In a new article entitled "Schools-Within-Schools Model Seen Yielding Trade-Offs," Erik Robelen of Education Week reports on a new book Schools Within Schools: Possibilities and Pitfalls of High School Reform by Valerie Lee of the University of Michigan and Douglas Ready of Teachers College that implies that research on schools within schools is starting to be somewhat of a mixed bag. Why does this interpretation of educational research sound so familiar?
One of the most salient findings of the book according to Robelen is "that the approach led to increased stratification of students by race, academic ability, and socioeconomic status. The authors also describe as surprisingly rare the cases of instructional innovation tied to the smaller structure."
Valerie Lee states,“Unless you’re pretty careful, this [approach] is not the solution to anything and actually creates some additional problems".
What I find promising is that Lee indicates that, as Robelen writes "the research has not dispelled her belief in the potential value of the schools-within-schools model, which she first recommended a decade ago as a cost-saving alternative to creating stand-alone small schools. Instead, the book argues that the approach requires great effort and vigilance, with close attention “to what is taught, to whom it is taught, and how it is taught.”
Robelen reports that Lee and Ready conclude that there is agreement among researchers that the social environments of SWSs are more positive than in comprehensive high schools. Some studies further suggest SWSs have stronger student attendance, as well as somewhat higher graduation rates than comprehensive high schools. However, Lee and Ready conclude that the link between SWSs and student achievement is mixed.The book reports that a 2005 study by the Gates Foundation found that, on average, new stand-alone high schools have more beneficial social and academic climates than existing schools that were converted to SWSs.
In a phone conversation with Ms. Lee some time ago, I was able to get a sense of understanding of the impact of the physical setting, facilities, on the success of the the schools-within-schools concept. At that time she didn't want to give away the store (her new book apparently) but indicated the difficulty of breaking up science labs to be more decentralized, citing cost, etc. I think her comments regarding the rare nature of instructional innovation tied to smaller structures speaks volumes about why pitfalls exist in SWS models: the paradigm of teaching and learning is remaining the same in these schools despite the personalization. My own experience with various SWS models in my region have convinced me that yes indeed, change is hard. Breaking up schools into smaller units and then acting "as if" nothing else needs to be done will provide ample examples of "pitfalls". Yet the possibilities, I for positive change are endless as wel move from a Dinosaur Era of big schools to smaller, saner and personalized schools.
Now with that said, maybe I could read the book? I have ordered myself a copy and will let you know what I find that may be of some use for school design.