Bigger Isn't Better in the Public Schools

Albert A. Bartlett

This is a slightly lengthened version of a Guest Editorial that was published in the Boulder Daily Camera, (Boulder, Colorado) June 26, 1999, Pg. 11A

Sunday's Camera (June 20, 1999) printed a collection of some two dozen essays by Boulder County teenagers expressing their views on violence in society. These essays were motivated by the tragic killings of students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado earlier in the year. The essays were excellent.

One particularly perceptive teenager got straight to the heart of the matter when she wrote: "I would not blame the school board, or the protection of the school itself, but the size of the school population. When there are around 2,000 kids crammed into one building and 30 or so kids in each class, there are bound to be some serious problems that go unnoticed ... I go to a school that has around 100 students total. The main focus of our school is 'community.' We focus our energy to meet everyone, feel equal to everyone (including the teachers and students), to get to understand each others views on different subjects, and to feel welcome and accepted ... Since our school is so small, we can have all-school discussions where everyone can be heard."

This student sees what many of our community leaders choose not to see. She recognizes that bigness in societal groups is the catalyst that causes breakup of the big population into smaller separate sub-populations based on the members' views of shared problems, values, and "solutions."

Another student wrote: "When a student seems to be taking a U-turn with their school work, someone should be concerned." The bigger the school the less likely this is to happen.

Another student made the observation: "I believe that giving a sufficient amount of personal attention to today's youth would be a forward step to ending teen violence." This student is calling for the personal attention that is diminished and destroyed by bigness in our schools.

Another student observed that: "Most of these teenagers attend public schools where a single teacher may have as many as 150 to 200 students in one semester, leaving them barely enough time to even memorize their names. I believe a reasonable solution to this problem would be to hire more teachers in the public schools, allowing for smaller classes."

It is clear that these young people recognize the central cause of the problem.

"I mean half of the kids out of 26 kids in my entire eighth grade class... are leaving to go [next year] to either Boulder, Fairview, or Niwot, all public high schools. At our school we are so close we are like sisters and brothers. When the shootings happened at Columbine, it scared the life out of us because we, or our friends, are going to [these big] public high schools next year."

Yet another perceptive student wrote: "The solution I can think of for schools is advisor programs, where kids at first get comfortable with an adult. Trust is built and friendships are made. The advisor has a group of no more that 15 kids, so there is more one-on-one attention. When one of the kids is having trouble, the advisor can do something about it before something happens. At the school I go to, we have an advisor program. I know it works, because I use it every day."

Another student, from a larger school wrote: "If schools were able to hire more counselors, it would give them more time with the students. For every 75 students there should be one counselor... The schools should have it so there would be only about eighteen students in a class. That way, you get more one-on-one time with your teachers. A smaller class gives the teacher a chance to get to know their students and then they might be able to notice if something is not right. The students even have a chance to get to know each other."

Another student observed: "The answer is not putting metal detectors in every doorway. The answer is not banning all violent games. The answer is not as easy as that... I mourn for this country as we try to open up our eyes and see that everything isn't okay, and that each one of us is responsible. I mourn."

The common thread of the impersonality of bigness runs through many of these excellent essays. The bigness has its cause in two obvious things:

the first is population growth in our communities,

and the second is the belief in the economies of scale that are alleged to result from making our schools, especially our high schools, larger and larger.

Students naturally want to identify themselves with groups of manageable size with which they can feel important and can be respected. If the school itself is too large for such identification, individuals will form themselves into smaller groups with which they can identify and feel comfortable. Identification by race, religion, athletics, hostility, etc. are all easily implemented in today's enormous schools.

For many in the community, population growth is synonymous with the "healthy economy." And, as they have said so frequently, our community leaders are determined to maintain a "healthy economy." It has been amply demonstrated that their continuing success will mean larger schools, larger classes, less personal attention for students, and, predictably, more problems.

As for the alleged economies of scale in large schools vs. small schools, we need to look not only at the bottom line of the financial managers, but we need to look at the real bottom line, the community outcome. I believe people are beginning seriously to question the conventional wisdom about the efficacy of bigger schools.

This collection of essays by teenagers in the Camera opened with the headline question, "Is the deck stacked against America's youth having a peaceful future?" If we continue our commitment to a "healthy economy" as it is presently perceived and defined, the answer almost certainly is YES. The annual loss of a few students and teachers is a small price to pay for the continued annual growth of the Gross Local Product.

July 1, 1999

Post Script: A friend who is a high school physics teacher from Texas, to whom I had sent a copy of this piece, responded by explaining that athletics is one of the major reasons for the push for larger and larger high schools.

Districts want the biggest schools possible so that they have the largest pool of prospects from which to draw their teams. There are a few districts that have 9th and 10th grade on one campus and 11th and 12th grade on another, so that each can have 2000 - 3000 students and both the varsity and underclass teams will have huge talent pools, the equivalent of a 4000 - 6000 [student] high school.

He goes on to point out that in a large school they can have athletic directors:

and a huge corps of other coaches who teach only part time... Of course there are also principals, band directors, librarians, counselors, etc., who are responsible for more students in a larger school, and therefore reduce the per student cost. But the whole educational experience suffers.

Some of the post-tragedy reports from Columbine High School tell of widespread student unhappiness over the special treatment the School was alleged to have given to its star athletes. ("High School 'Cult of the Athlete' Under Scrutiny: High Schools' Glorification of Athletes Comes Into Question." Boulder Sunday Camera, June 13, 1999, P.9A)