Sunday, June 22, 2014

Building a Mega High School is Wrong for Our Community


Former Board member Bruce Hentges  and a very few others are actively campaigning that the School District should close Apollo High School and consolidate the two high schools into on mega high school.   The vision they offer is a new mega-high school designed for 3000 students or more.   People who support the mega high school concept argue that we could deliver a vast array of courses in a Wayzata style high school more cheaply in a single high school.  This vision, of a gigantic mega-high school is exactly the wrong direction and it fundamentally contradicts the vision of our strategic plan.

The consolidated mega-high school approach has been rejected decisively by each of the three facilities task forces that have considered high school replacement in the last decade.  In the most recent, the 2011 task force, the concept was aggressively supported by a small minority of task force members. At the end of the task force's work, the task force voted 46-6 against a consolidated high school plan.

The claim that we can save money by replacing our two high schools with one mega-high school is totally unsupportable.  The claim, in fact, is grossly absurd.   In the first place, a consolidated single high school would cost about $40 million more to construct and would take Apollo High School out of service unnecessarily.  At three percent interest, the excess bond costs to taxpayers over 30 years would be $2 million a year in extra interest and $40 million in extra principal, for a total of an extra $60 million in costs.  .If we were going to choose a single-high school solution, we would need to have $60 million dollars’ worth of reasons to go ultra-big, but research almost uniformly tells us that mega high schools are not cheaper to run, that they produce less welcoming environments, and lower academic results.   Why would we pay more to get less?

Moreover, putting construction costs aside, the literature clearly rejects the contention that 3000 student high schools are cheaper per student to run than 1500 student schools, and actually supports the conclusion that cost per student rises at least above 2000 students, and probably at an even lower level.  Nothing in our strategic plan suggest that we are supposed to  model ourselves on the Wayzata model, in fact quite the opposite. We have significant cultural, economic, and demographic differences from Wayzata.   We have plenty of high performing students with strong home support for learning, and those students do well in most any environment.  But our strategic plan was designed around all of our students.  

Erroneous Claims of Cost Savings  
Suppose we were willing to spend $40 million more of taxpayer dollars to build a mega high school:  proponents argue that it would be worth the money, because it might save us money in operating costs as compensation.   They seem to argue that it would be ok to ask taxpayers to spend millions more for high school space we don't currently need, beause we would save operating costs over time.

But this argument is actually wrong, because mega schools actually cost more per student to run.  So we would be buying a bigger building that would cost more to run to boot.  In their 2005 literature review, “Effects of School Size: A Review of the Literature with Recommendation, professors Slate and Jones write:
  
In spite of the face validity of school consolidation as a solution for educational problems, the research on school size indicates that the economic and curricular advantages of large schools are often exaggerated...... 

Slate and Jones argue that the weight of evidence demonstrates that increasing the size of schools over 1000 does not actually improve economic efficiency--the cost per student--but actually causes it to decline, they argue:  

When school size is considered in isolation, schools between 500 and 1,000 students are probably operating at peak economic efficiency already (Turner & Thrasher, 1970). Thus, with regard to economies of scale, current research does not support school consolidation of schools that already have 500 or more students. Nor does this literature support consolidation that would result in a school of more than 1000 students. [While efficiencies occur from consolidations up to 500 students, the article continues...] before consolidating schools with fewer than 500 students, educational decision-makers need to consider additional factors such as transportation costs in determining the likely cost effectiveness of this action.  


Why might size increases beyond 1000 students result in cost inefficiencies?   One very obvious factor, of course, is that a very large high school, must support a much larger transportation network, because the extra-large school must draw students from a larger geographic area.   But another is that at some point enrollment increases the demand for extra layers of administration.  For example, the principal in a high school supervises professionals, and that involves supervision, coordination, and communication.   When size increases, the number of professionals supervised gets larger and larger, it becomes difficult for the principal to meet and supervise with all staff, and that means that the principal needs assistant principals or other principals to conduct that supervision, and increasingly, the head principal becomes a supervisors of supervisors, and the supervision is conducted in layers of supervision.   As the school gets more people supervising more people, layers of bureaucracy can build up within the school. 

 Very small schools often are forced to deliver courses with small class sizes, because even required or critical elective courses may not draw enough students.  But as school size increases, the literature explains, it becomes possible to insist on reasonable class sizes for all offerings.   The benefits derived from class size-efficiencies, then fall away, and increasing administrative and transportation costs supplant them.  This creates a U-Shaped cost curve in which at first increasing school size reduces cost per student, but at somewhere around 1000 students, the cost per student rises again.

….a number of researchers have explored the causes of this U-shaped relationship 
between school size and per pupil cost.   Monk (1992) found that savings projected for a number of expenses simply did not occur with large school size……Fox (1981) noted that as long as increasing school size results in larger pupil/teacher ratios, per pupil expenditures will drop.  Once maximum class size is reached, however, no additional savings are possible, but continued increase in school size will continue to increase administrative costs.  That is, the need for additional administrative staff continues to grow with increased school size even after maximum student-teacher ratios are reached (Haller, 1992, McKenzie, 1983).    McGuire (1989) concluded that schools with an enrollment above 2000 were located on the upward slope of the cost curve and that their continued combination of teaching personnel and course offerings could be made available in a smaller and more economical setting.

 A report to the Oregon State Legislature describes a similar results from a review of high school size and cost.

 “Most recent studies have concluded that the costs savings from larger school sizes have not materialized, primarily because administrative costs tend to increase as school sizes increase, eating up much of the costs savings. At the other end of the spectrum, the benefits of smallness diminish below a certain level, with costs per student rising dramatically as class sizes in small schools inevitably fall. As a result of these findings, a number of researchers have estimated that the optimal high school size is between 500 and 1,000 students.”

Mega Schools Don’t Produce Superior Results

 A study by Knowledge Works, summarizes why the weight of modern research shows consolidating into large schools does not produce promised academic gains:

  The research about the value of smaller schools shows that small schools are safer schools and better places for students to work with adults who know them and whom they trust (Barker & Gump[1], 1964; Wasley[2], 2000; Cotton[3], 2001). Small schools graduate a higher percentage of students. Students drop out of small schools at lower rates than they do from large schools, and more students who graduate from small schools go on to post-secondary education than do their counterparts who graduate from large schools. There is less violence in small schools, less vandalism, a heightened sense of belonging, and better attendance. Students earn higher grade point averages, and more participate in extracurricular activities. There is greater teacher satisfaction in small schools than there is in large schools. Members of the community including parents and other relatives are more involved with the life of small schools than are their counterparts in large schools—for the same reasons as their children (Cotton, 2001).

The research in this area is endless but it rejects extra large high schools overwhelmingly.   The great thrust of research challenges the assertion that more courses translates into a better education or better educational results.   Effective high schools assure that students master the core.  They provide a reasonable range of options, of course.  They must assure that bright students are challenged, and they must assure appropriate interventions or remediation for students who are behind.   But when students are selecting from dozens of literature options it is difficult to assure implementation and design of a quality comprehensive curriculum and to assure that all students are progressing through the necessary reading objectives.

 Our kids need more from their school than lots of courses and powerful sports teams.  Here in St. Cloud, we hear from our students that they want to go to school in an environment where their teachers know them, where teacher care enough to support them when they need a boost.  If we remain faithful to our strategic plan we don’t need to engage in micro-scrutiny of the potential costs of running a mega high school, or the potential extra course offerings.   Our strategic plan is pointing us in a completely different direction.  

Schools like Wayzata can, and often do, offer multiple levels of journalism courses, boutique literature courses (such as Detective-Gothic literature, the Graphic Novel, and Science Fiction/Fantasy literature), and a wide variety of other luxury courses (five levels of drawing, six levels of pottery and ceramics)  that are not necessary to provide a quality core program of academics.  It is probably true, that a 3000 student high school can offer more layers of journalism courses than a 1000 student high school, and if providing a smorgasbord of courses were part of our strategic plan, then perhaps a mega high school would be worth at least a discussion.     But I see absolutely nothing in our strategic plan that remotely suggests that our community’s primary objective is to see how many different courses their children can choose from.     In fact, to the contrary, we were asked to create a more welcoming, more supportive, more community based environment than we currently have.  The literature tells us that creating mega high schools undermine all of these objectives.   Why are we even giving serious considering to an option that would completely turn our strategic plan upside down? 

We should be starting, as our strategic plan suggests, by looking to the core of what constitutes a highly effective high school.  Marzano is not the only basis for our strategic plan, but reviewing what he calls upon us to do, would give focus to what high school design is about.   Highly effective schools provide:
  • ·         A Safe and Orderly Environment That Supports Cooperation and Collaboration.  In highly effective schools, the faculty and staff perceive the school environment as safe and orderly.  For example, students, parents, and the community perceive the school environment as safe and orderly.   Teachers have formal roles in the decision - making process regarding school initiatives.    Teacher teams and collaborative groups regularly interact to address common issues regarding curriculum, assessment, instruction, and the achievement of all students.  Teachers and staff have formal ways to provide input regarding the optimal functioning of the school.
  •  ·         An instructional framework that develops and maintain effective instruction in every classroom. In an effective school, support is provided to teachers to continually enhance their pedagogical skills through reflection and professional growth plans.  Predominant instructional practices throughout the school are known and monitored.   Teachers are provided with clear, ongoing evaluations of their pedagogical strengths and weaknesses that are based on multiple sources of data and are consistent with student achievement data.  …..
  • ·         A guaranteed and viable curriculum focused on enhancing student learning.   In highly effective schools the school curriculum is focused enough so that it can be adequately addressed in the time available to teachers. …. Data are analyzed, interpreted and to regularly monitor progress toward school achievement goals.  Appropriate school-level and classroom-level programs and practices are in place to help students meet individual achievement goals when data indicate interventions are needed.
  • ·         A Standards - referenced System of reporting student progress.    Clear and measurable goals are established and focused on critical needs regarding improving achievement of individual students within the school.  Data are analyzed, interpreted, and used to regularly monitor progress toward achievement goals for individual students.  
  •  ·         A Competency - Based System That Ensures Student Mastery of Content.     In a highly effective school, students move on to the next level of the curriculum for any subject area only after they have demonstrated competence at the previous level.  The school schedule is designed to accommodate students moving at a pace appropriate to their backgrounds and needs.  Students who have demonstrated competency levels greater than those articulated in the system are afforded immediate opportunities to begin work on advanced content and/or career paths of interest
 There is no evidence --- none --that consolidating high schools into mega high schools would promote any of these objectives.  In fact there is a ton of evidence that very large high schools interfere with those objectives by creating a less welcoming, less collaborative, less accountable, more disjointed teaching and learning environment.   These highly effective school components are integrated into our strategic plan, and they resonate throughout the things that our superintendent is calling upon principals, executive directors, teachers and all of us to accomplish.    We need to deliver on our commitment to create highly effective schools, not just for some students, but for all our students.  

We agreed that we would be making decisions with a focus on promoting those objectives and consolidating our two high schools does neither.   Nothing in our strategic plan calls upon us to mechanically calculate whether we can offer more journalism, more pottery, and more science fiction literature courses than any other high school in the state.   We are driven instead by our strategic plan to provide a quality core education for all of our students and to do so in a more welcoming environment.   We should be driven by creating a highly effective high school that works for all of our students, and everything we do going forward towards high school design should be focused like a laser on that objective.



[1] Barker R. & Gump, P. (1964). Big school small school: High school size and student behavior. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press
[2] Wasley, P. A. & Lear, R. J. (2001, March). Small schools, real gains. Educational Leadership. 58 (6), 22-27.
[3] Cotton, K. (2001, December). New small learning communities: Findings from recent literature. Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory,

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