Inside the Capitol

Sunday, March 08, 2009

3-11 Is Smaller Better?

WED, 3-11-09

SANTA FE - How do we improve our schools? It's a question we've been asking since the '50s when the Soviets beat us into space. Our first answer was to build bigger schools.
At one time, New Mexico had nearly 1,500 school buildings, many of them the one-room variety. Over the years, that was cut to only about 600 buildings. Bigger was better. The entire nation became enamored with assembly lines and the economies of scale.
Education opinion makers of the '60s called for the elimination of small rural schools because they didn't have the resources to adequately teach science and other subjects. We won the race to the soon but soon realized that we still weren't leading the world in academic achievement.
So we looked for other solutions. It seemed obvious that smaller class sizes would improve education. We made some real progress in that area but reducing class size meant hiring more teachers. Although teachers never have been paid well, they form the huge bulk of a district's budget. So only so much could be done on that count.
Paying teachers more was another solution. Better pay would attract a better quality of teacher. But that too was a very expensive solution.
Currently, political thinking reasons that if we test students more often, they'll get smarter. And those who don't will be punished by receiving less federal money for their schools. Its called accountability. Politicians love it, but it's not making our kids smarter.
So now we're off on another path. At first glance, this one appears even more loony than its predecessor. Instead of bigger is better, we're thinking maybe smaller is better. Sure, it goes against everything that made America the greatest industrialized nation in the world. But maybe the factory model doesn't work in a school system.
Research is indicating that maybe there might be something to this notion. They're finding that smaller schools have higher graduation rates, higher student achievement, greater safety, more extracurricular opportunities and greater satisfaction among students, parents, teachers and principals.
That's not a bad record for an idea that sounds counterintuitive to begin with. How did all this get started? Well, many parents discovered their kids were bored, alienated and fearful of their safety. So they started looking to smaller private schools. Public school advocates then countered by inventing charter schools that could receive public funds but operate more like small private schools.
Meanwhile schools in small communities started being noted for their success in graduating much higher percentages of students. And these students were doing well when they went to college.
What's going on here? Are we talking about diseconomies of scale? Apparently so. Small schools don't have to hire police forces to protect their students. In many large high schools, they are equipped with metal detectors, surveillance cameras and weapons. School buses are another cost of big schools that draw from large areas.
But aren't large schools cheaper per student to build? The answer is yes, absent some creative thinking that currently is being utilized by some small schools. Instead of building their own libraries, ball fields, auditoriums and pools, some schools are entering into partnerships with public libraries, community centers, cultural centers, parks, museums and other community resources.
And even without this creative thinking, the cost of big buildings per graduate, rather than per student, is proving to be a bargain.
But aren't there other disadvantages to small schools? What about narrower curriculum offerings? Research is showing that broader curricula aren't much broader in core subjects.
Yes, but what about athletics? That's important to a lot of community leaders. Smaller schools offer many more students the opportunity to participate and to develop leadership skills. And how many kids go on to play college or pro ball anyway? When I was a kid, schools weren't classified by size. Virden was twice state basketball champion. And Deming was state football champ in 1950.
Our Legislature is now considering school size. It's well worth the look.

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