civic education: the case for smaller schools

The nation’s governors met this weekend to discuss high school reform. They identified real problems, including a high-school completion rate of only about 70% and a set of curricula and standards that obviously aren’t working. But their conversation apparently focused on preparing students for work and college–not citizenship. They called for regular standardized testing rather than reform of schools themselves. I was hoping for more emphasis on school size, which is a signature issue of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates himself addressed the governors and said:

The three R?s [rigor, relevance, and relationships] are almost always easier to promote in smaller high schools. The smaller size gives teachers and staff the chance to create an environment where students achieve at a higher level and rarely fall through the cracks. Students in smaller schools are more motivated, have higher attendance rates, feel safer, and graduate and attend college in higher numbers.

He was right, but the governors mainly focused their attention on standards and accountability.

The average size of American primary and secondary schools increased four-fold between 1940 and 1965, from 100 to more than 400 (see this pdf, p. 26). Toward the end of that period (1959), James Conant identified small high schools as the single biggest problem in American education. He argued that they were economically inefficient, unprofessional, and unable to provide a wide range of equipment and specialized teachers. In addition to these arguments, other factors probably contributed to massive school consolidation in that era, including a tendency to close down historically black schools under court desegregation orders (not to mention the desire to field better football teams).

The result was the creation of very large schools, especially high schools, in which students were seen as consumers who should be permitted to choose among a wide variety of offerings (curricular and extracurricular) provided by specialists. Students were presumed to have diverse interests and abilities. Thus it was right that some should choose student government and AP courses while others preferred “shop” and basketball.

If we hope to create effective, committed, and responsible citizens, huge schools have several marked disadvantages. Relatively few students–mostly ones who are already on a successful track–can possibly participate in the extracurricular activities, such as school government and scholastic journalism, that seem most likely to teach civic skills. Students in large schools tend to self-select into cliques and can avoid interacting with those different from themselves. Parents and other adults in the community have little impact on these large, bureaucratic institutions; so schools are rarely models of community problem-solving or active citizenship, nor can they create paths to participation in the broader world. We know that students who feel that they can have an impact on the governance of their own schools tend to be efficacious and interested in public affairs; but it is impossible for anyone to influence the overall atmosphere and structure of a huge school that is organized around private choice.

Finally, young people become victims of their own choices. You can pick up civic skills (as well as other ones) if you attend a school with a wide range of offerings and equipment and you elect to take the honors classes and work on the school newspaper. But those assets are of no use unless you have the confidence, motivation, networks ties, and knowledge to use them. In a huge high school, there is little chance that any adult will try to steer a student who is on a mediocre track onto a more challenging one. Twenty years later, the student who chose easy courses and avoided clubs may still be paying a price, economically as well as socially and politically.

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  • Hi Peter — Thanks for this post. I am on the board of a small charter high school – Cities West Academy – scheduled to open Sept ’05. Public Achievement figures heavily in the curricular framework. The school’s website is still pretty bare-bones, but there is more to come.

    You’ve done a great job of articulating our rationale behind creating this school. The 9-12 school (max enrollment of 200) will be located in the western suburbs of Minneapolis where there are no small public high schools. Would it be ok for us to use this blog entry with some of our materials? We will credit you appropriately of course.

    many thanks,

    Elaine Eschenbacher

  • civic education: the case for smaller schools

    You can read about it also on my blog page.

  • Anonymous

    It’s even more true with smaller school districts, see  It isn’t more civics courses we need students to attend.  We need to divide our local governments to a truly community size.  In that situation kids growing up are bound to know on a personal basis someone who holds an elected position or is actively involved in government.  The youth are much more likely to learn about and value our form of government by the people and to be responsible citizens, if they grow up with more truly local governments.  Our nation needs less national government and more local government, but we’re going the opposite direction.