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Small Schools by Mike Klonsky and Susan Klonsky

April 6, 2010 am30 12:04 am

Here’s a review I didn’t mean to write. I read most of the book in the summer of 2008, while I was in New Orleans, helping (re)organize school teachers. What happened? I thought the book covered important background about what happened with small schools. It reviews their progressive origins. And it details how the corporations and foundations and government grabbed their banner and turned them into something very different. And I should have reviewed and recommended it. The background matters. The narrative matters. The dark fable matters.

But I didn’t write then. Why not? And why now?

Democratic Schools are good, and it is possible to create small schools that are democratic. YES….

became:  Small schools are good. NO.

I didn’t write because I was not ready to share my critical evaluation of the (well-meaning, progressively-oriented) activists, who happened to be the authors. And now? One of their allies, Deborah Meier, recently wrote a column? blog post? in which she expressed ideas that resembled my unwritten criticism. That makes me feel less uneasy about sharing my own thoughts. So, onward.

The Book:  Brief history of the small schools reform that progressive activists were involved in.  And then the beginning of small schools as national policy – not as an outgrowth of the work of Meier and the education activists in Chicago, but as something new and different. (and corporate, and anti-empowering if there is such a word).

Four important chapters on this new small schools movement, this anti-democratic movement:  Government Ideology (the Klonskys discuss this as “the ownership society”), Private management, corporate philanthropy (Gates, Broad, etc), and corporate ideological activism (think tanks). Each chapter carefully documents the growth of these four facets of this anti-democratic movement.

A final chapter, “Alternatives to Top-Down Reform,” is, for my money, short on ideas beyond recapturing “small schools” and involvement of parents, students, and teachers.

Thumbnail evaluation: The background is useful. It deserves a full book. (I’m guessing that one exists). But even the abbreviated form is useful. The meaty chapters (Ownership Society, Private Management, Philanthropy, Think Tanks) – all worth reading. All provide important detail. And the threads that connect the four really start to build the big picture.

Big negative: even though the book is brief (fewer than 200 pages, with notes, and small format pages: 8″ x 5″) it read as if it were much longer. Glass houses be damned, the prose is too dense. The style, idk, it’s almost academic, but not… in any event, it made for slow reading. I felt tired after each chapter. I accidentally reread passages. I intentionally reread passages because I hadn’t understood them the first time. This book is part of a series that claims to produce short, accessible books. My guess is that my difficulty reading represents a fault of the series editors, not of the authors.

Back to the authors.  I’m sitting reading, and thinking:  they were concerned with the democratic aspects of schools, but they focused so hard on “small” that they seem to have missed what was happening. Not retrospectively, but in the moment. This is, in part, Meier’s self-criticism: (I urge you to click through and read the whole piece. It’s excellent. And it really tells the history nicely, and briefly, and honestly)

It’s not the first time I’ve noted how even my good ideas can be “corrupted” for quite different purposes than intended. It’s the story of many of the political ideals I still hold to. Small schools were a tool, not an end….

Two of my favorite ideas: small schools and choice – have become bywords of reform, backed by millions and millions of dollars and the power of the city, state and federal government…

These two ideas became popular at a moment when the nation was moving to the right, not the left and when the idea that “the free market place” was the over-riding safeguard of our liberties held sway…

My slogan in the 80s and 90s was … self-governing small schools of choice, democratic schools where most decisions were made at the place that family, teachers and students met….We did not face a new educational crisis but just one more educational “opportunity” to rethink practices that have not served us well for a century and more….We could nudge, and we could set the odds in favor, but we cannot and should not override the opposition through mandates.

I believed, in hindsight maybe foolishly, that smallness was perhaps something however that could be mandated….

Although not followed through in New York, the ideas of small schools and choice was picked up by others. My joy that many a Big Business was also excited by our ideas gave me hope. My paranoiac antenna was overcome by the unlikely friendships the idea seemed to create. When charter schools began I saw them as an offshoot of our ideas…

I think in the focus on “small” they may have neglected to pay sufficient attention to “what kind of small” – this struck me at the start of the book, and even moreso in the the concluding chapter.

The Klonskys date the new movement to post-Columbine, but New York City was getting a small-scale small school invasion for several years immediately before. In the Bronx where I teach, breaking up big schools has a little more history. James Monroe. 1994. Replaced by little high schools that seem to be from the progressive mold: New School for Arts and Sciences (since closed), Monroe Academy of Visual Arts and Design (I figure the graffiti class can be a proxy for “progressive” no matter what anyone thinks of graffiti), Monroe Academy of Business and Law (saved by Justice Lobis for now), Bronx Little School (as progressive a small school name as you could imagine), High School of World Cultures, Bronx Coalition Community School (in the process of being closed). But just a few years later, the same New York State process began restructuring Theodore Roosevelt, and William H Taft (they were capped, I recall, in 1999 or 2000). The schools formed there were no longer of the same progressive type (though small).  The names are themes, and fairly generic (arts, medicine, business, writing, “prep,” etc) and they feature fairly unprogressive reform (such as leaving the kids in one room all day, while the teachers rotate. Great for attendance.)

In any event, the flood of cookie-cutter mini-schools at the start of this decade, the book documents the process that got them going. But I don’t feel that they dug adequately for the roots.

Finally, a different sort of quibble:  As a union person, I am especially interested in the roles of teachers and our unions. Their absence in chapter 1 reflects real history, but their relative absence from the concluding chapter bothers me. The Klonskys seem to prefer using “teachers, parents, students” and “educators” over “teachers” and “teachers’ unions” – I consider myself and my colleagues and our organization key “actors,” and would have preferred the language better reflect this potential.

– – — — —– ——– ————- ——– —– — — – –

“The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” by Diane Ravitch is all the rage today. And it should be. Important read. But you can also read history told by progressive activists (remember, Ravitch, while she supports public schools, is certainly not progressive).

The Klonskys are activists, and they have an important story to tell about how their movement was absorbed by its opposite, by its enemy. I’ve pointed to some faults, but I’m also telling you it is an important (and tiny and available on Kindle) book. Get it. Read it.

Small Schools:  Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society, Michael Klonsky, Susan Klonsky, Routledge, 2008.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 6, 2010 am30 11:35 am 11:35 am

    >Ravitch, while she supports public schools, is certainly not progressive

    And yet, she and Deborah Meier have very few (and minor) differences, at their joint blog, Bridging Differences. Today she posted a letter to the Florida lawmakers that I thought was very well-written.

    Maybe someday we will have fought off the testing craze, our school policies will be more sensible, and the differences between Ravitch and Meier will once again be visible. I’d sure take Ravitch for ed secretary over Duncan. But my preference would be Meier.

  2. April 6, 2010 am30 11:52 am 11:52 am

    Thanks for your thoughtful and critical review of our book.

  3. preaprez permalink
    April 6, 2010 pm30 3:40 pm 3:40 pm

    It is true that Ravitch is fairly traditional when it comes to pedagogy. But when it comes to the policy questions coming out of the USDE, I think we count her as a progressive. It is a sign of how badly policy has shifted, that while Ravitch hasn’t changed all that much, everything else has.

  4. April 10, 2010 pm30 9:54 pm 9:54 pm

    The “neo-school” I see emerging from homeschool communities will be worth a book if someone writes one. These groups typically meet once or twice a week, with parents taking turns teaching classes of acute interest to their families, or else hiring someone friendly they know well to teach. Personal ties are hugely important. Ages are not, and the same class may have a spread of 4-6 years. In the last few years, many homeschool communities I know formed coops of that sort.

    • April 10, 2010 pm30 9:57 pm 9:57 pm

      Is this sort of a modified math circle? How common are they?

      (in any event, it is s very different animal than the small schools that are discussed in the book).

  5. April 10, 2010 pm30 10:10 pm 10:10 pm

    The coops I am talking about are not like math circles. They typically have several dozen families, and are invitational or advertise in closely knit local groups only. The classes are planned based on the desires of members, both children and parents. Because most of these communities are closed, you can’t see any of their activities online, unless you are a member. Tammy Moore’s VirtualHomeschool is an exception, but it’s a different, if related model: http://www.virtualhomeschoolgroup.com/ Tammy’s a wonderful technology educator by the way, if you don’t know her already.

    A coop my daughter and I are in recently made an open wiki. Here’s the list of Spring proposed classes, which get voted on by families and then scheduled through a special “happiness optimization” software a parent created for the purpose: https://learningarbor.wikispaces.com/Classes+Submitted

    I realize it’s a very different animal, but some of the motivations behind these coops are similar to those behind “small schools.”

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