Monday, June 23, 2008

The Small Schools Experiment, Oregon-style

In what seems to be the longest and largest effort from the Gates Foundation to create smaller high schools, results are in from the first graduating classes from throughout high schools in Oregon state. This article appeared in The Oregonian. What's the outcome? Not much improvement.

It's sad because there, as here in Washington state, schools were compelled to revamp and come up with "transformation" plans. But it seems that there was so much going into planning and not enough into resources, students didn't get much further.

From the article:

"Instead, their statistics look a lot like results from the lumbering, impersonal high schools they are supposed to replace. Lots of students quit, and most of the graduates aren't ready for the rigors of college.

At Marshall and Roosevelt high schools in Portland, which each house three academies, about half of their students didn't make it to graduation. That's the same low graduation rate as when they were two big schools instead of six small academies.

"At first, I loved going to school," says Victoria Sargent, 17, who attended Pauling Academy, a science- and math-focused school on the Marshall campus. "After a while, it was boring to me. Nothing was a challenge. I never had a connection with teachers."

How, if the school (and hopefully, the classes) were smaller, was there not a better connection with the teacher?

The answer may be here:

"She and other students say administrators seemed so caught up in tinkering with the small schools' structure that they didn't pay enough attention to the quality of teaching."

and here:

"Administrators say students at both schools pose special challenges to educate. For instance, at BizTech on the Marshall campus, 76 percent of students come from low-income families. At the Spanish-English International School at Roosevelt, 82 percent of students are low-income. Officials say many of these students enter high school less prepared than their counterparts at other high schools, and many work part time to help support their families."

and here:

"Gates Foundation leaders also have grown impatient at the uneven results when big schools break into small ones. This fall, Gates probably will switch the focus of its grants for fixing high schools to target teaching and raise teacher quality, says Vicki Phillips, former Portland superintendent who now directs Gates' education initiatives.

"We have learned that small by itself is not enough," Phillips says. "Good curriculum and instruction don't just show up. . . We need to get more dramatic results."

and here:

"Organizers put so much emphasis on school structure and small details of the reorganization that the caliber of teaching became secondary.

At Liberty, for example, Principal Gregg O'Mara says E3 kept pressing him to make the small schools more independent from one another. Partly for that reason, the school reorganized twice in the past four years. Starting this fall, he says, Liberty will focus on getting every teacher to collaborate with colleagues on better teaching and student outcomes.

Leadership also has been a problem. Top-notch schools typically require top-notch principals. But school districts cannot afford to pay multiple principals at one high school the same high salary as they pay the principal of a big high school.

As a result, many small high schools are run by lower-paid, less-experienced administrators. That has led to high turnover, and at some schools, confusion among teachers and students about who is in charge."

What did they all learn?

"The lessons for other high schools are sobering. Even with millions of dollars for teacher training, an army of experts to coach schools and the backing of the Northwest's top philanthropies, fixing high schools so they work for all students remains a formidable and elusive task."

"We definitely need different environments to meet the needs of different kids," she (Portland superintendent Carole Smith)says."

"In addition, E3 has not been clear about the results it wants from small schools. There are no performance targets or timelines for schools, and the group has not defined what makes a student "college ready. E3 leaders admit they were naive about how easy change would be. They learned the hard way that they can't overhaul schools without more backing from superintendents and district administrators. They also are providing more teacher training, particularly in reading and math."

For me it points to a lot of effort for very little results. A lot of experimenting despite the fact that kids aren't experiments. It points to the fact that even the great Bill Gates doesn't know everything about education and that his own Foundation is a little red-faced over how hard it is to create change that works. We find that if we don't have clear expectations (and how is it we keep going around and around in this country about what a high school graduate should leave high school with?) that both schools and students get lost.


Dorothy Neville said...

"It points to the fact that even the great Bill Gates doesn't know everything about education "

Why would Mr Gates know *anything* about education?

Funny, but the other big Gates Foundation push is third world medicine, vaccines and all that. But does the Gates Foundation presuppose that they know everything about medicine and dictate how to deliver care? Or do they consult with medical and third world professionals in the field and defer to them? Why don't we see this sort of reporting on fiascos with the Gates Foundation medical philanthropy? Because the Foundation lets experts do their jobs without micromanaging and experimenting?

Why doesn't the Gates Foundation offer education the same respect?

SS said...

Interesting- the title of this article is, "Oregon's small-school experiment slow to see results." Two years ago (11/05/06) the Seattle Times had an article with a very similar title, "Small-schools experiment has yet to yield big results."

It is appalling that the Gate's grants (and others) can use our children as "experiments" with huge strings attached to the money on how schools operate. In Seattle, the 4 high schools which bought into the Gates grant (and resulting D.O.E. grant) brought in mandated "differentiated learning" in 9th & 10th grades, banning any honors classes (even self-selected). It may work in smaller class sizes, and at lower grade levels it can be quite successful, but in high school it rarely succeeds due to the "extremely wide band of proficiency" of students. Five years later, Franklin has decided that differentiated learning does not work, and they are bringing back honors classes next year so that they can focus on all four individual "house" levels more effectively. (WSHS and Nathan Hale are still struggling without honors classes in the lower grades because of these grants).

What else did the 2006 Seattle Times article say? "The experiment- an attempt to downsize the American high school- has proven less successful than hoped. The changes were often so devisive- and the academic results so mixed- that the Gates Foundation has stopped always pushing small as a first step in improving big high schools. Instead, it's now also working directly on instruction, giving grants to improve math and science instruction, for example."

Gee, it took the Gates foundation how many million dollars, experimenting all those years on our kids (and still continuing in Oregon), to come to a "new" conclusion that any parent could have recommended in the first place, had they just asked the parents first!

The 2006 article continues, "Going forward, the foundation is advancing a core curriculum that all high schools students would be expected to take, (the Gated foundation director)said. And it wants to help improve math and science instruction by backing efforts to increase math requirements for high-school students, and to train more math and science teachers and pay them better." Gee, once again, ask the parents first and we could have all that extra millions to put into the actual classroom instruction!

Unknown said...

There is another aspect to the small school drive. The research to date had documented that "small" is not enough. The small schools (as a tendency) that have worked very well also have a "Vision".

So if a school wanted to be a small Arts school theme they have to hire strong Art and music teachers and develop core programs around that. For struggling students that probably means taking extra art/music classes, and maybe stretching the history class with strong emphases on the role of art/music in history... or maybe music theory emphases in math class. Yes, the students need enough math and science credits to graduate, but it takes a strong emphasis around the theme to attract struggling students and to then "hook" them.

Although SPS just took the money and ran w/o seriously trying to implement the small school theme, even neighboring districts serious about small schools appear not to be focusing on their themes enough to give credit to the research emphasizing that "small" is not enough if there are not numerous other improvements.

x said...

I heard the leader of the Gates Foundation's education on the radio. (I don't remember his name.) His experience was all from private schools. He thought the reason the "small school" idea was good was because it worked so well at Lakeside. Therefore it would be great for public schools to follow that model. How naive.

dan dempsey said...

If you look at the impact this had on West Seattle High it was distruptive as plans that had been made by the teachers and staff were disrupted by Gates Foundation interference.

If that was not enough, just as WSHS made great strides amid Susan Derse's exit, the Central Admin further frustrated the West Seattle Teaching Community with the mandate to move to six periods.

If you read carefully it is apparent that one size does not fit all...... and yet that is MG-J's plan uniformity will bring a better situation ... why would anyone think that?

We see Franklin and many other places coming to the realization that believing in a fantasy will not make it true. Time to engage reality.

Could we please begin to objectively evaluate the data rather than distorting it to serve the purposes of the adults at the expense of the children and families.

rugles said...

Doesn't seem so appalling to me. They had an idea, and committed some money to it. If the results are not much different than if they had not done anything, where is the harm?

Additionally, it gives the kids who didn't do any homework, or only took one legitimate class in their senior year something to blame for their own under performance.

dan dempsey said...

Hey Rugles,

The problem is there is apparently zero in the way of effective leadership.

Check these Charts here.

Click on the charts for easier reading.

So where is all this going ????

Looks a lot like going nowhere at greater and greater expense.

SP said...

Dan- Your chart makes an important point. It seems that you have been cherry-picking your data previously to make your own conclusions. Your earlier entry said, "just as WSHS made great strides" referring to their WASL score improvements! You can't have your cake & eat it also. There has never been any DATA to show that it was only the 4-period day which led to the WASL scores improving. As we all know, and as the REA's report on the WSHS program noted, "...it is important to remember that similar increases occurred at all high schools across the district."
If you had looked at more data, other than just focusing on WSHS's WASL scores, you would have seen a much darker side of the picture- SAT scores, "N" & "D" grades (especially for minorities, up to 60% of students), AP test scores, current drop-out rates, attendance, suspensions... all this data you choose to ignore in your blind support of the 4-period schedule. It's finished and it's time to move on. Let's start to focus on what works for students!

dan dempsey said...


You make an excellent point that schools are complex systems. I disagree strongly with your statement about confining myself to only WASL data.

Look at the data available for the 2006-2007 school year and you will find WSHS doing much better than the picture you paint.

The fact that Gates and other overhead interference rarely supported the WSHS 4-period day can not be over-looked as a contributing factor.

Please post some real data here or send me some.

Ms. Santorno spouted generalities but never produced anything in the way of data.



Looks a bit corrupt when the union fails to move a grievance along required time-lines and then has a hearing in June of 2008 at least 6 months off the required time line.

Business as usual in the SPS.

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