A year ago, Diane Ravitch presented a pretty clear and almost scathing explanation of why the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation-sponsored small high schools initiative failed miserably. Back in 2000, the Foundation thought it had found the “silver bullet” that would fix high schools with one fell swoop – make them smaller. After investing over $2 billion in 2,600 new small high schools, the Foundation concluded in November, 2008, that small schools were not the answer. As Ravitch argued, the Foundation was mistaken in believing that the size of the school would answer the challenge of serving students who “are poor, have limited English language proficiency, and are more likely to require special education.”
No doubt, Ravitch is correct in acknowledging the breadth and depth of factors that increase or diminish the likelihood of success of our nation’s high schools, but I’m not sure the dismissal of the small school model as an effective learning community for today’s teenagers is wise, and I know that placing the blame on the students does not help..
As a counterpoint, David Marshak provides in Education Week what to me is a more thoughtful analysis of this Gates Foundation project. He cites the success of three particular high school networks that the Foundation funded, and notes that those success stories shared something vital – the same values and structure. He identifies four elements that characterized successful small schools: separate (not a “school within”) school, clearly defined values and mission, personalized learning, and teachers hired to fit the school’s mission.
Why did the majority of schools the Foundation created from large high schools not meet the expectations? Marshak suggests that the implementation was flawed. Research was ignored, advice of successful practitioners was rejected, and current high school teachers were treated with contempt. “To no one’s surprise, the veteran teachers fought back.” Marshak proceeds to tell how.
A “Silver Bullet”? Most of us in the trenches know that there is no such thing in our challenge to meet the needs of students, but the merit of giving students the opportunity to learn in small, personalized communities, where relationships with teachers and connections with the curriculum are valued cannot be denied. Maybe Bill and Melinda should take a closer look.