Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Size Matters And Small Is The Big Idea

     In education, I have always loved BIG. I have embraced big ideas, big resources, big tech, big budgets, big plans, big dreams or big projects. But as much as I love BIG, I now need to formally advocate for small.


      Size Matters.  And although big has its rewards, much of what we want to accomplish in education will only be possible if we think small. That’s right. Small works and it works well.
The research for small has been evident for some time. Core benefits from small schools include increased student achievement, increased attendance, higher teacher satisfaction and improved school climate (Supovitz & Christman, 2005: Howley, et al., 2000).
      Indeed, the case for smaller learning communities and environments can be made from all learning perspectives and applications (see latest Hechinger Report article What Big High Schools Get Wrong to find out more).
     Let’s extend from schools to classrooms. Ask any teacher about their effectiveness, as well as student success and teacher satisfaction, when it comes to class size. Compare 40 versus 25.  I doubt you’ll find one that will advocate for bigger. And it’s not just because it’s easier. It’s because it’s truly better for the students.

    What do students enjoy and need? The list includes personalization, choice, support, attention, engagement, creativity, collaboration, positive relationships and success. All of these are more likely and more consistent in smaller classes.
     What do teachers enjoy and need? This list includes student achievement interaction, mentoring, rigor, thinking, reflection, participation, collaboration, engagement and positive relationships. Again, all of these are more likely and more consistent in smaller classes.
     Whether it’s because of new standards, tech integration, 21st century skill development, career readiness or more, several key things are needed for future student success in the global economy. Most experts agree that students will need to be highly collaborative, communicative, creative, innovative, entrepreneurial, versatile, technology-skilled and critically thinking. All of these are highly enhanced in smaller class settings.

     Back to smaller schools vs. larger schools. After having worked in both large and small schools, there are some essential differences.  Students and staffs in small schools know one another better.  Small schools respond more quickly to change, innovation, ideas, crisis and local needs.  What staff will have a better chance of collaborating and moving forward?  A staff of 150 or one of 25?  It’s not complicated. Indeed, if one studied the most innovative and creative schools from around the nation – whether standard public schools, charter or private – you will typically notice one thing in common.  They are smaller schools.

     Extend this to larger entities such as school districts.  Are our large school districts or smaller ones more capable or less capable of change, innovation, implementation, creativity and personalization?  Without naming names, do you think districts with thousands and thousands of students, as well as thousands of staff, are really going to be able to share a common vision, let alone collaborate?
     Maybe analogies are helpful.  Is your favorite restaurant a small, local one or a large chain one?  Regardless of the industry one compares it too, education, like many of those, is an experience.  And one’s experience - whether it’s students, staff, parents or community members – is what matters right?  And isn’t our experience usually improved with smaller, more personal attention and customization?  We know it is and this really resonates with schools.

     The primary criticism here is always going to be money.  And there is no way to get around that.  To go from 40 to 25 in terms of class sizes will cost money.  We need more teachers and not less. And this is especially challenging now as we have less teachers going into the field and not more. However, maybe if their experience was enhanced – such as something more successful, personalized, enjoyable, manageable and rewarding – maybe more teachers would choose the profession and less would leave.
     How about the size of our schools?  We’ve tried it all – small learning communities, schools within a school and more. These are the right idea, but will never be the same experiences as a small school.
     One fix to me going forward would be to not build any larger schools.  When we build new schools, break it up and create several smaller schools.  Will that cost more?  Maybe, but maybe not.
     If we know that size matters, then we may not have a choice. For any of our initiatives, innovations and intentions to actually work and make a difference, we’ll have to address the size of all of it.  It’s time to start thinking BIG about how to be small.

(photos courtesy of Foter)