Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Smaller Schools


Warning... this is a long post.

There is little doubt that education failure remains a serious problem in many Michigan [and other states'] urban schools. Facilities are old, classes are often too large, teachers are given responsibility without authority, discipline among students has been outlawed as outdated thinking, and parents' (or parent's) involvement is generally missing.

Michigan's governor has an idea she is promoting: small high schools.

"The plan is based on the idea that smaller is better. High schools with about 400 students are more manageable, students can get more individual attention and the principal knows everybody in the building, Granholm administration officials said." [source]
There may be merit to reducing a school from 2,000-3,000 students to 1,000-1,200. But one must consider that as schools get smaller, the cost per student will rise significantly... if the schools are to offer similar opportunities for the students.

Let's presume that a teacher has 4 classes a day plus some other administrative or extracurricular responsibilities. If the class size presently averages 30 students, then the school of 400 students would have about 14 classes of 25-30 students 4 times a day... in other words, the school would need 14 teachers to keep the proposed cost for teachers the same as educating those 400 students inside a larger school population. Just consider that such a small teaching corp does not provide a great deal of opportunity for an interesting variety of courses.
Where costs are not the same is for school administration, maintenance staff, and facilities costs. These would be increased by some percentage since you can't have 1/5 of a principal, for example.
The next question is: what do you do with those large schools? Detroit has mothballed many of them, but they still require some maintenance and resources, even if they are not used for educating anyone.
Theoretically, students from the larger schools [many of which are now larger because there were insufficient students from schools that were closed] could be fractured into smaller groups and then sent to the mothballed schools. The problem with that idea is that many of those facilities were in need of significant, expensive restoration or renovation... which along with the small student populations were the reason they were closed.
Another alternative is that the present schools could be sold off. The problem is that there are no buyers... scratch that idea. They would have to be bulldozed and the land sold or turned into parks [maybe not a bad idea].
But if the larger schools were simply shut down, then many new small schools would have to be built to replace them... a very costly effort for which the state would have to go deeply in debt... with shaky prospects for enough revenue to pay off that debt without significant tax increases.
Another alternative is to use mothballed elementary or middle schools. Again, they would need restoration or renovation, but the costs might be manageable. There may not be enough of those facilities to meet the Governor's plan requirements... and the facilities might have to be modified for students who are simply physically bigger.

Perhaps what is needed is not a focus on school size, but rather school function. Think of the way education is organized from kindergarten through college.
  • In kindergarten, students stay with one or two teachers all day. Those teachers provide all of the instruction.
  • In elementary school, some small schools may have a single teacher teaching a single grade level all day while larger elementary schools and middle schools have students moving from classroom to classroom for the different subjects... but all students taking the same curriculum.
  • In high schools, students go from classroom to classroom. Students are required to take some "compulsory" courses and then have limited choices for "electives."
  • At universities, students may have a few general "requirements," but the "college" curriculum dictates the requirements and those may be fulfilled in a variety of ways... the curriculum is highly differentiated for each individual.
Perhaps it is time for educators to realize that the present high school education may be archaic for today's world. After all, it is organizationally and content-wise [3Rs etc.] little changed over hundreds of years... even though schools have gotten larger.
Rather than recognizing the opportunities available with larger schools, the educational system forces larger schools to conform to the small school model and wonders why it doesn't work.
Let's get a little creative in our thinking. Instead of thinking of a large high school as a bloated version of a small high school, why not organize it into the university model? Take advantage of the large number of teachers with a variety of interests and skills.
Create small high school "colleges" within the large high school "university."
The archaic way of thinking is that in order to learn to read well, a student must take English courses.
Does it really matter if a student learns to read from Shakespeare's plays or from an explanation of computer programing or the history of automobiles or analyses of various forms of music? And who is to say that disparate curriculum can't be creatively combined; for example, an analysis of history as reflected in period plays?
The level of reading can be age-appropriate and challenging regardless of the subject... and allowing the student to focus on subjects of interest within a "college" may counteract the boredom that drives many students away from the "traditional" high school educational experience.

In four-year high schools, the organization could be changed so that incoming freshman receive the traditional compulsory courses. Then students can choose a "major" [that could be changed once at the end of their sophomore year] where more of their courses fall within the major curriculum... increasing each year until their senior year when all of the courses fall within that "major."

Oh, but that's too difficult! Besides, colleges and universities want "traditional" high school education for a student to be accepted. Do they?
For example, can art be related to history? Are mathematics used in art [ever hear of architecture, ratios, perspective] and is there an artistic element to physics [ever hear of sub-atomic particle tracking or visualizing higher dimensions]? Have there ever been difficult texts about art that require good reading skills? Are computer graphics a form of art?
You can ask the same questions about engineering or computer science or even physical education ["kinesiology" at the University of Michigan] for those students who think that basketball is all that counts.

The present way asks students to learn the basics of physics... boring. The science curriculum alternative might also ask the students who was involved in various discoveries in physics and how they got to that point [history and transfer of knowledge] and what were the ramifications of those discoveries [societal studies, philosophy] and how they changed our ability to interact with our universe [art, medicine, exploration].

The idea is to offer a "well-rounded" educational experience exposing students to many disciplines through an emphasis on a particular discipline versus a "standard" segregated approach.

With some effort and cooperation from universities such as the University of Michigan or Michigan Tech or Michigan State University, suitable "major" curriculum could be established that would prepare high school students for their entrance exams and the rigors or advanced education in fields that actually interest them.
What is too difficult is breaking away from "traditional." Governor Granholm's proposal is just a wish for "the good old days" when schools were smaller and teaching was simpler. Perhaps it is time to try a different model.
How about putting money into changes that might actually make a difference?
Let's model our high schools after universities... not middle schools.
... or we could just have small schools... that's a lot easier and we don't have to think too hard.

Follow-up posts of January 31 and February 1.


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February 3, 2006
Go back to 1999-2000 and see what the Fed did. They are following the same pattern for 2005-06. If it ain't broke, the Fed will fix it... and good!
August 29, 2006 The Federal Reserve always acts on old information... and is the only cause of U.S. recessions.
December 5, 2006 Last spring I wrote about what I saw to be a sharp downturn in the economy in the "rustbelt" states, particularly Michigan.
March 28, 2007
The Federal Reserve sees no need to cut interest rates in the light of adverse recent economic data, Ben Bernanke said on Wednesday.
The Fed chairman said ”to date, the incoming data have supported the view that the current stance of policy is likely to foster sustainable economic growth and a gradual ebbing in core inflation”.

July 21, 2007 My guess is that if there is an interest rate change, a cut is more likely than an increase. The key variables to be watching at this point are real estate prices and the inventory of unsold homes.
August 11, 2007 I suspect that within 6 months the Federal Reserve will be forced to lower interest rates before housing becomes a black hole.
September 11, 2007 It only means that the overall process has flaws guaranteeing it will be slow in responding to changes in the economy... and tend to over-react as a result.
September 18, 2007 I think a 4% rate is really what is needed to turn the economy back on the right course. The rate may not get there, but more cuts will be needed with employment rates down and foreclosure rates up.
October 25, 2007 How long will it be before I will be able to write: "The Federal Reserve lowered its lending rate to 4% in response to the collapse of the U.S. housing market and massive numbers of foreclosures that threaten the banking and mortgage sectors."
"Should the elevated turbulence persist, it would increase the possibility of further tightening in financial conditions for households and businesses," he said.

"Uncertainties about the economic outlook are unusually high right now," he said. "These uncertainties require flexible and pragmatic policymaking -- nimble is the adjective I used a few weeks ago."

December 11, 2007 Somehow the Fed misses the obvious.
[Image from:]
December 13, 2007 [from The Christian Science Monitor]
"The odds of a recession are now above 50 percent," says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's "We are right on the edge of a recession in part because of the Fed's reluctance to reduce interest rates more aggressively." [see my comments of September 11]
January 7, 2008 The real problem now is that consumers can't rescue the economy and manufacturing, which is already weakening, will continue to weaken. We've gutted the forces that could avoid a downturn. The question is not whether there will be a recession, but can it be dampened sufficiently so that it is very short.
January 11, 2008 This is death by a thousand cuts.
January 13, 2008 [N.Y. Times]
“The question is not whether we will have a recession, but how deep and prolonged it will be,” said David Rosenberg, the chief North American economist at Merrill Lynch. “Even if the Fed’s moves are going to work, it will not show up until the later part of 2008 or 2009.
January 17, 2008 A few days ago, Anna Schwartz, nonagenarian economist, implicated the Federal Reserve as the cause of the present lending crisis [from the Telegraph - UK]:
The high priestess of US monetarism - a revered figure at the Fed - says the central bank is itself the chief cause of the credit bubble, and now seems stunned as the consequences of its own actions engulf the financial system. "The new group at the Fed is not equal to the problem that faces it," she says, daring to utter a thought that fellow critics mostly utter sotto voce.
January 22, 2008 The cut has become infected and a limb is in danger. Ben Bernanke is panicking and the Fed has its emergency triage team cutting rates... this time by 3/4%. ...

What should the Federal Reserve do now? Step back... and don't be so anxious to raise rates at the first sign of economic improvement.
Individuals and businesses need stability in their financial cost structures so that they can plan effectively and keep their ships afloat. Wildly fluctuating rates... regardless of what the absolute levels are... create problems. Either too much spending or too much fear. It's just not that difficult to comprehend. Why has it been so difficult for the Fed?

About Me

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Michigan, United States
Air Force (SAC) captain 1968-72. Retired after 35 years of business and logistical planning, including running a small business. Two sons with advanced degrees; one with a business and pre-law degree. Beautiful wife who has put up with me for 4 decades. Education: B.A. (Sociology major; minors in philosopy, English literature, and German) M.S. Operations Management (like a mixture of an MBA with logistical planning)