The size of a school can play a major role in determining the type of education a child receives. School systems are forever looking for the proper balance between too many and too few students. Both cases can adversely affect the learning process, yet most people are unaware of what exactly the problem is that students and faculty face in a small town.
The struggle to provide a sufficient curriculum within the meager financial means of a small town along with the attempt to provide AP classes that adequately prepare students for college are just two issues of the many that small schools face. Small schools also have trouble providing relevant curricula because they often borrow ideas from larger schools. Accordingly, small towns face the dilemma of educating their students with fewer teachers and less specialized classes. If small schools want to continue to copy larger school practices, the integration of several small schools into one larger school may be the only answer. However, the impracticality and costs that accompany such a drastic measure may make this a less than ideal option. Instead, small schools need to find their own niche by spending more time formulating their own educational plans and ideas and less time mirroring larger school practices. This would provide a more reasonable and efficient way to improve the small school system.
A school that is too small can fortuitously prevent students from learning, as small schools have fewer resources available to students and teachers and the resources they do have are often misused, as small schools tend to assume that they should automatically follow larger school practices. People falsely assume that small schools are more effective, unaware that smallness alone doesn't necessarily guarantee educational improvements. In fact, a recent policy brief, entitled "Are Small Schools Better?" questions whether there is any improvement at all, acknowledging that especially when small schools try to mirror large ones, little improvement is likely (2). Indeed, it is evident that for small schools to hold their own, they must create their own plan of action and curriculum, based less on copying larger schools and more on creating their own original ideas, based on the personal issues and barriers that small schools face, as small and large schools battle very different problems.
Undeniably, much of the material used in small town classrooms is borrowed from larger schools, and outdated and irrelevant curricula have become the norm for usage in many of America's small town schools. Indeed, many districts rely heavily on materials that are designed for urban and suburban populations (that dominate commercial publishing). As a result, the material often has little meaning for those in rural, small towns in the United States (Shmuck and Shmuck, 26). For small schools to use many of the same learning tools and ideas that large schools use does not make sense because not only do children in small towns not relate to the issues of urban areas, but it does not have any meaning to them on a more personal level.
For example, an urban city elementary school class read a story about a family living in a crowded apartment in New York City. But, when a small town mid-west class read that same story, several children raised their hands to ask what an apartment building was. Thus, not only can the children from a small town not relate to the characters in the story (and identify with the characters as the children in a city school could), but there is no personal significance about a subject for which they know little about (Shmuck and Shmuck, 30).
Clearly, what is appropriate for one school is not necessarily always appropriate for another. This idea can be applied to the small school dilemma, as just because certain curriculums and ideas work and "fit" large schools does not mean that it will work in the same way for small schools. What small schools must do is find the plan that works for them and spend less time trying to stretch out or squeeze into a size that doesn't fit them in the first place.
One way small schools try to mimic larger schools is by trying to have a similar offering of AP classes as their larger counterparts, regardless of whether they have an adequate student body to supply these classes with qualified students. As a result, the few upper-level classes that small schools do have for promising young students are littered with students who do not belong in the classes. Few people are aware that a minimum number of students are needed to ensure a class's survival, as small schools are unable to have many specialized classes because the cost is just too great for the few students that show an interest.
Large schools don't worry about this because lack of students is simply never a problem. However, in order to maintain Advanced Placement classes at all in smaller schools, students are often chosen for the classes based less on their merit and more on how many more students they need to secure the class's continuation. As a result, underqualified students struggle to keep up with the class and slow down the students that actually belong there, leading to resentment on both sides. This also defeats the purpose of Advanced Placement classes, as valuable class time is lost re-reviewing old material for those students that don't belong instead of moving onto new material. Clearly, in the small schools' attempt to have an AP program on equal footing with those of larger schools, the small schools are far more lenient as to who they put in their classes because there is a smaller pool of students to choose from. Small schools should spend less time worrying about how many AP classes they have and worry more about the quality of the AP classes they do have. For example, one parent of a student who had taken the only AP English class my at my small school commented that it was difficult for her to hear her daughter voice her frustration time and time again about the pace of the class. This holds true for any parent who watches their child wilt in a classroom she or he should be thriving and blossoming in. Indeed, when I took the same class last year, I remember a friend whispering to me one day, "Wouldn't it be great if we could get past The Sound and the Fury by next term?" This leads inevitably to the question that many parents, faculty and students alike are left to wonder: Can you really call an Advanced Placement class "accelerated" if many of the students in it are actually decelerating the pace?
Moreover, what about the psychological effects on the students trying to keep up? Feelings of inadequacy, lagging grades, and frustration can result for the students that don't belong. In addition, mutual feelings of resentment from all students in the class can result as well. Clearly, a student's education is not the only thing at stake here, but also a student's emotional well being becomes a concern. This isn't a healthy environment for any of the students or faculty and creates a definite tension within the small school system - a tension that could be alleviated if small schools stopped trying to replicate large school practices.
My high school would benefit greatly if our curriculum was tailored to my town's needs. For example, in recent years there has been an increasing interest on the part of the students in fine arts offerings. Unfortunately, this department has received little funding and my school only offers one art class to date. However, my school insists on having two AP math classes when we barely have enough qualified students for one class. Moreover, there has been little interest on the part of students to take multiple AP math classes, as the number of students signing up for such classes have been on the decline. Yet, when the idea of getting rid of one of the math classes to make room for more fine arts classes was mentioned at previous education meetings that my parents have attended, they mentioned that the school board insisted that two math APs were necessary. When my mother questioned as to why, the principal insinuated that our town needed to prove to larger schools that we could offer as diverse a selection of AP classes as larger schools can, even if we could not offer as many. However, if the demand for fine arts classes is high, then by replacing one of the math AP classes with a drama class would allow my school to customize class offerings based on supply and demand. It is apparent that my high school is more concerned with "proving" itself to larger schools with little regard for what the needs of its students and faculty really are.
Another way we could customize the curriculum at my high school would be to listen to student opinion more, as often times students have voiced their frustration about how their suggestions were ignored by the administration, time and time again. One friend I interviewed noted, "I don't even see the point of complaining. It's like talking into a phone when no one's on the other line. No one is listening." Indeed, if my school were willing to ask students what departments they had an interest in and perhaps even administer questionnaires in order to get a better sense of what kind of class offerings students would want to take, this student input would enable my school to better fit subject matter to student instead of insisting on following the standard curriculum of larger schools that does not coincide with the needs of my high school.
This type of small school issue is not just a personal one, though, as the practice of mirroring larger school practices plagues small schools everywhere. However, this is not the only predicament students from small schools face that hinder the learning process. Another major issue students face is a less than solid curriculum that doesn't prepare students well for college, a result of fewer resources at a student's disposal and less prepared teachers. But this is not entirely the fault of the small school: lack of funding faces many small schools as a definite obstacle. According to a recent study conducted by the University of Minnesota, researchers cite limited numbers and types of courses, particularly advanced courses, and few scheduling options as weaknesses of smaller schools (Hinz 4). Students who want to challenge themselves and prove to colleges that they can handle college-level courses are left with fewer choices and a less rigorous schedule than they hoped for. Moreover, the Minnesota study also found a significant pattern involving PSAT college entrance exam scores, discovering that the higher scores were clumped in the school districts with larger student enrollment and the lower scores concentrated in districts with relatively fewer students (Hinz 6).
This statistic is significant because it suggests that larger schools are better able to prepare and equip their students for standardized exams because of the enhanced learning opportunities they provide their students. Yet, such enhanced learning opportunities are not merely a result of more classes but because large schools are better able to apply fit to form; the classes are taught in relation to the number of students and larger schools take for granted that commercial publishing companies provide materials that correlate to their teaching agenda and of large school practices as a whole (Shmuck and Shmuck 30). The research clearly and heavily implies that small schools simply cannot provide equal learning opportunities and adequate preparation for their students, leaving them at a disadvantage in many respects, including test taking.
Clearly, a shaky curriculum due to lack of class options is not just limited to advanced classes but spills into the foreign language and specialized courses arena as well. Students are many times unable to pursue areas of special interest such as linguistics, engineering, computers, or drama, to name a few. Instead, students are left with one or two representative courses from a few well-known disciplines. For example, the art "options" at my school consisted of Introduction to Drawing â€“ that was all. In comparison, an acquaintance from another town told me that at her school anyone could take a variety of art classes, including painting, pottery, printmaking, glass-blowing, weaving, as well as many others. Indeed, in "Small or Large? The Debate Over School Size," Magnuson adeptly comments that large schools allow students a "wider variety of educational offerings and enhanced services that smaller schools simply can't afford," (1).
This a definite problem for smaller size schools because they are unable to provide equal learning opportunities for students since they have a disproportionately smaller share of teachers as well as funding than do larger schools. The Minnesota study noted that among smaller districts, expenditures tend to run higher than they do for large schools because fixed costs such as administration, instructor salaries, and transportation are spread over a smaller number of students and larger geographic areas (Hinz 3). Clearly, small schools have yet another strike going against them, as the cost of teachers and books are in fact more costly than they are for large schools because there are simply less people who wind up paying a larger share of taxes. Hence, this is certainly a major limiting factor in terms of small school's educational programs because there is only so much they can afford and only so much money they can demand from tax payers.
In addition to lack of funds, small schools also struggle with educating their teachers as well as larger schools are able. One Louisiana principal, whose school has 130 students, noted that "we have only one teacher at each grade level, which means grade-level teachers don't have anyone to collaborate with," (Magnuson 2). This situation is injurious not only to the students but can have detrimental effects on the faculty as well. Teachers in small schools are unable to run lesson plans and ideas by colleagues within their specialty because they are often the only teacher in that specialty. This is something larger schools often take for granted, because there are always several teachers in each subject area. Only three out of eighty small schools that the authors of Small Districts, Big Problems visited had teacher coaching and interdisciplinary teamwork (Shmuck and Shmuck 8). Thus, this lack of networking in small schools makes it difficult for teachers to improve upon their teaching skills without a genuine means of collaboration available to them. Clearly, small schools need to create their own plan of attack and come up with new ways to battle old problems. Small schools may have less teachers than larger schools but they don't have less intelligence â€“ small schools just need to put their wit to use by coming up with more innovative means in order to have teachers with as much preparation and collaboration that larger schools provide. For instance, small schools would benefit if their teachers would collaborate with teachers from other local area schools via phone or e-mail. Or, small schools could start a website posting online with teachers from schools statewide offering suggestions and tips for classroom improvement.
Small schools not only lose their ability to prepare teachers (and consequently students) adequately, but they also simultaneously lose the privilege of better matching students with teachers due to the lessened number of teachers. Teachers' teaching styles vary as much as students' learning styles. For example, some children learn better in classrooms that are more hands-on and interactive, while other students prefer a class with less emphasis on participation and more on note-taking and listening to lectures. However, small schools can't afford to be choosy in regards to who the teachers have for students. And few students can pick their teachers -- often there is only one available. This type of situation places students and teachers in an uncomfortable position and has left the faculty and student body alike left to wonder if there is an answer to such a quandary.
Many parents have suggested Virtual High School (VHS) as a more cost-effective and faster solution to the small school dilemma, believing this would allow for a similar offering of classes that larger schools provide. Yet, the problem is just that â€“ it is not so much the small school's lack of classes but rather the underlying issue at hand of how the classes small schools do have are being taught and why the classes aren't being customized according to school size. The VHS option is simply not developed enough at this point in time to be a reasonable answer to the crisis, and while it might ensure more classes, it will not guarantee any increase in quality of how the classes are taught. Once again, parents and faculty are thinking in terms of merely having "more" classes and not necessarily worrying about the quality of the classes, a relevant theme that resurfaces in small town classes across America, as they struggle to compete with larger schools.
VHS involves students taking courses on-line, with no physical teacher present but instead a "virtual" instructor that posts the assignments on-line. The student must independently post his or her work on the computer. Assignments are given out on a weekly basis and follow a semester schedule. While VHS does sound promising and clearly has some very positive attributes, it is still too underdeveloped with too many kinks in the system that need to be worked out before it can be put to use and ever be a viable alternative for small towns. First, VHS is really only good for some students, as it works well for the "ideal" student who is highly motivated, responsible, and works well and diligently on an independent basis, with little to no formal guidance and without the comfort of a standard classroom setting. This type of model student is rare, as even the most driven student is not invincible and may need the direction and supervision of an actual teacher in the room to get work done at times. Even our class valedictorian, who was one of the few students that was allowed to take a VHS course at our school, commented that while he liked the class and was glad he got an added opportunity to learn, he too "struggled" with the freedom and lack of restrictions such an environment encouraged. He explained, "I often found myself taking one too many breaks during my intended class time." VHS needs to be more tailor-made to fit a number of different students with their varied learning styles, paces, and behaviors.
Indeed, VHS would also not work well for a student with any significant learning disabilities, nor would it be feasible for an ESL (English as a Second Language) student. In "How Small Is Too Small?" the author, Abramson, mentions that small schools need to change their approach in order to remain viable, suggesting an emphasis on technology as one possibility. However, he also cautions that technology, such as computers, can easily be overused and that it is not necessarily appropriate for every student because all students learn differently and require varied levels of supervision, guidance and direction (2). Thus, VHS would only help some students and would not really solve the larger problem at hand, as much as it would be a temporary fix for a minute subset of the student body.
Abramson's insistence that small schools need to change their approach does not just apply to the technology aspect but also to the small schools' overall reliance on larger school practices, as one obstacle for small schools is the lack of funds to create relevant curricula (Shmuck and Schmuck 27). This type of problem is detrimental to the learning practice, and if small schools want to retain their size they need to change their approach in the classroom. Incorporating relevant curricula and limited technology could help curb some of the problems, as small schools need to take their positive attributes and employ them as a means to make their school systems better instead of invoking practices that do not fit their size. For example, instead of small schools copying the curricula of larger schools, they could choose topics of more relevance to students: they might replace a unit about inner-city pollution with a unit about the need for rural areas to recycle. Both units address the need to preserve the environment but each unit is customized according to the school size and location the class is held in. Small schools have often prided themselves in the personal aspect to education that their size allows for, but such an insistence is futile without an accompanying specialized curriculum to coincide with such an attitude.
The key to solving the small school dilemma lies in the community's willingness to alter their practices. Small schools need to modify their approach to education by tailoring to the specific needs of small town schools and relying less on the plans and practices of larger schools. One of the biggest bones of contention that lie in the way of fixing the small school dilemma is the fear of altering the small town school system that has been in place for so long, regardless of whether it is working. The scholar Marilyn Ferguson once said that, "It's not so much that were afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but its that place in between that we fearâ€¦It's like being between trapezesâ€¦It's Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There's nothing to hold onto." If small schools will risk putting their blankets in the dryer, there may just be an answer to the small school class crisis.
Abramson, Paul. "How Small Is Too Small?" School Planning and Management Magazine. 22 Jan. 2006: 109-112.
"Are Small Schools Better?" Western Education Policy Brief. 22 Oct. 2001.
Hinz, Lisa. "Size, Cost and Quality in Public Schools and School Districts." University of
Minnesota Extension Program. 12 June 1993.
Magnuson, Peter. "Small or Large? The Debate Over School Size." The National Association of Elementary School Principals. 20 Nov. 2001. naesp.org/ContentLoad.do?contentId=189
Ravitch, Diane. "Down size High Schools? Not Too Far." The Washington Post.
6 Nov. 2005: B07.
Shmuck, Patricia A. and Richard A. Small Districts, Big Problems. Newbury Park, California:
Corwin Press, Inc., 1992.