“…they could look at a bowl of cherries and see nothing but pits…” ~Marty Strange, on the negative view of consolidation proponents toward small schools.
…an apt description of the negativity toward RSU 50’s schools for their size that permeated last Monday’s “Community Meeting”. (A compelling essay by Mr. Strange, and other works by top researchers on school consolidation can be found in Great Plains Research Volume 23 No. 2 Abstracts are available here, and I just submitted a full copy to the Sherman Public Library yesterday).
Back to last Monday’s meeting. I know many of you have asked for this and I’m sorry I took so long with my “homework” At the beginning, Mrs. Hill expressed a very valid concern at the way in which meetings like this one are announced. They should be on AlertNow. I share her belief that people should be as informed as possible, and in a consistent way. I also want to thank her, too, for welcoming my voice in this debate though I have no vote and likely disagree.
“If you want to know what’s going on you have to come to the meetings.!” ~Chairman Greg Ryan, “We announce the next meetings at the meetings….”
I disagree. People have a right to know what is going on whether they are able to attend meetings or not. That is why we read newspapers rather than go, say, to the State gHouse….. It was suggested to a number of us some time ago that we record/video/mp4 -whatever, meetings and share them. I lack the technological capability! Tech-savvy readers?
It is difficult to attend, certainly. I would have preferred to be at home with my family; on a rare night off for such a hardworking husband. Anyway:
How did the meeting become so heated so quickly?
It all started innocently enough. I asked Craig Kesselheim to clarify references to Searsport High School in the FTF report. In it, the FTF asserts that Searsport’s size relative to Belfast and philosophical uniqueness should bar its closure. It brought to mind, for me, another instance where that very same argument was used by then-Commissioner Susan Gendron to justify closure of Benedicta’s school. Such value judgements run throughout the FTF’s “unbiased” analysis. Many surrounding Katahdin look to Searsport as a model to emulate for good reason. I did not share a letter from a friend there; I didn’t have time, as the Board was busy shutting down discussion for which they were unprepared, but here it is now:
“…Searsport High School has worked hard at coming back from losing their accreditation in the 90’s and has been working towards becoming a STEM school. The program is so popular and successful here that schools in Maine, New England and beyond have visited our campus and talked with teachers and students for advice and direction. The superintendent said more schools needed to close and he had Searsport High School on the chopping block even though our test scores were higher than Belfast and even though we are so close to becoming a STEM school. He wanted to move us into a school that is too small and falling apart, while our school is newer with modern improvements and state of the art lab, etc. If we moved to Belfast, we would have had to use modular classrooms as the school isn’t big enough to accommodate us. That was Belfast’s way of being able to say to the state they need a new school sooner rather than later. Basically it boils down to our communities wanting local control of our school tax dollars and control over keeping the momentum going with creating a STEM school..”
Our readers will likely see parallels in our own RSU.
The preference for large schools underlied the discussion, and the Board’s position was clear, that schools of Katahdin’s size are inviable:
“…The criticism that smaller schools cannot offer as broad a program of studies as can larger schools has been around for a very long time; it is often used as a justification for closing smaller schools. Educational authorities, pursuing an agenda of school consolidation, point out the obvious: larger schools can offer a wider range of programs and more courses than can smaller schools. “Therefore, goes the argument, operating small schools with more limited curricula is unfair to the students who attend them” (Cotton, 1996).
“While this has a certain common sense appeal, examination of the research reveals that there simply is no reliable relationship between school size and curriculum quality.
“Even the smallest schools (100-200 students) are able to offer core curricula comparable to schools of more than 1,200….” ~Jack and the Giant School, by Stacy Mitchell
Mrs. Robinson astutely pointed out how slight even the FTF’s own predictions are regarding more offerings saying, “I expected more”.
“..researchers have found that “it takes a lot of bigness to add a little variety – that is, on average, a 100% increase in enrollment yields only a 17% increase in variety of offerings…” Education on a Human Scale
The FTF offers no evidence to support even these modest, predicted gains, and even they may be overly optimistic when applied to RSU #50. These figures do not account for the demands that increased transportation, construction, State subsidy uncertainties or taxpayer support will undoubtedly make on any savings.
The Board admitted what readers of Timbered Classrooms have known for some time: that a new school is, indeed their first choice of scenarios. Though it did not admit the myriad of ways pursuit of new construction in lieu of innovating; optimizing our small schools’ potential shortchanges kids in their care today, we can extrapolate a certain degree of callousness from the Board’s willingness to yank $20,000 from the classroom to “study” this,using only data provided by the Superintendent. Why did they need Great Schools Partnership then? Save 20 grand and do this work yourself! You’re all adults…. When asked for evidence, “We haven’t done that yet” protested Greg Ryan, but further discussion descended into one, unequivicol conclusion: Minds are already made up.
“Educational authorities, convinced that they were right, intimidated and informed parents that if they wished their children to have a quality education, they had to agree to close their small community school and have their children bused to a larger school in a distant community. No additional evidence was necessary (Howley and Eckman, 1997; Truscott and Truscott, 2005, Theobald, 2005; Meier, 2002).”
“For many educational authorities there was no need for research to support this view. Most administrators and policy makers during this time period increasingly drew their educational models and metaphors from business and industry. Notions of economies of scale and the “cult of efficiency” (Callahan, 1964) provided all the “proof” needed to justify the consolidation and closure of small schools. For many it was simply a matter of common sense: if bigger factories are more productive than smaller ones then bigger schools must be better than smaller schools.”
I hope that the people of the RSU #50 communities will soon demand evidence to support the path their Board is aggressively pursuing:
“…Those who say small schools are not “efficient,” or effective, need to cite the evidence, not just the rhetoric. …” ~Size Matters
Such careful, critical analysis is long overdue, and it is surely the responsibility of Board members to engage, actively and independently throughout their terms:
“…I suggest that potential candidates for school board should be required to visit exemplary schools in Maine and elsewhere before announcing their candidacy. They should be asked to share with the electorate their vision of excellent schools and their ideas for how to help schools achieve that vision. They should be required to demonstrate an informed engagement with topics in the national educational dialogue….” ~Kathreen Harrison School Board Candidates Should Show Serious Engagement
Though a stack of research/empirical evidence sat in my knitting bag, consolidation proponents — with none at all, accused those of us who see value in small schools of “being emotional”, “negative” and unable to get along with others. (Actually, we embrace sharing – real, universally beneficial sharing.) Not surprisingly, no one showed any interest in evidence:
. “…don’t bother me with the facts, I have made up my mind” applied to educational decision making. It is hard not to conclude that those who still insist that bigger schools are better schools are simply not interested in the evidence to the contrary…” Education on a Human Scale
I came to this issue in 2004, inclined to believe consolidation saved money and offered opportunity, and did not have children in school when Commissioner Gendron came after Benedicta Elementary. I got involved, only because she had refused to answer any of my neighbors’ letters — I just asked her , politely, of course, to answer them as they were becoming increasingly upset. Thus began a lengthy, spirited-yet-civil correspondence, as I pursued the research with an open mind; determined to go where the evidence led. I was surprised by how decisive it was! …as surprised as researchers themselves:
“…the advantages of smaller schools have been established with a clarity and confidence rare in the annuls of education (Raywid 2000)
The Commissioner and I would never agree, and some views she held on equity for rural children I found difficult to respect. She always engaged, though, even coming to Benedicta several times under contentious circumstances and I do respect and appreciate that. Perhaps more now as this Board is disinclined to do likewise.
The contrast between the former Commissioner and the behavior of this Board toward Timbered Classrooms, certain employees and me could not be more stark.
But it should not be surprising:
“…It’s an unfortunate, but fairly common reality that intimidation and personal slurs are used against people fighting consolidation. Sometimes teachers or administrators have their jobs, or the jobs of family members, subtly threatened. Sometimes rumors are spread locally. It’s not uncommon for pro-consolidation media outlets to portray community advocates of small schools in unflattering ways, to use derogatory rural stereotypes, and to misrepresent the legitimate concerns of rural residents and parents as self-interest, commitment to local athletic teams, or ignorance of and disregard for what’s best for their own children….” ~Anything But Research Based
Phil Knowles was right about one thing: (no, this is not a typo, and it WAS only one thing: Education cannot be run like a business.
We have to remember, education is education, a humane and human process. It is not competition or production. It is not a business, and business leaders really don’t know much about it. Education is not their area of expertise…. Not a Business
He went on to express openness to scenarios that, “…throw my kids under the bus…” because Southern Aroostook is closer to Region II and would afford those kids the opportunity to return in time for another class.
This is why Regional Boards are so problematic. Why on Earth would you throw ANY child “under the bus” EVER? This is exactly the type of thought processes that occur in a Board that is too far removed from the kids. They begin to think in terms of averages and lose sight of the preciousness of every single child.
A child is not a “regional unit”, is not “scaleable” and none of them are “average”. The Board could create and empower separate committees to see to individualize decision making: Pearls of Wisdom From out Coastal Cousins
Back to “Proximity to Southern Aroostook…”. It’s an argument we have heard over and over and over, and one more often used to justify closure. Do you know what else is “proximate to Region II”? Houlton. If busing is so benign, then, why not close SACS? The distance is less than what you are asking Katahdin’s children to endure. Why does the harm of busing matter more or less depending on who is in the seat if “all children matter equally”?
Claims that the desired “new school” will remain small, and retain all of the benefits of small schools is used to discredit the research offered here. READ: “…too small to benefit from scale…” In a few words, Larry sweepingly dismissed every item of research presented here and beyond, “They’re not talking about us….” — the height of absurdity in a decidedly farcical evening.
They are correct, though, and will likely be smaller than anyone may think. …too small to offer the benefits touted by the Board. Do we have reason to believe that precipitous enrollment declines will NOT continue unabated? Though I believe in public education, and find “shopping” for schools in a “market” abhorrent, I am doing just that and am not alone. The Superintendent referenced the difficulty in attracting and retaining good teachers. The only reason I do not home school, is the relationships children form with wonderful teachers. If they will not choose RSU #50, then why should I for our children? Has anyone on the Board spoken with good teachers who would not submit a resume? I have. Like many problems in the RSU, size isn’t the issue. Further, as research shows that taxpayer support diminishes with distance in consolidations, interest in changing the cost-sharing formula to a per-pupil one will likely grow and that budgets will become even more difficult to pass.
At the moment, our small schools are being run by people seeking to prove their inferiority, as is reflected by budget priorities toward “Bureaucrats and Wardens” which does not bode well to realizing their full potential.
I’ve always thought it odd that school size was treated as a choice — it isn’t always. Children in your care are not going to wait for you to “decide” whether to pursue “bigness” OR innovate as quality small schools do. Policymakers have a responsibility to do the latter, though we all know it conflicts directly with their efforts toward the former.
The Board would do well to remember, that, they have no choice — they are running small schools at the moment, and their negativity toward them amounts to an admission that children are being shortchanged now – and unnecessarily according to research and to residents who believe the budget is sufficient to improve education for kids if spent differently.
“…Research also suggests that impoverished regions in particular often benefit from smaller schools and districts, and they can suffer irreversible damage if consolidation occurs….”Beware the Oversimplifiers
The communities have a decision to make, here, and I do wish them well. The Board made theirs long ago.