THE BLOG
02/21/2013 10:49 am ET | Updated Apr 23, 2013

Small Schools: Miracle or Mirage?

Whenever I read a Bill Gates prescription for healing our public schools or society I'm reminded of the old E.F. Hutton commercial, "When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen." But when it comes to Gates, "When Bill Gates talks, politicians listen." They not only listen, they transform his words into public policy with a boost from his philanthropic largess, often without discussion or debate.

Gates' latest talk appeared in his Wall Street Journal essay last month titled "My Plan to Fix The World's Biggest Problems." In it he suggested that if you can measure a problem you can fix it. David Brooks, with an ear to the ground and a finger in the wind, declared that "data-ism" is the rising philosophy of the day.

If any proof were needed that Americans are suffering from a woefully deficient historical grounding, these pronouncements should suffice.

You need look no further than the late Barry Karl's insightful work The Uneasy State, published 30 years ago to realize that the cult of data actually emerged after WWI. "Everything could now be solved by scientific research. All diseases could be cured. Poverty could be ended. "

A cult of measurement took hold as "scientific management" introduced by Fredrick Winslow Taylor at the turn of the 20th century gained in popularity after the war.

Time and motion studies would dictate the precise standards for workers efficiency. "Thus, efficiency depended on judgments made by technical experts observing the workers' actions, not on what workers believed to be their own best methods of working."

Herbert Hoover himself was a Taylorist. He could not prevent the Great Depression.

And that is precisely the problem. You get a glimpse of Gates' enthusiasm for the cult of data as he gushes over his notion of education reform in his Journal essay.

Over the course of a school year, each of Eagle County's 470 teachers is evaluated three times and is observed in class at least nine times by master teachers, their principal and peers called mentor teachers.

The Eagle County evaluations are used to give a teacher not only a score but also specific feedback on areas to improve and ways to build on their strengths. In addition to one-on-one coaching, mentors and masters lead weekly group meetings in which teachers collaborate to spread their skills.

The problem is that "master teachers" may know precious little about what is being taught in the classes they observe. They are technical experts, "expert" in the teaching of technique. But they do not know what is really being taught. They know only what they can measure.

So, in short, Bill Gates has dusted off century-old ideas and put his computer wizardry on top of this banana split the same way a soda jerk would put a cherry on top of the whipped cream, with no idea of what a banana split is or for that matter whipped cream or a cherry, yet he expects it to taste good. What's old is new again. In fact these ideas are so old they'll soon be making an appearance on Antiques Road Show.

We all know the aphorism about damned lies and statistics. In the "Age of Data," if you attend or work in New York's public schools, you find yourself enmeshed in a web of statistics that reflects nothing of daily reality. In fact all you need to do is look at the Bill Gates-funded small school initiative and the statistical claims of success to realize how badly attenuated our elites are from life here on earth.

Breaking up old large comprehensive high schools and dividing them into four small schools with populations of about 400 each was supposed to provide student teacher intimacy, and thus improved academic results.

To that end the Gates Foundation donated approximately $2 billion over 10 years to municipalities that bought into the program. According to Gates, the expenditures did not yield the hoped for results. It wasn't worth the cost.

However, New York City was touted as the exception. A Gates-funded study claimed that the dramatic rise in the Bloomberg-Klein small school experiment was transformational. New York's sui generous results were largely attributed to the business managerial genius of Michael Bloomberg.

I've spent several years working in and around small schools and to my mind's eye none of these claims are true. In fact I would argue that the academic achievements are illusory and safety has been badly compromised as well.

The improved graduation rates were rendered meaningless when news of the skyrocketing remediation numbers at New York's community colleges became public. Credit recovery schemes, pressure on teachers to increase passing rates, and the restoration of social promotion revealed hollowed-out statistics and hollowed-out high school diplomas. What's more, many of the new small schools recruited from outside the closed high school's population cohort further distorted any comparisons.

The word is also out that if you are a principal you'd better know how to sweep ugly incidents under the rug. In my old school small school students were given access to the faculty bathroom during a Saturday enrichment program. One of them ripped the sink off the wall and flooded the west wing. She wasn't arrested, she wasn't suspended, and her parents didn't have to make monetary restitution. It was just another small school miracle.

Another time a student lit a box of matches and sprayed perfume on the flame turning it into a torch. No punishment was meted out.

Long before the small school initiative, New York had its own disastrous experiment with dividing up a low achieving comprehensive high school into four small schools.

Andrew Jackson High School was renamed Campus Magnet almost 20 years ago but the name change did nothing to raise student achievement and stem school violence. It should have provided a cautionary tale for small school promoters. But the lessons of Campus Magnet were ignored. Two of the four schools are to be closed to make way for new schools that will replace failure with success according to authorities.

When large schools are divided you also lose control of the student population. Students from co-located schools often disrupt classes in neighboring schools or enter a neighboring school to fight. Texting and cell phones provide instant communication to the Clockwork Orange sociopaths, only exacerbating the level of violence.

Since you don't know three-fourths of the student population in your building, you have to rely on cameras to identify them if the actions are particularly egregious.

A few days ago a student entered my class at Campus Magnet distraught because an unknown student snatched a chain from her neck. It turns out he'd just been released from jail and was on probation. The victim will immediately get a safety transfer.

The perpetrator may or may not have his probation revoked because the victim is terrified of pressing charges even though the event was recorded on security cameras. She's content to get out of this environment and school authorities are glad that negative data won't appear on their books. I wonder how David Brooks would quantify this "non-event" in the age of "data-ism"?

The day before 17 fights broke out and one student's arm was broken. One student threatened a principal after one of the fights and told her she would "f--- her up." She took no action because she both feared the student who threatened her and possible retribution from her superiors who might accuse her of being excessively harsh if she suspended the culprits.

There were only a handful of suspensions because Arne Duncan's Education Department believes that a disparate number of minority students are being suspended and that results in higher incarceration rates for them down the line. School systems have to provide detailed reports on suspensions as the envelopment of local schools by the Federal government continues unabated.

So if you look at the latest citywide suspension numbers you'll see that they've been reduced by an astounding 30 percent over the past 18 months! These numbers might be music in the ears of the mayor, the editorial boards, and the city council but they actually mask a worsening condition in the schools.

The discipline code has been revised to ensure that insubordination is merely a word in the dictionary and not an act of improper student behavior. Last week a student told me to "shut the f--- up" three times. I finally called for a dean who promptly returned the student to my room and told me he understands the consequences of his actions. He promptly returned to the same pattern of behavior.

Space doesn't allow me to rehearse the numerous small school incidents I've encountered over the past five years. You won't find them anywhere in the statistical record. In the Age of Data I have no data to supply you with.

If you have your doubts about the veracity of my accounts I can only suggest that you place this article in your time capsule and check back a few years from now to see if this article is on the fiction or non-fiction list.