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June 08, 2005

"Is Small Beautiful?"--the potential of alternative high schools

Rethinking Schools is an impressive publication, founded by teachers, dedicated to progressive reforms, and capable of attracting contributions by famous authors as well as excellent articles by educators who work "in the trenches." The current issue (not yet reflected on the website) is entirely devoted to the question: "Is small beautiful? The promise and problems of small school reform."

All the articles are stimulating, and there is so much to say in response that I expect to pick up several themes in subsequent posts. In fact, the issue is an excellent introduction to current "progressive" views of education in general, even though the explicit topic is small-school reform.

Several major urban systems are permitting lots of small schools to open, each with a strong and distinctive "theme." New York City plans to open 200 schools; Chicago, 100. Often, existing nonprofits jump at the opportunity to create schools that embody their own core values. For instance, in Rethinking Schools, Debbie Wei explains how an Asian-American civic group opened a charter school in Philadelphia's Chinatown:

We decided that if we were to build a school, it had to be a school that was consciously a school for democracy, a school for self-governance, a school for creation of community. We needed to build a school that was consciously anti-individualistic, anti-racist, anti-isolationist, and anti-materialist.

This is one kind of "themed" small school that's popping up. In her article, Michelle Fine notes that Philadelphia is also encouraging the creation of small "'faith-based' public schools" that collaborate "with Christian colleges and community organizations." Fine is not pleased. She says, "It breaks my heart to see the small schools movement ... used to facilitate ... faith-based education."

A lot of the impetus for the small schools movement has come from progressive people who are antiracist, anti-materialist, etc, etc. They want to create alternatives to mainstream schools that are further to the left. However, their strategy is to change policies so that nonprofits may open small schools; and inevitably conservative, religious, and pro-military groups (among others) are getting into the act. Reserving small schools for progressive nonprofits would be both unrealistic and unfair.

My own personal values are aligned with the Philadelphia Chinatown school (to a large degree), not with religious schools. But I see a fundamental parallel; each wants to motivate and inspire kids by promoting a rich and compelling philosophical message. That's putting it nicely. You could also say that both are sufficiently appalled by the power of mainstream culure that they are willing to indoctrinate kids to share their values. I'm enough of a classical liberal that I'd rather educate students in a more neutral way, to allow them to form their own opinions. For example, I wouldn't want to participate in an "anti-individualistic," "anti-materialistic" school. I'd rather teach multiple perspectives on ethics, including religious and libertarian ones.

However, there's a case for diversity of schools--for letting a thousand flowers bloom. But if we accept the value of diversity, then we must recognize that a lot of the "flowers" that sprout up will not be to our liking.

Posted by peterlevine at June 8, 2005 07:47 AM


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