel this way. Over the past decade, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, alone, invested more than $1 billion to promote small-school reform (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2006). Other private donors and the federal government have followed suit. Such financial support, in combination with decades of disappointing performance by large comprehensive high schools, has led school districts across the country, mostly urban, to create small schools, believing they will address shortcomings characteristic of the large high school—in particular, by creating more personalized, supportive, and demanding learning environments for students. To date, research on small-school reform has been mixed. Although small schools have “personalized” and enhanced relations among students, teachers, and administrators (Ayers, Klonsky, & Lyon, 2000; Raywid, 1995), simply creating a smaller structure has not consistently led to improved academic achievement or instructional transformation (Kahne, Sporte, de la Torre, & Easton, 2006; Stevens & Kahne, 2006). In many cases, the status quo endures.

Stepping back from these mixed outcomes, I explore the dynamics of small-school reform, analyzing both the structures and practices of small schools through the lens of complexity. At its core, complexity theory is about relationships, particularly patterns of interaction that emerge among elements in a “complex adaptive system” (Jacobson & Wilensky, 2006; Reigeluth, 2004; Stacey, 1996), which could be a school and its associated networks. In such a system, multiple elements interact and adapt to one another’s behavior in self-organizing, nonlinear ways that suggest the system is “learning” (Davis & Sumara, 2006). Because individual elements possess autonomy, they both shape, and are shaped by, the system. Therefore, what the system will do cannot be absolutely predicted, which throws into question the logic of narrowly defined cause-and-effect assumptions. Going from point A to point B is not always a straightforward matter. Nonetheless, the emergent, ever-evolving patterns and routines engendered by system interactions will fall within a standard range, in part, because similar “control parameters” (Beckerman, 1999) influence how elements interact (Davis & Sumara, 2005).

A complex system is also synergistic—the sum of the whole can exceed that of its constituent parts. As a collective, system elements can transcend individual form, function, and potential. A single brain cell does very little, but the brain, very much a complex adaptive system, is the foundation to human thought. An ant colony is also a complex system. Eminent sociobiologist Edwin O. Wilson wryly observed that “One ant is no ant,” but on a collective level, ant colonies can transform a landscape.

In exploring the dynamics of small-school reform, I first identify shortcomings of the urban comprehensive high school, focusing on the link between its impersonal structure and its consistent underperformance.1 I next describe characteristic features of small-school reform. Offering a theoretical framework for conceptualizing educational change, I then outline aspects of complexity theory and consider how this analytic lens might enrich our understanding of small-school reform. Building on these insights, I assess the practical benefits derived from using this analytic lens, in essence examining why complexity theory seems “good to think with.” To conclude, I propose creating a small schools clearinghouse to conduct, analyze, and distribute research on small schools. Throughout this article, I cite studies that other researchers and I have conducted and connect them to complexity theory, though none was originally informed by this theoretical framework.


To appreciate the logic of small-school reform, it helps to clarify the problem that small schools aim to address (Bosso, 1994). In my view, two fundamental problems afflict large comprehensive high schools: “They are large, and they are comprehensive” (Fullan, 2004). Their failings begin as a matter of scale and are exacerbated by a lack of institutional focus. In tandem, these structural shortcomings undermine relationships throughout the institution and can have a notably deleterious effect in urban settings (Ayers et al., 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Ready, Lee, & Welner, 2004).

Students, the alleged raison d’etre for our schools, seem nonentities in an institution that shows little interest in their intellectual or emotional well-being (Cook-Sather, 2002; Corbett & Wilson, 1995; Hemmings, 2000; Johnson, Duffett, Farkas, & Collins, 2003). They are expected mainly to do what others tell them—be it how to solve a differential equation or when to use the bathroom. They have little say in shaping school or classroom practices. Relations with teachers are typically superficial and transient. Those with fellow students are largely a crapshoot. Some may befriend you, others may threaten you. Given these conditions, for students, learning is often a secondary concern (Sizer, 1984; Toch, 2003).

Teachers aren’t served well by this organizational structure either. Working in isolation, many sink or swim on the basis of individual effort (Goodlad, 1984; Hargreaves, 1997a, 2003). Their professional growth is, at best, a secondary concern (Sarason, 1990). Unrealistic class loads often preclude them from knowing students as persons or learners (Ayers et al., 2000; Levine, 2002). Student failure can be so pervasive that teacher morale suffers horribly. For administrators, the situation can be comparably alienating. Many have little sense for what students learn or teachers teach. Much of the time, they seem overwhelmed by a “conspiracy of busyness” (Donaldson, 2001, p. 10), what some see as inevitable in an institution whose structure undermines its ostensible purpose—to promote teaching and learning (Ayers, 2000; Littky, 2004).

From a relational point of view, the comprehensive high school is lacking. The short-term, superficial, and hierarchical nature of so many institutional relationships often undermines trust, a key feature of effective schools (Donaldson, 2001; Louis, Marks, & Kruse, 1996; Osterman, 2000; Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 2000). As an impediment to effective communication, school size worsens the situation and further jeopardizes collective trust (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Evans, 1996). Making matters even more challenging, in urban settings, this impersonal and unresponsive institution serves a vulnerable population. Urban students, because their families move frequently, are more likely to have their education interrupted (McQuillan, 1998; McQuillan & Englert, 2001). Students’ educational aspirations, a key predictor of academic success, are consistently low (Coleman, 1990; Ogbu, 1987). Their parents and close relatives are less likely to understand the educational system (Stanton-Salazar, 2001). Disproportionate numbers will be English language learners. And their teachers, those so critical to academic success, typically have less experience, are less likely to be certified in subjects they teach, and are more likely to leave the profession or schools where they work (Darling-Hammond, 1998; National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 1996; Peske & Haycock, 2006).

Moreover, many urban students experience a cultural disjuncture between them and their schools. Carolyn Riehl (2000) framed the matter in revealing terms, “[Assimilation] has been the dominant approach to diversity in the public schools, and equality of opportunity through homogenization has been the goal” (p. 56). In practice, White middle-class assumptions shape much of what occurs in U.S. schools. The needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students are often misconstrued or subordinated (Genesee, 1994; Lipman, 1998). Native languages hold little status (Wong-Fillmore, 1992). Most teachers and aspiring teachers are White (Cochran-Smith, Davis, & Fries, 2002). Accordingly, some characterize minority underachievement as an active rejection of an institution they find alienating and unresponsive—one more piece of a social system that has historically offered them less than those with more income and lighter skin (Fordham, 1996; McDermott, 1987; Ogbu, 1987).2

As one might expect, given the aforementioned issues, comprehensive urban high schools have proved notably ineffective. Our longstanding national embarrassment, the achievement gap, seems to say it all: By high school graduation, typical urban students are 4 years behind their suburban counterparts (Haycock, 1998; Toch, 2003).


As the name implies, the defining characteristic of a small school is its size, generally ranging between 300 and 450 students in four grades. Size, however, is but a means to more important ends. In contrast to centralized and standardized change strategies, small-school reform draws on the affective and relational dimensions to teaching and learning to promote more supportive interactions among students, teachers, and administrators—assuming that doing so will enhance student achievement.

One common means by which small schools aim to enhance relationships is by personalizing students’ education, ensuring that faculty know students well and can draw on this knowledge to help them academically (Ayers et al., 2000; Lambert, Lowry, Copland, Gallucci, & Wallach, n.d.; Legters, Balfanz, Jordan, & McPartland, 2002). At a structural level, this often means that small schools maintain low student-teacher ratios and team teachers with a set group of students, creating even smaller learning communities within an already small structure. In some cases, teachers “loop” with the same students for more than a single year or semester (Levine, 2002; Mohr, 2000). Many small schools have advisory programs. Here, students can support, and be supported by, their peers while connecting with a faculty advocate who mentors them throughout their education.

Most small schools also embrace a thematic or philosophical identity. For instance, small schools belonging to the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) align their structure and practices with the CES common principles—creating an “atmosphere of trust and decency” and focusing the curriculum on “depth not breadth,” among other features (CES, 2006). “Career academies,” another form of small school, offer a curriculum that blends academic, career, and technical courses with opportunities for work-based learning with local employers (Kemple, 2001, p. 1). In addition, many small schools embrace an inclusive approach to school governance, allowing faculty to design professional development opportunities or chair school meetings (Copland, 2003) while integrating students into school governance (Darling-Hammond, 1996; Goodlad, Soder, & Sirotnik, 1990; Meier, 1998). Ideally, such a focus provides direction to a school’s work while attracting likeminded students, parents, and educators—thereby helping to create a community committed to a set of shared beliefs, values, and practices (Ayers et al., 2000; Littky, 2004).

Small schools also tend to have considerable autonomy, though to varying degrees. For example, “pilot” schools in Boston maintain control over staffing, budget, curriculum and assessment, governance, and their schedule (Center for Collaborative Education, 2003, 2006; Nathan & Myatt, 2000). With relatively less autonomy, some small schools reside within educational complexes—sites with multiple schools in the same building. Often the result of “converting” a comprehensive high school into multiple small schools, in this setting, a need to share facilities can restrict autonomy (Colorado Small Schools Initiative [CSSI], 2006; McQuillan, 2002, 2003, 2004). Although still housed in complexes, small learning communities (SLCs) are perhaps the least autonomous. Here, one administrator may work with various SLCs, all on the same schedule, offering much the same curriculum and sharing resources and activities, such as the library and sports teams.

Viewed from an analytic distance, these small-school features reveal distinct patterns, a central characteristic of complexity theory. For one, relationships are key. In a smaller setting, students, teachers, and administrators interact more intensively, over time and in multiple contexts, allowing them greater opportunity to develop trust. Because most small schools have an institutional focus, the school community more likely shares common ideals. Small schools tend to have more institutional autonomy, and more persons may have input in shaping what happens in classrooms and the school at large. In theory, the interaction among these system elements—more personalized relations, shared beliefs and values, increased autonomy, and enhanced democratic participation—creates a more humane and effective institution and leads to improved student outcomes.


To appreciate how complexity theory can illuminate the dynamics of small-school reform, I draw extensively on the concept of a complex adaptive system (Stacey, 1996; Wheatley, 1999). This heuristic—derived from cross-disciplinary research in fields as varied as economics, physics, ecology, and math—offers a means to conceptualize the workings of nonlinear systems composed of multiple interacting and diverse elements constantly adapting to an ever-changing environment. Although I use the concept in a more metaphorical than strictly “scientific” sense (Davis & Sumara, 2006; H. Jensen, personal communication, June 1, 2001), overall, complexity theory seems “good to think with” (Levi-Strauss, 1964).

At a fundamental level, complex adaptive systems include “a diversity of agents [that] . . . interact with each other, mutually affect each other, and in so doing generate novel, emergent behavior for the system as a whole” (Lewin, 1999, p. 198). They are learning systems that constantly change based on information fed back into the system. Because individual system elements possess autonomy and can act to both shape and be shaped by the system, one cannot know how they will self-organize. In acknowledging this inherent unpredictability, complexity theory “challenge[s] traditional notions of linear causality and externally imposed or predetermined order” (Alexrod & Cohen, 1999, p. xi). Nonetheless, when a complex system acts, the ensuing dynamics consistently generate discernible patterns and fall within a standard range (Davis & Sumara, 2005; Lesh, 2006; Mohanan, 1992).

Complex adaptive systems evidence this random-but-predictable nature because even though system elements could act quite randomly, “control parameters” shape interactions so identifiable patterns and routines emerge and lend a measure of predictability to an ultimately unpredictable system (Beckerman, 1999; Stacey, 1996). Weather, a complex adaptive system, offers a classic example. As most realize (except perhaps weather forecasters), predicting the weather a week or even a few days ahead is largely an act of faith. Nonetheless, the weather you experience in New England in autumn, for instance, will fall within a predictable range—no tornados or tsunamis, blizzards or heat waves. Though one cannot know with absolute certainty what weather will do, control parameters keep the system in a modified equilibrium, a paradoxical condition in which predictability and routine coexist with ongoing change and adaptation.

Moreover, the recurring and adaptive patterns and routines that reproduce or emerge at multiple levels of a system as a consequence of system interactions are known as fractals (Jacobson & Wilensky, 2006). A tree, for instance, is a complex adaptive system that relies extensively on a branching-pattern fractal. Not only do limbs branch off a central trunk, as well as sets of increasingly smaller branches from those limbs, but the roots and veins on leaves also rely on a similar branching pattern. In effective schools, trust can be understood as a fractal that enhances interaction on many levels, among various actors, facilitating teacher collaboration and enhancing student learning (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Toch, 2003).

Although complex systems reveal distinct patterns and trends, interactions on the “micro level can contribute to high-order macro level patterns that may have qualitatively different characteristics” (Jacobson & Wilensky, 2006, p. 16). The disparate but interconnected elements, interacting in unpredictable ways, nonetheless do so in synergistic, mutually reinforcing ways, so that a system’s collective actions exceed what individual elements could accomplish alone. In ant colonies, collective behavior allows the colony to adapt to a wide range of challenges, including droughts and floods, a lack of food, and enemy attacks (Johnson, 2001). The flocking behavior of individual birds increases the adaptability of the entire population. Collectively, the system accomplishes what diverse parts could not do independently and in ways that cannot be preordained or predicted (Davis & Sumara, 2006).

This systemic view seems compelling, because nothing stands alone; everything is interconnected and interdependent. In this sense, complex adaptive systems are “nested”; they are “simultaneously a unity, a collection of unities, and a component of a grander unit” (Davis & Sumara, 2001, p. 88). In education, countless studies acknowledge that schools are systems made up of subsystems, embedded in still other systems (Fullan, 2002; Sarason, 1996). It therefore seems reasonable to frame small-school reform within a systemic context to assess the nonlinear interactions among multiple levels of the system.

For this analysis, one final feature of complexity theory should be kept in mind. Because complex adaptive systems, including schools (Duffy, 1997; Reynolds, Lusch, & Cross, 2004), comprise multiple elements that affect, and are affected by, each other in a continuous feedback loop, they cannot be fully understood by merely assessing their component parts. Complex systems should be understood at their point of emergence, when system elements self-organize into discernible patterns—when the system is doing what the system does (Davis, 2003). In practice, this means that understanding a Super Bowl championship football team like the New England Patriots is best accomplished by watching the team during a game, their point of emergence, not by simply analyzing the height and weight of the players or totaling the number of all-stars. In the complex adaptive system of schools and schooling, complexity theory focuses one’s attention onto the relationships among students, teachers, and administrators to see what emerges from their collective interaction.


As an overall strategy for improving urban schools, making schools smaller seems promising. Craig Howley’s (2002) meta-analysis certainly spoke to this issue. Specifically, he analyzed three bodies of quantitative research focused on school size, student achievement, and socioeconomic and racial/ethnic status: the work of Herbert Walberg and his colleagues (Fowler & Walberg, 1991; Walberg, 1989; Walberg & Fowler, 1987; Walberg & Walberg, 1994), Valerie Lee and her colleagues (Lee & Loeb, 2000; Lee & Smith, 1993, 1995), and Howley himself and colleagues (Bickel, 1999a, 1999b; Howley, 1999a, 1999b). Summarizing his findings, Howley (2002) observed that small schools are no “magic bullet.” He did, however, derive three “consensus implications” from his research: “smaller school size is associated with higher achievement under some conditions; smaller schools promote substantially improved achievement equity; and small-schools may be especially important for disadvantaged students” (p. 65).

Other more qualitative studies point to comparably promising, though somewhat different, outcomes. As many researchers have found, relations throughout small schools tend to be supportive and understanding (Ayers et al., 2000; Clinchy, 2000; Levine, 2002; Raywid, 1995). School climate is often notably positive (Ancess & Ort, 1999), and expectations for student learning are higher (Meier, 1998). Perhaps of greatest note, Kathleen Cotton’s (1996) synthesis of 103 studies of the link between institutional size and various aspects of schooling found academic achievement in smaller schools to be at least comparable with, and often better than, larger schools.

Despite such findings, creating a small-school structure does not inevitably lead to uniformly high expectations, improved relations, or greater achievement (CSSI, 2006; Kahne et al., 2006; McQuillan, 2003, 2004; Stevens & Kahne, 2006). At a small-school conversion in Colorado, student achievement “remained very low,” no small school “adopted a clear vision or coherent set of values “to inform school practices,” and teachers were reluctant “to adapt their teaching styles to their new environment” (CSSI, 2006, p. 3). In Chicago public schools, because reform was driven by high-stakes assessment, most work circumvented professional educators because the district and its partners directed few resources toward teacher or administrator development. Ultimately, most policies “depreciated teachers’ classroom knowledge and professional decision making” and had limited impact on student achievement (Shipps, Kahne, & Smylie, 1999, p. 540). With these mixed findings in mind, the following discussion examines small-school reform through the lens of complexity theory.


All educational reforms assume that some “system”—be it a classroom, school, district, or nation—is ineffective. To change the outcomes produced by any system, complex or otherwise, you must alter the interaction among system elements (Axelrod & Cohen, 1999; Beckerman, 1999). Some perturbation must unsettle the system so it does not return to its prior state (Jensen, 1998; Reigeluth, 2004). Otherwise, the status quo will endure, and so will the outcomes produced by the system. Although this may seem self-evident, piecemeal reforms often occur in isolation from other elements of the school “system” (Elmore, 1996). So even though reforms are implemented, no one does anything of significance differently. As a social studies teacher allegedly said after hearing that his school adopted 90-minute block classes, “Good, now I can show the whole movie.” Not much perturbation there.

Yet a smaller school structure almost inevitably alters people’s experiences (Duffy, 1997). By teaming students and teachers, through advisory systems, and simply by having fewer students and faculty sharing the same space, small schools change the interaction among system elements in ways that can help all involved better know and understand one another. In the first year of a small-school conversion at the Rocky Mountain Educational Complex4 (RMEC) in Colorado, a teacher described how a smaller scale enhanced relations with students, parents, colleagues, and her principal:

What helps is just the small number of kids, knowing the kids personally, being in-touch with smaller numbers. In terms of discipline, there are less referrals, less suspensions. . . . I also appreciate the personal interaction with fellow workers, getting to know them, working with them more closely. It’s the same thing with parents, much easier for them to contact me and for me to get to know them because I am not so overwhelmed with numbers. I also feel I have a better understanding with my principal because we work closer together and we communicate better. (McQuillan, 2002, p. 16)

Students at RMEC, though not as positive, generally concurred with this teacher. In an informal survey, they responded to the statement, “In a small-school, students have better relations with their teachers.”5 Slightly over half wrote something similar to what follows:

I do agree with having better relationships with my teachers because my teachers know that I want to be successful, so they try to help me the best they can. They also get to spend a little more time with me.

Yes, because you can talk to them about anything.

In [our school] teachers have good relations with all students. The core teachers know everyone as a person and, yes, they sometimes know what I need to be academically successful. (McQuillan, 2002, p. 43)

In turn, improved relationships should enhance trust. When people understand others—what interests them, how they think, and what they value—they are more likely to trust them (Evans, 1996; Goddard, 2003; Hargreaves, 1997b, 2003). This is key. As Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider (2002) found in research with Chicago schools, “[A] broad base of trust across a school community lubricates much of a school’s day-to-day functioning and is a critical resource as local leaders embark on ambitious improvement plans” (p. 15). Consistent with this view, writing about Urban Academy, a small school serving New York City dropouts, Thomas Toch (2003) highlighted the relationship between school size and trust:

[The school’s impressive performance] derives largely from . . . its smallness. . . . It’s hard to imagine the entire staff of a traditional comprehensive high school working together to perfect a schoolwide teaching strategy the way Urban teachers do. It’s also hard to imagine many students in comprehensive high schools would buy into Urban’s teaching strategy, with its expectation that students routinely hold up their work to public scrutiny. Only students who trust the adults and other students around them would subject themselves to such risks. And it’s a small, close-knit community like Urban . . . where such trust is most readily nurtured. (p. 61)

Comments from a sophomore at Frontier High, a small school created as an alternative to the district’s comprehensive high schools, suggest how a smaller structure and in-class group work intertwined to enrich student relationships:

It’s a lot easier to make friends here. You’re closer to a lot more people because it’s so small and . . . you need to become friends with everybody. . . . A lot of times we have partners or small groups [in class] and you have to get along with the people in the groups, otherwise, it’s not going to accomplish anything. (McQuillan, 1995, p. 10)

A second sophomore reinforced this observation:

I talk to some people and I realize that if I were at [another city high school], I wouldn’t even think about talking with any of the people in that group, because it’s already been decided subconsciously in people’s minds that this is one group, and someone else is in another group, and you don’t really exchange among the groups. It’s not like that at all here. (McQuillan, 1995, p. 11)

Though a small-school structure may alter aspects of the status quo, this does not ensure that more substantive reform follows. In a study of Chicago small schools, William Stevens and Joseph Kahne (2006) found that “the daily demands of teaching and other school-related responsibilities competed with, and often distracted [teachers] from, a more systematic and sustained developmental focus on instructional improvement” (p. 2). In Seattle, the Gates Foundation sought to alter the interaction among system elements among one set of sponsored schools by developing a detailed school transformation strategy. However, this proved difficult. At one school, “pockets of cynicism about high expectations” (Fouts, Baker, & Riley, 2001, p. 29) undermined reform. At another, personality issues “formed a serious barrier to collaboration and to progress toward the grant’s objectives” (p. 26). In summary, the authors stated, “What appear to be lacking in many of the school plans are specific ideas for dealing with existing teacher culture and resistance, district structures and expectations, and parental and community concerns, all of which will provide challenges to the reinvention efforts” (p. 21).


Where you start with school reform often has a big impact on where you end up. In the realm of complexity, this is understood as “initial conditions” (Gleick, 1987), those “initial characteristics [that] have a profound effect on later behavior. . . . [and] small variations at the beginning of a process [that] have large effects in the end” (Buell & Cassidy, 2001, p. 4). Thus, similar reform initiatives can produce different outcomes in different contexts, dependent on the history and nature of those contexts, the initial conditions. For instance, when creating Frontier High, the district embraced an inclusive strategy. The woman selected as principal, teachers from the district hired to work at Frontier, and faculty from a local university were designated the “design team” and created much of the school’s philosophical and structural underpinnings. Over time, these persons hired more faculty committed to the school’s ideals and, as a collective, further refined the school’s design and vision. To date, the school has had low dropout rates and relatively high scores on state exams, though serving a large percentage of special needs students. Because of increased demand, in 2006, Frontier expanded from 350 to 400 students.

In contrast, at the RMEC, those directing an effort to convert this comprehensive high school into three small schools moved quickly on a proposal to the district and Gates Foundation, drawing together a core of personnel to write it (CSSI, 2006). Most faculty, students, and parents knew little about the proposal until it was approved and implementation had begun. After a difficult 5 years characterized by low enrollments, high dropout rates, and poor standardized test scores, the superintendent closed RMEC for the 2006–2007 school year to be redesigned.6 Two years earlier, I authored a study of RMEC and wrote that initial conditions may have “undermined” reform:

For one thing, there was a sense . . . that reform had been rushed. . . . Additional planning might have helped the Complex avoid confusion and some associated skepticism. . . . But as reform was hurried, many faculty . . . were uncertain just what was going on and why. Power became highly centralized because everything had to be done yesterday. . . . Even now, three years into reform [2004], the uncertain foundation on which this conversion was founded appears to affect the schools’ day-to-day operations. Some [school] personnel and parents, for instance, are unclear how small-schools should function. There is skepticism toward outside partners. And some faculty and administrators seem ready to abandon the reform altogether. (McQuillan, 2004, p. 8)

Although I wouldn’t attribute the schools’ current situations solely to initial conditions—and complexity theory would challenge such a linear cause-and-effect assumption—it seems that initial conditions played some role in creating their present differences.


In complex adaptive systems, control tends to be dispersed throughout rather than overly centralized. Multiple system elements can act with autonomy, allowing the system to adapt to ever-changing circumstances and rendering it less vulnerable to debilitating circumstances and more able to act when opportunity arises (Gleick, 1987; Wheatley, 1999). However, power is not shared equally among system elements (Buell & Cassidy, 2001). The human body, a quintessential complex adaptive system, has a hierarchical structure. A single blood vessel or our little fingers are nowhere near as important as our brains, but all possess individual agency. Similar insights apply to education. Because complex systems must be active at many levels, top-down leadership can be only a piece of any reform strategy (Evans, 1996; Fullan, 2002; Lieberman & Miller, 1999; Sarason, 1990, 1996). The nature of small-school reform may make this truism even more compelling. In working with small schools in Baltimore and Philadelphia, for instance, Nettie Legters and her colleagues (2002) found that

A [small-school] structure calls for different roles, including . . . academy leaders who assist with administration in the academy and provide collegial leadership and support to all teachers. . . . In schools that took a year to plan . . . [such] leaders [emerged] from the teaching faculty—individuals with energy and good ideas who were able to step forward and prove their leadership qualities. (p. 103)

At Green Valley Junior/Senior High, a CES small school, my colleague and I (Muncey & McQuillan, 1996) described how Marc Tucker, the principal, distributed authority and encouraged teacher ownership of reform:

While Tucker is often the driving force in introducing change, faculty commitment has been the reason change has taken root. . . . [H]is ability to coalesce support for reform initiatives among teachers has been a . . . critical factor in sustaining change. For instance, teams of teachers at Green Valley have had virtually total freedom to develop curricula, design schedules, and organize their students. [A schoolwide curriculum project] was possible because a home economics teacher was awarded a grant. (p. 248)

In an interview, Tucker commented on his approach to change:

There are a lot of things that I’m doing too much thinking about by myself. For the good of the idea, it needs more minds. So I’m thinking of taking a day every two weeks and just ordering pizza and picking a topic [to discuss]. And I’ll tell teachers, “I really don’t care if you come. . . . We’re just going to sit around and eat pizza and talk about school”. . . . If we do it that way, the idea can go further. (p. 253)

Moreover, in small schools, administrators may embrace such strategies simply because in a smaller setting, they can know how teachers use their influence. If administrators are responsible for 100 or more teachers, why would they distribute power when they can’t know how people use that power? Comparing Green Valley, with 350 students, to Silas Ridge, another CES school that enrolled over 1,000 students, my colleague and I (Muncey & McQuillan, 1996) suggested that size and trust intertwined:

At Silas Ridge, faculty felt [the principal] did not trust them to enact change. Instead, she tried to oversee much of the school’s reform efforts. . . . trust was such an issue that the school undertook few efforts at change since faculty and administration reached consensus on very little. At Green Valley, Tucker delegated substantial responsibilities to teachers—to devise schedules, set course goals, and so on. It may have been easier for him to accord teachers such autonomy, since the school’s size allowed him to monitor much of what happened at this small school. (p. 259)

To distribute institutional control, some small schools have adopted an education-as-democracy orientation (Darling-Hammond, 1996), including students in the reform process. From the perspective of complex systems, Gary Hoban (2002) outlined the logic for doing so:

It is important for a learning system to have feedback loops to monitor the directions generated by the system. . . . A major source of feedback for teachers when they try out new ideas is data from their own students. Such information gives teachers a sense of whether what they are trying is working. (p. 64)

As a small school committed to being a “democratic learning community,” Frontier High’s “vision statement” acknowledged the importance of student input: “Everyone is a learner, everyone is a teacher, and everyone accepts responsibility for supporting, encouraging, and assuring learning by their peers. Students and staff participate in decisions about learning and the learning environment. They share in responsibility for maintaining the school community” (McQuillan, 2005, p. 653).

Consistent with these ideals, Frontier students often alluded to the say they had in the life of their school. As one young woman remarked,

If I feel frustrated about anything, I usually go to [my adviser] and talk to him about it and he’ll bring it to a staff meeting or I’ll bring it to [the principal]. I don’t get to make all my choices [but] I have a say. People listen to me. (McQuillan, 1995, p. 10)

A young man expressed a comparable perception:

At Frontier . . . students can just walk in, literally just walk into the office and say, “I need to sit down and talk to someone about my needs and my desires for my future.” And a teacher would drop everything and just sit down and talk. And they wouldn’t make you feel like you were making them inconvenienced or pulling them away from something they were doing. They treated you like you were their first priority. (McQuillan, 1995, p. 11)

Despite such potential, education-as-democracy has not always emerged without incident. In Frontier’s first semester (September 1993), when the school initially accorded students power, some misused that power, and others expressed little interest. For many, the school seemed chaotic. The principal put the matter bluntly: “We wanted to act on the kids’ ideas [but]. . . . September [of the first year] was a nightmare. We weren’t treading water. We were drowning.” In Washington state, Mary Beth Lambert (2003) found distributing control problematic for adults as well:

[B]eing a part of the leadership of a small school . . . can be much more confusing and anxiety-ridden than it is fun. The reality of leading a small school is that it is filled with daily mini-crises . . . and wondering when things will finally be under control. (p. 2)

At RMEC, concerns with time restricted faculty input into the change process. This soured at least one teacher on the overall reform: “We see what our students need but we were left out of creating this school structure. Now many teachers feel that we have little independence and autonomy. . . . None of what we thought was most important was listened to” (McQuillan, 2002, p. 68).

In an institution where centralized power is so taken for granted, it would be naïve to think that distributing control and authority would be easy. Changing institutional norms will generate confusion and uncertainty. But to remain adaptive, a complex system depends on a distribution of influence and an open flow of communication (Stacey, 1996). It needs to know what is occurring among system elements and in its surrounding environment, and it must be able to act on what it learns. By distributing control, a complex adaptive system can address this need. With greater institutional influence, administrators, teachers, and students could all act to enrich the workings of the complex system of a school. They can all help conceptualize reform; they, of course, must implement reform; and they are sources of valuable feedback in assessing the impact of reform (Martin, 2004; Stevens & Kahne, 2006).


Although complexity theory emphasizes nonlinear, and therefore nonpredictable, outcomes, within complex adaptive systems, forces known as control parameters (Axelrod & Cohen, 1999; Beckerman, 1999) keep a system in balance. They lend a measure of predictability to how the system operates by helping generate common tendencies or patterns, typically known as fractals (Larsen-Freeman, 1997; Gleick, 1987). So although the actions of a complex adaptive system are random, the outcomes often fall within a predictable range. Describing how a balance between control and autonomy can engender predictability, Margaret Wheatley (1999) observed that

scientists now describe how order and form [i.e., fractals] are created not by complex controls, but by the presence of a few guiding formulas or principles [i.e., control parameters] repeating back on themselves through the exercise of individual freedom. The survival and growth of systems that range in size from large ecosystems down to the smallest microbial colonies are sustained by a few principles that express the system’s overall identity combined with high levels of autonomy for individuals within that system. (p. 13)

When a complex adaptive system involves humans, one control parameter that maintains “order and form” is culture—that is, “the framework of beliefs, expressive symbols, and values in terms of which individuals define their world, express their feelings, and make their judgments” (Geertz, 1973, pp. 144–145).7 In this conception, culture does not determine social action, nor is it predictive, but it defines the possible, the logical. It can lead to developing norms that, when internalized, “regulate not through fear of consequences but through the belief that some actions are right and others wrong” (Axelrod & Cohen, 1999, p. 150). In schools, core values can guide critical administrative actions as well as daily routines, informing decisions about who to hire, how to structure the curriculum, and when to expel a student (O’Day, 2002).8 Given the centrality of culture to so much of school life, it seems that any effort at reform should involve “helping all stakeholders . . . develop a set of shared core ideas and beliefs about the ideal kind of educational system they would like to have” (Reigeluth, 2004, p. 17; see also, Donaldson, 2001; Fullan, 2002; Peterson, McCarthy, & Elmore, 1996; Schmoker, 1997). This is not to say everyone in a small-school community must share the same values. As David Ferrero (2005), director of research and evaluation for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, explained, “The point here is not to create homogeneous communities of value, but rather to create homogeneity with respect to certain core beliefs concerning curriculum, instruction, norms of comportment, and civic virtue” (p. 14). Ideally, common values shape system interactions in ways that, in the language of complexity, lead to the emergence of “redundant,” “self-similar” patterns and outcomes—otherwise known as school routines—that align with a school’s ideals and reproduce at multiple levels of the system.

After visiting Oakton Public Schools in Colorado—where the secondary district was restructured into six small schools, each with its own thematic focus—I characterized the substantive conversations I observed in multiple contexts as a fractal, though the small schools’ overarching visions differed notably:

In classrooms many teachers push their students to address higher-order issues and to collaborate with their peers in doing so. In speaking with and observing some teachers, I saw how they often have substantive conversations with their colleagues or persons from outside the schools, such as representatives of Expeditionary Learning [a reform initiative promoted by Outward Bound USA]. Even our group interview with [school principals] included . . . substantive conversation, as participants did not merely respond directly to each of our questions, but they often modified, clarified, or added to things their colleagues said. (p. 2, McQuillan, 2005)

The Wade School, a CES small school in New York City, focused much of its work on ensuring that “teaching and learning [were] personalized to the maximum feasible extent” (CES, 2006). For instance, teachers saw students daily in classes that were seldom larger than 20, and no teacher was responsible for more than 60 students in total. Every student belonged to an advisory of 10–15 students who met daily with a faculty adviser. In the course of a school year, advisers met with each student and his or her parents at least twice to discuss the student’s performance and how school and home might collaborate to reinforce a student’s academic growth. To promote continuity in this relationship, students kept their advisers for 2 years. So student-teacher ratios remained low, all administrators were advisers and taught. When viewed as control parameters, these policies and practices can be understood as efforts to generate a common fractal, personalization, at multiple levels of the system—in the classroom, in advisory, in the school at large, and in home-school interactions.

At Frontier High, students, teachers, and administrators consistently spoke to the centrality of respect as a core value for their school. In all aspects of school life, teachers, administrators, parents, and maintenance staff expected to be treated with respect and were expected to treat others in kind. Offering some idea for how shared values shaped social interactions, a Frontier High graduate who was student teaching at the school described how she reminded three disruptive students of the community’s commitment to mutual respect:

We had a nice long talk about how I felt disrespected and I know at Frontier that’s not a value we have as a community. . . . In a situation where there’s a lack of respect, [I need to make that clear]. . . . Other students felt disrespected by those three students because [that behavior] was impeding their work. . . . [So] I felt not only that I was disrespected but that I had an obligation to the students, who were working hard, to deal with these individuals.

How’s it going now?

It’s not happened since.

In this instance, a commitment to mutual respect facilitated classroom interactions while offering the student teacher an opportunity to reinforce the importance of this foundational value.

In contrast, at RMEC, little time was spent creating a common culture. The matter of shared beliefs and common themes remained problematic at all three schools for the life of this small-school conversion. On various occasions, I attended faculty meetings in which issues of institutional focus and priorities were subordinated to what seemed to be largely procedural and informational matters. Remarks from one principal even threw into question whether this leader fully grasped the rationale for small-school reform. In outlining “future directions for the school,” he endorsed returning to a comprehensive school organization, the structural antithesis of a small school: “I would probably encourage that they put this building back together. It could probably serve students better. You could share staff across one [educational] complex” (McQuillan, 2004, p. 42).

In a report to CSSI, the agency that funded the conversion, I offered one interpretation for why developing a “common and clear educational focus,” one of the agency's guiding principles, had been difficult at RMEC:

When the small-school conversion occurred, faculty were recruited for the three small-schools based on some measure of philosophical commitment to small-schools and the particular school’s theme. But the vision and ideals of the schools were far from fully formed and, in fact, continue to evolve. Faculty [still] differ on many educational issues, which makes [reform] difficult. (McQuillan, 2004, p. 5)

Schools are complex systems. If those in schools don’t share common values, the system will not work as well as it might otherwise. Some would argue it isn’t a system in any sense but name (Wheatley, 1999). People will work at cross-purposes and priorities will conflict, thereby undermining trust and collective action. And if the parts never work in a mutually reinforcing fashion, an outcome facilitated by shared values, the system likely will never realize its synergistic potential, a topic examined in the next section.


Within complex adaptive systems, there is a synergy to the interaction of system elements. The emergent behavior of the whole can exceed the sum of the individual parts because interactions are complementary and mutually beneficial. Acting in concert, system elements can transform into something very different in form and function. Farmers easily ignore a single locust, but a swarm can devastate an entire crop. As a burger joint, the first McDonald’s was of little consequence. As a chain, McDonald’s has transformed eating habits worldwide. And although we may herald the efforts of exceptional individuals, the collective impact of humankind, for better or worse, creates much of the world we live in. In all such instances, system elements find a means to work in concert for mutual benefit, adapting and evolving and accomplishing as a collective what could not be done as individuals.

When complex systems attain such a state of synergy, they are said to be on the “edge of chaos” (Beckerman, 1999; Stacey, 1996). Though sounding ominous, this system feature closely parallels Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the goal being to find the “just right” balance on various system dimensions. Distributed control, for instance, should promote individual autonomy and enrich communication while not being so decentralized that the system stagnates for lack of common direction. The feedback that a system draws from its environment should provoke change without overwhelming the system with information. Changes in the interaction among elements should be drastic enough to disrupt the status quo while avoiding system disintegration. Neither chaotic nor stagnant, on the edge of chaos, elements in a complex system continually adapt to an ever-changing environment.

Consider what can happen, at least theoretically, in a small school. To begin, the structure forces a change in system interactions, enhancing personalization in ways that seem almost unavoidable, as students, teachers, and administrators interact more regularly in multiple contexts. When people know one another, school climate improves. Over time, understanding promotes trust, which in turn may enhance classroom learning and enrich students’ social capital. Teachers can hold students accountable for their work and design lessons to meet their needs and interests. If achievement improves, so may the teachers’ professional efficacy, making them more likely to remain at the school and further enrich relationships.9 Furthermore, if control is distributed, teachers and students gain agency; they have a say in how the institution operates and are more likely to understand how it should operate. With more persons having some measure of influence and understanding, the organization becomes more flexible and adaptable. So when the need arises, the institution can react.

In this theoretical scenario (and there could be many others), multiple system elements interact in an appropriate balance—school size, personal relations, student performance, teacher efficacy, and so on. Exactly how and to what degree each influences the other is indeterminable. However, viewed through the lens of complexity, there is a logic to their interactions. One can envision how they might work collectively to enhance teaching and learning and create a more humane and effective institution.



As anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1964) wrote, a society’s kinship systems and food preferences offer a revealing way to understand the values and routine behaviors of that society. They are “good to think with.” So is complexity theory. It offers a systematic way to conceptualize and direct reform in a dynamic, nonlinear system. It is not precise, and certainly not predictive, but complexity theory—with its attention to changed interactions, initial conditions, distributed authority, control parameters, and fractals—offers a holistic framework for understanding the systemic nature of educational reform.

Too often, efforts at educational change have been atheoretical, ignoring the multiple interrelated and interacting elements of our schools and school systems. Viewing the educational system as composed of isolated and discrete structures, such efforts assumed that complicated phenomena could be understood by analyzing their constituent parts, when in fact the sum of the whole was greater, and more complex, than the sum of the individual parts. Consequently, reforms modified one or two elements in a system apart from related elements, assuming that these actions would produce the intended outcome through a linear cause-and-effect relationship (Hoban, 2002). But often, the status quo endured. Rather than assuming such predictable and linear interactions among discrete elements in an educational system, complexity theory draws attention to the evolving interrelationships among system elements at various levels of the system. It offers a means to analyze emerging patterns and trends to illuminate how the disparate system parts are, or are not, working together. It does so in part by directing attention to the following questions when designing, implementing, and assessing reform: Are initial conditions promising? Will people do things differently and in ways that align with a school’s core values? Is power distributed appropriately? Do people have a say? Do students, teachers, parents, and administrators share core values? Are similar rituals, routines, and practices aligned with these values and enacted at multiple levels of the system? Are there logical reasons why the pieces would work in concert and be mutually supportive?

The previous observations point to at least two practical implications. First, because a small-school system is emergent and ever-evolving, assessment should be ongoing and formative, a normal part of school routine that allows a school or district to focus on specific priorities, assess the degree to which goals are realized, and adjust accordingly. Research should also assess interactions at multiple levels of the system as a means to identify salient variables that reproduce at varied system levels. Further, those directing reform should not try to micromanage fragments of the system but should promote practices that act in concert to nurture change, looking for ways to refine and modify system elements as change unfolds. As Roger Lewin (1999) suggested to business managers, “Evolve solutions, don’t design them” (p. 203).

The second implication follows closely from the first. Educational reform policies should not target individual system elements for change. Such efforts will likely have little effect. Instead, policy makers should identify related features at multiple levels of a system and work to affect them simultaneously. Quite simply, the more levels of a system a policy affects, the more likely it is that change will follow (Buell & Cassidy, 2001).


In many ways, small schools make sense, offering a kinder, gentler complement to No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—same goal, enhancing student achievement, different means, improving relations among students, teachers, and administrators. Although NCLB promotes such estimable goals as holding all students to consistently high standards, the reform says little about promoting positive relations within schools, creating relevant curricula, or allowing students to shape their education. Focused on bureaucratic accountability (O’Day, 2002), our educational system has paid little attention to social relations, though they are integral to effective learning and would complement NCLB goals.

In addition, given their attention to personal relations, small schools might help address the consistent underachievement by students in urban comprehensive high schools. Trust and respect between students and teachers seems essential, though it is often missing in these schools (Ladson-Billings, 1994). In a smaller institutional setting, with more intense interactions among a smaller group of persons who share similar values (it is hoped), school districts can begin the process of improving urban education. They can create a context for building trust and understanding in ways that allow teachers and students to interact in a supportive and respectful context while enhancing students’ social capital by creating relationships with influential persons—teachers, administrators, and guidance counselors. Potentially, small schools can be a piece of a badly needed urban reform strategy.


The small-schools train has left the station. In fact, it has jumped the tracks and no one is really sure where it’s headed as it picks up passengers and speed, throughout school districts across the country. (Rethinking Schools, 2005, p. 4)

This synopsis of the growth of the small-schools movement, from the editors of Rethinking Schools, captures the current imbalance between the reform’s expansion and its empirical research base. Although I believe that small schools hold promise, there is a need for ongoing research and documentation. This reform needs to be analyzed over time to assess strengths and weaknesses and thereby inform practice. I therefore want to draw together interested researchers to create a clearinghouse to compile and conduct studies of small schools. As districts continue exploring this strategy, it would help to better understand those aspects of small-school reform that most effectively promote substantive change and improved achievement.


I would like to thank the Colorado Small-Schools Initiative at the Colorado Children’s Campaign for financial support that allowed me to conduct portions of this research. In addition, I want to recognize Leigh Patel Stevens, Kevin Welner, Rona Wilensky, John Sullivan, Jack Buckley, Sarah Pratt, Laura Stuckey, William Doll, Van Schoales, and Nettie Legters for support they provided in helping me complete this research and writing. I also want to thank the editors of this special edition and three anonymous reviewers whose suggestions have shaped this manuscript in notable and, I believe, positive ways.


1. I analyze small schools as a promising reform for urban schools and view the comprehensive high school structure as maladaptive for urban contexts while recognizing that some view the comprehensive high school as dysfunctional in suburban contexts as well (e.g., Powell, Farrar, & Cohen, 1985; Sizer, 1984).

2. Although I focus on race/ethnicity, because of the high correlation between race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status (SES), one can argue that these developments link to SES issues as well. Space does not allow for a discussion of this matter.

3. For an extended discussion of what constitutes a “small school,” see Cotton (2001, pp. 7–13) or the Colorado Small Schools Initiative (

4. All school and person names are pseudonyms.

5. This included 40 students in Grades 9 and 10, evenly divided between males and females in a small school with 325 students.

6. Prior to the conversion, the collective performance of Rocky Mountain High was much the same as after its conversion to three small schools. However, given Gates’s funding and presence, more people became aware of what happened at the school.

7. Culture is not the only control parameter that influences school “systems.” Federal mandates, such as NCLB, have a notable impact, as do many other factors.

8. Some complexity theorists observe that actors in complex adaptive systems need not share common values (Davis & Sumara, 2006). I agree but also believe that common values positively impact system interactions.

9. At Frontier High, a sizable percentage of faculty have been at the school since its founding in 1993, which may help explain the school’s relative success.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 9, 2008, p. 1772-1801 ID Number: 15167, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 5:21:36 AM

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