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When Size Matters: Making Big Schools Feel Small (An Education World E-interview With Paul S. George)


Educators have seen the fallout from big and anonymous schools -- kids don't flourish in those environments. Paul S. George, coauthor of Making Big Schools Feel Small: Multiage Grouping, Looping and Schools-Within-a-School, comments that schools need to do what it takes to foster long-term relationships between students and teachers.

Educators know that size matters when it comes to education -- the bigger the school, the less effective. As school districts supersized their facilities, academic performance drooped, discipline became more of a problem, and dropout rates increased.

Paul S. George, professor of education at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and John H. Lounsbury, publications editor for the National Middle School Association and dean emeritus of the School of Education, Georgia College and State University, offer strategies in Making Big Schools Feel Small: Multiage Grouping, Looping and Schools-Within-a-School (National Middle School Association, 2000). The book includes viewpoints from teachers and students who have used the various methods that foster long-term relationships and reduce anonymity.

George and Lounsbury point to effective military units, winning sports teams, and profitable corporations, which all capitalize on the cohesive nature of small groups that foster long-term relationships.

In an Education World e-interview, George discusses how big schools can feel small by adopting one of following three strategies discussed in the book: multiage grouping, looping, and creating schools within a school. The book points out that these are proven strategies and aren't new to educators. Multiage grouping is as old as one-room schoolhouses, in which kids of all ages learned together. Looping, or teachers' staying with the same students over two years, and carving out smaller units within large schools are also established middle school organizational designs. All three reduce anonymity in school environments, foster long-term relationships between students and teachers, and result in overall academic improvement.

George comments on those strategies.

Education World: Your book offers three specific ways for middle schools to make big schools feel small: multiage grouping, looping, and schools within a school. Are these three strategies created equal? In other words, which method do you prefer and why?

Paul S. George: In my experience, multiage grouping is superior but more difficult to implement, especially insofar as public understanding is concerned. The school-within-a-school model doesn't have these problems, so it is much more commonly found. Looping works well when the faculty and leadership are committed.

EW: There are pros and cons to all three methods. It appears that the primary problem for students and teachers is personality conflicts. Another reason parents may resist looping is that students could be stuck with a poor teacher for several years. Schools need to have a policy that helps determine when students need to be reassigned to another team of teachers, another teacher, or another "house." Can you offer policies that effectively address this problem?

George: Actually, personality conflicts are quite unusual. This is not the big issue in practice that it is in contemplation. Very few parents actually ask to have their children moved because of this. If a school leader balances the teaching talent on each team so that there are no discernable differences between teams at different grade levels, then parents don't worry so much about "poor" teachers, because they know that there will be strong and less-strong teachers on every team that their child could be on. The "policy" that is needed is for the school leader to ensure that teaching talent is equalized this way and then not to cave in to parents who think their child will be better served on another team.

EW: One of the student comments I noticed at the end of the book is that students want to continue in a similar style in high school. I thought about how very difficult it must be for these middle-school children to be thrown into a very large, anonymous high school where nobody knows their names -- nor will ever know their names. Do you and John Lounsbury suggest that school districts adopt a similar strategy for both middle school and high school? If so, is there a strategy that best suits high schools, based on feedback from teachers and administrators?

George: You are right in believing that students are uncomfortable moving from a school where they feel known and cared about to one where they are anonymous. This is, of course, true of all of us, in many different situations. Too many high school educators care little about this issue. They are then, sadly, surprised when alienated students begin wearing black trench coats and shooting one another. In a growing number of high schools around the country, however, ninth and tenth graders are being organized into interdisciplinary academic teams, with advisory programs not unlike middle schools. Enlightened high school leaders, often with prior middle school experience, are pushing such solutions to the problems of large, anonymous high schools. Ninth grade centers, where students are moved out of the large high school for the transition year, also seem to help.

EW: There is a disparity between teacher and parent responses to these strategies, according to the questionnaire responses at the end of the book, and an even greater difference and less-favorable response from the students? Can you explain why educators perceive greater benefits from these strategies than parents and students do?

George: First, these are very exploratory numbers, not to be taken as the last word on the subject. There does appear to be a disparity, though. I think it comes from having different goals. Many parents want high academic achievement for their own children and may not care about the culture of the school if their own children are doing well. Some middle school students may chafe under the kind of supervision that comes with close personal connections between teachers, parents, and them. Teachers see the payoff in improved classroom management and many other areas, so they love it.

EW: Your book states that these strategies aren't new. Why is there so much resistance to what appears to be a sensible approach to improving education and reducing school discipline and violence problems?

George: Good question. My guess, and it is only a guess, is that resistance comes from a lack of understanding and parental anxiety about anything that might possibly interfere with their children's competitive advantage. Parents are so worried about their children's future these days that anything that departs from the traditional may seem dangerous. We are so caught up in the corporate, factory-style educational process that alternatives seem less rigorous and therefore less desirable.

EW: Although the trend has been to build bigger schools over the past 70 years to keep costs down, do you think evidence from recent studies strongly favors the construction of smaller schools, including middle schools similar to the size of elementary schools? Are physically smaller schools preferred over making big schools feel smaller?

George: The evidence in favor of small schools is compelling. I personally believe that small is usually preferable to big when it comes to social organizations such as schools. Unfortunately, small is always perceived as more expensive. I teach at a university with 45,000 students, and I sent all three of my children to small, private, liberal arts schools. I am afraid that it comes down to money -- people are, sadly, not willing to spend the money for the small school that has a challenging and rich curriculum. This is true at the K-12 level and college too.

EW: Some districts, such as the Hartford (Connecticut) school system, plan to convert elementary and middle schools into neighborhood schools, with K-8 grades grouped together in one building. The population of each school is expected to be more than 800. Is this concept of revisiting the K-8 schools something that would diminish the need for the strategies your book calls for, or would those strategies be even more effective in this setting? What is your opinion about smaller, K-8 neighborhood schools as a solution to big, anonymous middle schools?

George: I like the K-8 school format. I like the K-12 format too. If I could wave a wand and change all American schools to these two formats, I probably would do so, as long as it didn't interfere with such important social goals as racial integration. Long-term relationships flower in such places. I taught in a K-12 school with about 600 students in it, and it worked beautifully at all three levels. "Big and anonymous" is rarely good, even for middle schools.

Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
Copyright © 2005 Education World

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Originally published 01/19/2001
Updated 10/28/2004