Transforming large high schools requires change in leadership style

Many large high schools attempting academic improvement have broken themselves into smaller units. This alone, however, is not proving to be effective in raising academic performance. Michael A. Copland and Elizabeth E. Boatright, University of Washington, describe key lessons learned from several cases of establishing small schools within large, comprehensive high schools. In particular, changes in leadership style are necessary if the new, smaller schools are not to be simply smaller versions of the original comprehensive school.

Previous research has shown the superiority of small high schools for productive social and behavioral development. In addition, students appear to learn more in smaller schools, make more rapid progress toward graduation and are less likely to drop out than students in large schools. Disadvantaged students perform differently in small schools and appear more dependent on them for success. There are fewer disciplinary problems, better attendance and higher grade-point averages in small schools than in large ones.

Experts have suggested that the ideal student population ranges from 200 to 400 students. Small-school pioneer Deborah Meier writes that schools are small enough when “faculty members can sit around a table and iron things out, everyone can be known well by everyone else, and schools and families can [collaborate face-to-face. [Schools should be small]enough so children belong to the same community as the adults in their lives instead of being abandoned in adult-less subcultures. Small enough to both feel safe and be safe. Small enough so that phony data can easily be detected by any interested participant. Small enough so that the people most involved can never say they weren’t consulted.”

Eight Leadership Lessons for Small Schools

Copland and Boatright draw the following conclusions from small-schools research:

  1. Focus on a clear learning agenda. Successful small schools focus on a few measurable goals and ensure students reach these goals. They promote high standards in particular academic areas and provide high levels of support for getting there. Evidence supports the positive effects of a narrow and academic curriculum with a push for all students to master these courses. With a core curriculum, students learn more and learning is more equitably distributed. This requires flexibility in a small school’s teaching staff. Some students may need to work with the same teacher for two consecutive years in order to build trust and take more academic risks.
  2. Know and be known. Small schools offer the opportunity for know every student personally and to be known by every student personally. Powerful, sustained relationships between teachers and students must be developed. Students will work hard for people who like and trust them. Teachers and administrators need to take on increased responsibility and invest personal time in each learner, seeking meaningful relationships with them outside the classroom. Teachers in small schools may serve as advisors, mentors or tutors in a variety of subjects. Leaders have a lot of influence over the degree of personalization in a school; how they develop relationships with families, students and faculty members sets the tone for everyone else. Caring for students means caring for their intellectual development. Caring and maintaining academic rigor should coexist.
  3. Walk the talk of social justice and equity. Small schools offer a real chance to ensure success for every student. Large comprehensive schools serve as a sorting mechanism, dividing students according to their social, cultural and academic skills. Small schools offer students an environment where teachers know and care about them and are collectively responsible for meeting their needs. Great emphasis should be placed on effectively addressing the learning needs of every student. Small size does not guarantee an equitable, personalized and rigorous learning environment. In order to be successful, a small school must foster autonomy, possess a compelling vision, have a personalized atmosphere, support teaching, and hold itself accountable to students and standards.
  4. Share power to get results. Successful small schools have a culture of shared decision making. A principal has to know when to make decision herself and when to involve others. In small schools, communication should be face to face and interested parties must be able to speak their minds. Good communication enables everyone to see others’ perspective.
  5. Lead through inquiry, not by edict. When the student body is small, teachers can collect data quickly and the faculty can work together to establish school-wide priorities for teaching and learning. It is feasible in small schools to have frequent, focused discussions on improving teaching and learning. In successful small schools, teachers have the flexibility to ask where the greatest needs exist and to figure out, as a group, how to address them effectively. Smaller groups of teachers have a better chance of reaching consensus. A study of Chicago small schools found that successful leaders “look for evidence of problems from real sources of data within the school,” and this builds stronger “resolve of both faculty and administrators to take meaningful steps to improve student conditions.”
  6. Approach problems as opportunities. Problems are endemic in any serious change effort. Problems are necessary for learning. When a school is small, the administration and staff can craft and maintain a common message about appropriate behavior more effectively than in a large school. Teachers tend to have more contact time with their students and they invest time in creating and reinforcing positive messages for teaching, learning and behavior.
  7. Nurture, build and support professional community. In a professional community, staff members reflect together on their work and open their teaching practices to the scrutiny of their peers. Over time this process builds trust, confidence, and a focus on improving teaching and learning practices and binds the community together. This work takes time, but having a small number of staff members appears to make it easier to create and sustain a professional community. This may be due to the closer personal relationships fostered in smaller institutions. Peer-coaching methods such as “critical-friends” groups enable teachers to understand their peers, their students and their teaching practices more thoroughly. With less bureaucracy teachers have more time to focus on student learning and their teaching practices.
  8. Foster deeper connections with families and the community. Most schools have little experience working collaboratively with parents. Small-school administrators nurture a base of parent support through suppers and get-togethers that celebrate student achievement. In addition, they work with neighborhood organizations, businesses, social service agencies, colleges, and their district office to further their school’s mission.

Fundamentally, beside a drastic reduction in the size of high schools, there needs to be a shift in the professional culture of the school, moving it from a hierarchical organization in which only a few lead and most follow to a place where everyone shares the responsibility for achieving the school’s goals. All schools, regardless of size, can benefit from leadership that seeks to create greater clarity of vision, to strengthen interpersonal relationships between adults and students, and to build professional communities focused on the improvement of teaching and learning. These leadership lessons can be learned by studying successful small schools.

“Leading Small: Eight Lessons for Leaders in Transforming Large Comprehensive High Schools”, Phi Delta Kappan, Volume 85, Number 10, June 2004, pp. 762-769.

Published in ERN September 2004 Volume 17 Number 6

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