In the eyes of Gates and company, the problem was with small schools as a particular policy fix rather than with the thinking behind the fix. Collective faith in silver bullets—in finding "what works" and "taking it to scale"—remained absolute. Never mind the obvious disregard for the importance of context or inescapable complexity of improving schools. The backers declared small schools a failure and moved on.But while the modern small schools movement, which began as a teacher-led movement in East Harlem, for social-justice and democratic education and met its death when it was trampled by the top-down, corporate-style reform wave of the past two decades, was never envisioned as a panacea or a technical reform for ailing schools. Rather it was seen by us early educator/activists as a way to drive change from below. Small, was about far more that the size of buildings or even school population. It was a metaphor that gave us a way to confront anonymity and talk about schooling in personalized, human terms.
Gates money, translated into Gates' takeover and proved to be the irresistable kiss of death, as many of us suspected it would be.
As it turns out, small schools do exactly what you might expect. Smallness can create more opportunities for young people to be known, both by one another and by the adults in the building. The relative intimacy of small schools can foster trusting, caring, and attentive relationships. Deborah Meier, the godmother of the small-schools movement, consistently made this argument in the 1980s and 1990s when explaining the importance of size. As she put it in a 1989 op-ed essay, small schools offer young people better opportunities to learn forms of participation" necessary to becoming a member of a democratic society." But they are, at best, only one piece of a complex puzzle. And early proponents of small schools were clear about that. As Meier, who also writes an opinion blog for Education Week , prudently observed: "Small schools are not the answer, but without them none of the proposed answers stand a chance."For more on the life and death of the small schools movement, read our book, "Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society." Maybe it's time to reopen the conversation on small schools.