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The “small schools are better” dogma

At times it seems that everyone in the education debate is in favor of smaller schools and class sizes. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent millions to break up bigger schools. A new movie, Waiting for Superman, extols the benefits of charter schools with smaller-than-usual student numbers. As commensensical as it sounds, there is in fact little evidence that smaller really is better.

An article in The New York Times today provides a great counter-argument to the smaller-is-better dogma. The Times highlights the story of Brockton High School in Massachusetts. With 4,100 students, Brockton is the largest public school in the state, and one of the biggest in the country. Brockton has turned around its performance since the beginning of the decade, and this year and last out-performed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools.

It is interesting to read about how Brockton transformed itself. It is noteworthy that teachers themselves took the initiative - not administrators, not federal government officials, not hedge fund managers. The teachers formed a school restructuring committee, and convinced administrators to allow them to introduce the ideas they developed in multiple brainstorming sessions. "The committee's first big step was to go back to basics, and deem that reading, writing, speaking and reasoning were the most important skills to teach. They set out to recruit every educator in the building - not just English, but math, science, even guidance counselors - to teach those skills to students." 

The Brockton case study also challenges other education reform myths that hold sway today. Federal policy recommends that failing schools should fire large numbers of teachers. Brockton didn't. Common prejudice holds that unions are the main barrier to progress. But the school's teachers were unionized, and the union did not oppose efforts, because the teachers honored the union contract.

As David Driscoll, the state education commissioner, says: "In schools, no matter what the size - and Brockton is one of the biggest - what matters is uniting people behind a common purpose, setting high expectations, and sticking with it." These basics - rather than "Race to the Top" contests and charter schools that cater to a small percentage of students - should be the focus of discussions on how to improve education.

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