Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society

reviewed by Clive Harber - June 30, 2008

coverTitle: Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society
Author(s): Michael Klonsky and Susan Klonsky
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415961238, Pages: 209, Year: 2008
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The title of the series in which this book is published is “Education, Politics and Culture” which suits the lively and politically committed content very well. Fundamentally, the book is about how a progressive educational movement aimed at facilitating smaller and more democratic urban schools in America became hijacked by the neo-conservative agenda of the Bush administration and its many powerful allies. In so doing it cannot fail to tackle the wider educational and political issues of the last eight years and their antecedents, which it does with admirable clarity and detail.  

Although school size is important, the small schools movement has traditionally been more about a democratic ideology of education that rejects the mass, bureaucratized authoritarianism of many large publicly funded schools. Smaller schools potentially make it more possible to organize education in a more supportive, inclusive, egalitarian and humanitarian way. Moreover, this smaller scale is also seen to have significant curricular advantages in that learning can be cooperatively designed to meet personalized learning needs rather than the ‘one size fits all’ approach of larger, more conventional schools.  The democratic ideas behind the small school movement stem from both the ideas of John Dewey and progressive educational writers of the 1960’s and 70’s and the practical realities of trying to provide a higher quality and more meaningful educational experience for alienated and marginalized young people in American cities. Indeed, the book reviews evidence that suggests that small schools of this sort were indeed providing better learning outcomes and a safer and friendlier learning environment.   

The problem that the book confronts is that the notion of freedom contained in the decentralized ability to set up small, but still essentially public, schools concerned directly with issues of social justice has come up against another notion of freedom based on the private market and a consumer notion of freedom. The book discusses how the original small school movement grew in strength, size and influence via the introduction of public Charter Schools, and how the Bush administration and its local allies in big cities have used the greater autonomy of these schools to essentially privatize them by bringing in private management companies with many close ties to the administration itself. Ostensibly these are “not-for profit” organizations but there are many indirect ways of making considerable sums of money from the now essentially privately run schools such as:

Creating non-profit organisations to obtain the charter and then hiring themselves to run the school

Hiring younger, less experienced and less qualified staff which are therefore cheaper

Charter companies teaming up with developers to offer home buyers an upscale amenity – tuition-free, taxpayer-funded schools for their developments

Moreover, in the increasingly privatized context of a single-minded focus on standardized test scores and a punitive approach to low-performing schools, there is little time or concern for children with special needs or children with English as a second language.  

Rather than reduce the role of the state, except in terms of the funding of public schools, the Bush administration has used the power of the state embodied in the No Child Left Behind Act, to control education by enforcing a “teaching to the test” mentality that reduces both the range and depth of the curriculum. In this way schools can be compared in the market place via their test scores, and closed or taken over by private management companies as appropriate. Thus the Ownership Society, the term that the authors use to describe what has happened, uses government as a conduit for public funding of politically aligned private enterprise. In order to justify this they use a post-9/11 language of permanent crisis in education, further hijacking the radical critiques of conventional schooling, to provide a narrow, privatized alternative of their own making.

However, the book argues that most of the resulting privatized small schools have become big schools with authoritarian principals, disempowered and uninspired educators, dubious high-stakes tests and Eurocentric curricula. Indeed, the need to keep costs low through economies of scale has also meant that the size of the schools has inevitably started to drift upwards.

Chapters 4 and 5 provide interesting reading on the role of both philanthropists and well-funded conservative think-tanks in the top-down nature of the whole process. The first by holding the purse strings and setting non-negotiable conditions—making schools offers they can’t refuse—and the second by providing the philosophical underpinning of the changes and by dominating the discourse of educational reform.  The final chapter strikes a more optimistic note about the future and the need for democratic civic engagement with public education by parents, teachers and students, trying to get the initiative back into the hands of the key participants and stakeholders.

For all those in America and elsewhere concerned about not simply giving into the models of education that have been imposed from above by a decidedly right-wing government, this is an informative and useful book. It may even be that the ushering in of a new administration in January 2009 will create a political environment where the original small school ideas of democracy and social justice can flourish and grow once again. However, experience in the UK where a right-wing government gave way to a supposedly centre-left one in 1997 does not make me particularly hopeful, as the educational machinery stayed essentially the same and some screws were even tightened. One thing that is for certain is that the arguments will go on and the supporters of democratic small schools will need to mobilize to put pressure on the new administration. I wish them luck from afar.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 30, 2008 ID Number: 15296, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 12:45:04 PM

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