Sunday, September 20, 2009


A COMMON OBJECTION to SMALL SCHOOLS: “Our schools are focusing on reducing class size, not schoolsize. We seek to provide a student-centered environment.”

RESPONSE: Let us emphasize the difference between being a student in a small school and being a student in a small class in a large school.

Bill Gates hammers the point of small schools, where kids feel safer and everyone knows your name. It doesn’t matter what size the “student-centered environment” is – when I walk out that classroom door, if I can merge into a sea of 800 or 1000 other bodies, then I’m not in a small school. I don’t get the small-school benefit that Dennis Littky writes about and that Bill Gates is pursuing with his foundation.

In short

1) Howard Gardner says that assessing actual understanding will cost a lot more that we currently spend on written tests (Intelligence Reframed, p. 167).

2) Littky says that mentors, exhibitions and learning through interests are needed to supplement the typical school textbook and testing

3) Robert Reich does not have much complimentary to say about standardized tests (see page 17 of this booklet).

How can this “Met Center” model be applied to middle schools? Or to traditional high schools?

n more hands-on learning

n more interaction with outside mentors

n introduce grading by narrative

n “one classroom schools” – one teacher for several subjects. (See WARNING below.)

n less emphasis on performance on a written test

n expand the standardized test to allow alternative ways of “performing understanding.”

Howard Gardner, developer of the Multiple Intelligences theory, makes it clear that there are many ways of learning, so there should be more than one way to assess a person’s mastery of a subject. Some people are inspired speakers and actors, but have a difficult time writing. Some people are good at building teams but do poorly when acting alone.

In the real world, these people are called “managers” (because they know how to delegate). They don’t have to know how to do everything well.

However, schools test students in a way that guarantees that most people who are good in one area are going to feel terrible about themselvesbecause they can’t perform up to a standard in another area. In the work place, employees don’t have to perform in a well-rounded way. That’s why there is division of labor in an organization.

As a math teacher, I’m impressed with the Big Picture’s philosophy and how the philosophy is put into action through the five pillars. The interview with National Public Radio (in April 2005) is particularly compelling and I recommend close listening to Dennis Littky. You can find this interview on the NPR web site,, and enter “Dennis Littky” in the search box. The links will take you to the April 25, 2005 interview. I used to “believe in” schools as large boxes that efficiently take in 1000 students and churn out young adults. Now I see that I learned because I was with an adult who spoke to me and a few other people who were also interested in what I was hooked on. As a tutor, I see students “get it” after three or four sessions because I take the time to find out what the student is interested in and we shift the tutoring sessions toward those interests.

What if schools were “places to explore my interests”? Dennis Littky describes one path to making a classroom that facilitates discovery. The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s Business. I hope you will take time to connect with this remarkable organizationà (401) 752-3442

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