Symposium critiques the new small school movement

Last Thursday, April 18, the Education Department held an event titled the “Symposium on Educational Reform” in the Rockefeller Hall auditorium. The event was hosted by Professor of Education Maria Hantzopoulos and featured several speakers who co-wrote with her in 2012 a book titled Critical Small Schools. Education author and Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania Michelle Fine joined the authors on the panel as a strong supporter of the critical small schools movement.

The symposium focused on the values of democratic education and the small schools movement that took place largely in the early to mid-90s.

At the beginning of the panel discussion, Hantzopoulos distinguished between the “Critical Small Schools Movement” and the Charter School movement that has since become popular among some education reformers.

According to Hantzopoulos, at the beginning of the small schools movement, reformers advocated for smaller class sizes, more dialogue between school administrations and the community, a strong culture of caring, and an environment of respect. Seeing the success of these small critical schools in recent years, education reformers have pushed for breaking up larger schools into smaller schools without paying equal attention to the other features these small successful schools offered. According to the speakers, the results showed that even with smalller classes, there was a continued focus on neo-liberal education involving high-stakes testing, accountability, and competition.

Hantzopoulos said in an emailed statement, “We (the panelists) really wanted to share counter stories of the struggles and possibilities that exist in urban public schools, especially because they are so demonized in mainstream discourses.”

She continued, “Related to this, we wanted to offer glimpses into how progressive, culturally relevant and socially just spaces come to be in public schools. So many of my students often think that it is particularly challenging to enact this type of education in public schools because the larger neo-liberal forces dominating the educational agenda. While these forces certainly work to undermine the goals of critical small schools, we also wanted to bring hope and possibility to the conversation.”

Brielle Brook ’16, a student who attended the event, was enlightened by the possibilities the panel offered of public education offered up in the panel discussion. “Something that really captured my attention was the idea that communities and the teachers and families and neighbors in those communities can be so close-knit that their schooling is based on that, that a teacher can be so close with a community that they understand what the needs are of that community.”

Director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Julian Williams attended the symposium and echoed this idea. “We have to try to tailor our teaching methods to the students and the community.”

The symposium allowed for each author to speak about the critical school that they studied and ended with a brief talk by Michelle Fine that added broader, more contextual ideas to the conversation.

In discussing the ways in which the critical small school system had been successful in the past, Hantzopoulos made clear that the focus was still on the future. “I also want to add that these stories are not meant to evoke nostalgia, but rather, catalyze those that want to change the direction of education to act in meaningful ways,” she wrote.

Overall, reactions to the symposium were positive. According to Brook, “I thought it was a great panel. It was very informative on something that I didn’t know much about.”

Brook continued, “I grew up in Long Island and I went to public school and I had never heard of this critical small schools thing. It’s so opposite to my experience which was so based on standardized testing and falling in line.”

This was a point that speaker Michelle Fine picked up on. At one point during the panel discussion, Fine asked the audience how many students attended schools similar to the critical small schools that were profiled by the speakers. Those who raised their hands were in the overwhelming minority of the audience. Fine then asked those who didn’t raise their hands what things about their schools were different from those profiled. Audience members listed things including large classes, impersonal relations between teachers and students, and stricter security policies as things that differentiated their schools from the critical small schools featured in the discussion.

Williams appreciated this point, noting his own high school was also very different from anything the speakers discussed. He also agreed with Brook about the success of the event. “I thought it went really well. Because the panelists were so knowledgeable, I would have loved for there to have been more time for questions but I thought the format was good because you got to see so many different faces.”

One of the topics discussed concerning critical small schools was the concern that these schools would not prepare students for whatever came after high school. As Brook argued, “Let’s say you go to a school that is more like a critical small school and you don’t focus that much on standardized tests. You still have to take the SATs to get into college.”

Brook went further, speaking specifically on the subject of standardized testing- a common practice of the “new small school”. “While I don’t think it’s the best measure of ability at all, I would have never gotten to Vassar, which is a place that fosters thinking and learning how to think, if I hadn’t gone through the experience of getting a good SAT score and getting good AP scores.”

She continued, “You can be just as smart as someone who did all those tests, but you won’t be able to prove it.”

Speaking on the subject of the transition between certain high schools and colleges, Williams related these issues to Vassar. He discussed the the ways in which Vassar tries to handle the transition some students make from schools that differ greatly from Vassar. In the symposium, the concern was focused on students graduating from critical small schools who would then go on to larger, more educationally traditional institutions. Williams noted that this concern was reversed for Vassar. “I think the students coming out of the schools that were talked about in the symposium would do well here. I think they would be attracted to a school like Vassar because of the approach we take to education.”

He continued, “Part of our challenge continues to be outreach to these communities to say ‘We want you here, you can get in here, and you would flourish here.’”

One of the methods Williams spoke of to achieve this goal is the Transitions Program offered by the college. This program is geared towards incoming freshmen who are coming to Vassar from a different or minority experience in high school and who might otherwise have difficult acclimating to Vassar.

The symposium also focused on the way in which the critical small schools movement was co-opted by corporations in order to produce schools that might be smaller but aren’t any more successful than larger schools. As Hantzopoulos wrote, “I hope that students can learn why these recent reforms have been so damaging to public schools, despite the mainstream and corporate media positive spin on them.”

Williams echoed this idea. “The unfortunate thing that the panelists kept bringing up was that because of the emphasis on testing now, the models [of education] that they researched are gone now.”

Hantzopoulos also made clear that this symposium and its large turn-out-the auditorium was full- were indicative of a growing demand for discourse on public education and educational reform here at Vassar.

She wrote, “I am thrilled to be able to continue these conversations across campus and I hope that Vassar students can help turn the harmful and punitive educational tides (the ones that focus on high stakes testing, privatization and zero-tolerance) around.”

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