Monday, July 14, 2008

Big Hurdles for Small Schools

Big Hurdles for Small Schools
by Christopher Jones, Vice President for Research, RPA

Education reform is a tough business. The more it succeeds, the more it runs into internal contradictions. One of the latest reform movements—replacing large elementary and high schools with small neighborhood or theme-based schools—is racking up a growing number of examples with impressive results. Two of these, both New York City public schools that were started and sponsored by the Urban Assembly, were recently profiled in the New York Times. In Bushwick, the New York Harbor School has achieved a graduation rate well above the city average and nearly three times the rate of the previous high school that occupied its site. In Fort Greene, the first senior class of the School for Law and Justice graduated 93% of its students and is sending nearly all of them to college. To be sure, there are a number of small schools that fall well short of their goals and plenty of debate over why some make it and some don’t. Still, these stories and a growing body of research indicate that New York City and other school systems that have decided to emphasize more intimate educational environments appear to have made the right choice.

So what’s the problem? Well, it turns out that one of the critical ingredients is a precious commodity that these schools have accumulated. Like metal being pulled toward a powerful magnet, this resource is drawn to the most inspiring schools. Some call it dedication, energy or personal attention. It is all of those things, but if you have to measure it, it comes down to time. It’s teachers and principals working 60-hour weeks. It’s parents stealing time from their jobs and their family to go to parent-teacher conferences, work on school committees and volunteer in the classroom. It’s Department of Education administrators devoting work hours to these new schools because they’ve invested so much in their success. Without a doubt, skilled and creative education professionals can do a lot more with the time they have than others, and without training and experience, dedication will only get you so far. But it’s this often neglected element of work hours – how many education professionals are capable of and willing to put in – that you seldom see in job descriptions but that clearly makes an enormous difference.

From the perspective of education outcomes, the “dedication” model works incredibly well for those schools that are able to attract the staff and families that are able and willing to put in these hours. Small schools have an advantage because they provide a payoff, not only in terms of better test scores and graduation rates, but also in the satisfaction of seeing that you can make a difference and of developing the personal relationships that are possible in smaller communities. And like any other endeavor, the small schools that have the most financial support and the most effective leadership are the ones that are going to attract the parents, teachers and students who are most willing to give of their time.

As successful as this can be for individual schools, there is a big question as to how sustainable and replicable this model is. Will everyone involved—teachers, administrators, parents and students—be able to keep up a herculean effort over time? Are there enough qualified professionals with the motivation and drive to expand this model throughout the system? The School for Law and Justice, for all its success, also highlights these challenges. The energetic principal who guided it through its initial years, is leaving to become an assistant superintendant for a group of charter schools. The school has also lost many teachers, most of whom are in their 20s, to higher paying or less stressful jobs—just as they are gaining the classroom experience to go along with high energy. Few have time to put in these kinds of hours and have children of their own.

When asked about this dilemma, Chancellor Joel Klein responded: “When people are part of the world of changing things for children, they don’t view it as work.” Right. I’d like to give the Chancellor the benefit of the doubt and assume he knows better. No matter how dedicated these professionals are to the cause, it’s hard work, and they still have lives to live and bills to pay. But really, what else could he say? Right now there’s not enough money in the education system to have enough teachers and support staff to give every student all the attention they need, or to compensate those who go well above and beyond their job requirements.

That brings us back to the perennial issue of funding. If we know what works, do we have the political will to give it the resources it needs to succeed on a large scale? Higher salaries, smaller classes and more support would attract more high quality professionals and reduce the level of turnover and burnout.

More dollars are certainly needed, but that’s not the only issue. We also have a fundamental problem with the way that our education system meshes (or doesn’t mesh) with the changing demands of work and family life. We’re not only asking more of teachers and students, we’re also asking more of parents, whether it’s reading more with their children at home or getting involved with their children’s school. This is a good thing, since parental involvement is one of the best predictors of academic success. However, these rising expectations are also coming at a time when there are fewer families with a stay-at-home parent, when work loads and time pressures are increasing in many occupations, and when sleep deprivation seems to be reaching epidemic proportions.

As any working parent knows, it’s difficult to juggle these competing demands. For single parents, it can often be overwhelming. Some of these parents are also the very teachers and principals that we are expecting to come early and work late to make our schools work better. There are no easy answers to these larger conflicts, although better child care options and more flexible work schedules would help a lot. But relying on high expectations and exceptional motivation alone won’t resolve them. In fact, the more we succeed with these tools, the more we will confront their limitations. Dedication, energy and attention are not a zero-sum game, and we can increase the supply with settings that allow them to flourish. But neither are they inexhaustible resources. It is exciting and encouraging that we are finding more ways to inspire students and educators, but that only makes it more urgent that we find the methods and means to sustain and expand our successes.

New Jersey Hedges

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