Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Improving public schools by changing the school size

Last week I blogged about a recent study in Oregon designed to see if smaller high schools improved the education experience. Bill Gates funded the study. After $25 million the study found there was little difference between small schools and large schools.

Since the post I have been pondering the study. Before jumping to some conclusions, I’d like to review a bit of Algebra. (I made these graphs via Polynomial Functions.)

Algebra and local maximums

Early in Algebra students are asked to graph equations like y = -x2 + 4

Later in their math experience students may be asked to find the largest value. For in the above graph the largest value y ever gets is 4, at x equals zero. For any other value of x, y is less than 4.

In trying to find an optimal strategy people will vary one or two factors looking for the “best” results. Depending on the environment the researchers might end up with what is called a local maximum, for example with y = -x4 –x3 + 3x2 + x + 1

There are two maximums here. If researchers find the one maximum at x = 1, then they may stop looking and never find the better maximum near x = -1.6

The above math focuses on what happens when one variable changes. It gets more complicated with you have two or more variables.

Should we be looking for the best school size?

Studies like the one in Oregon assume the best thing to optimize for is test scores, but there other factors to explore. For example best test scores for the amount of money spent. If having smaller schools costs more money, then even if we spent 50% more money and got a 2% raise in test scores, is that an optimal solution?

There are many other factors to consider. Some students might do better in a small school, while other students might learn better in a large school. Likewise some teachers might do better in small schools and others in large schools. Is it “best” to look for the one true school size?

For me the bigger question is should we even be worrying about the size of the school? There are many factors we could investigate. What order of topics works best? Should we teach phonics? How much exercise should children have during the day? All of us could come up with many factors that affect education to some extent.

We could be a bit ridiculous and ask questions like: Does the size of the desk matter? Do children learn better with red pens or purple pens? Should they be facing East, North, South, or West? What is the optimal time to start school?

What is important in a good education?

I assert that two of the more important factors in education are the students and the teachers.

If the students are in the wrong environment, they won’t learn. They are often asked to learn material that is too hard for them, or too easy. The students may not be motivated to learn a particular topic. Our current government schools pretty much lump all the students together from kindergarten to fifth or sixth and then allows a little variation as they progress through middle school and high school. But if a student doesn’t master a subject the school normally has pushes the poor child into the next grade.

When a student is in the wrong environment not only does the student suffer, but often other students and teachers suffer. The phrase “One bad apple spoils the barrel” applies to our current government schools. One bored student is often disruptive, causing many other students to learn less.

Everyone knows good teachers are key to really learning. The current public school system doesn’t give good teachers any special reward, so many good teachers are not motivated to go the extra mile. And those that go the extra mile often get burned out. Another big failing with government schools is just how hard it is to fire bad teachers. Way too many students have suffered major and serious abuse from teachers, and yet year after year the bad teachers continue to teach.

Some of the biggest problems in public schools today are due to not being able to get rid of bad teachers and finding appropriate ways to deal with students. Studies like the recent one in Oregon are like trying to make a block of wood fly by trying different colors rather than adding an engine and wings. There may be some color that makes a slight different, but it really doesn’t matter.

If Bill Gates really wants to improve government schools he would be better off working to make it easier to fire bad teachers and to allow parents to work with the schools to find better places for their children.

Technorati tags: government schools, public school, public education, education


Luke said...

Fantastic post!

My amazing AP Psychology teacher in High School was later forced to teach "regular" psych in the inane thinking that his good teaching would help the unmotivated kids. And it may have, but my motivated brother then had to take AP Psych with a terrible teacher.

The system is flawed. Very flawed.


Henry Cate said...

Often the brighter and motivated students suffer as schools make major attempts to reach out to those failing the system.

Cheri Yecke makes this point in The War Against Excellence. She reports that schools spend something like ten times as much money on the dumb kids as on the smart kids.

The system is flawed in many ways.

Tracy said...

I suspect it may be implicit in your post, but I think it best to state explicitly that an adminstration that supports good teaching. I once read a blog post by a teacher who had worked out that one day she was interrupted every ten minutes on average by kids coming and going for pullouts, choir, etc. Other teachers tell stories about being told to teach classes but provided with absolutely nothing in the way of resources. I've read about a school which made various responses to NCLB, including rearranging the school day so that choir wasn't on at the same time as English - before this they were letting kids with poor reading skills miss English classes for choir!

Good teachers have amazing sets of skills, but I do think we should explicitly think about whether a school as a whole support learning, not just the teacher in the classroom.

Henry Cate said...

Yes, I totally agree. Good management is essential.

I was reacting to all the time and effort spent on figuring the "best size" of a high school, when I think there are much more important factors. Student and teacher issues were the first two I thought off, but administration issues are also very important.