Worrying about school size should be way down the list

Issue: "There they go again," June 5, 1999

When you're steadfastly determined not to talk about the real issues, I suppose a discussion about the evils of big schools is as good a distraction as any. But as the nation continues to try to figure out what went wrong at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., that's all the school-size discussion is-a distraction.

One eager reporter, writing under the banner headline "Many of America's high schools are just too big," found that Columbine High had 1,800 students, while Heath High School in Paducah, Ky., had 600; Thurston High in Springfield, Ore., 1,350; Heritage High in Conyers, Ga., 1,300; and Bethel High in Alaska, 1,350. It's as if he proclaimed: Case made. But it's not nearly that simple.

My credentials to write on this subject may be slightly skewed by the fact that I was graduated from high school in a class of just two. I was either valedictorian or salutatorian; no one ever made the calculations. I know I was the second best athlete overall in my class, and the best male athlete. And from the fading perspective of four decades, I can still get fairly exercised about the good and bad sides of both small and big.

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But the bottom line is this: Size doesn't matter much in schooling. The best proof of that assertion is that you can find thousands of examples to verify whatever point you want to affirm about learning quality and learning efficiency. Viewed from one perspective, anything works.

The perspective that allows you to say "Anything works" includes two important assumptions: First, you've got to have a teacher skilled at saying something that's valuable. Second, you need a student who's eager to discover what the teacher knows. (I freely grant that enhancing such eagerness on the part of the student may also be part of the teacher's task.) If you've got those two conditions, nothing else matters all that much-not facilities, or class size, or daily schedule, or annual calendar, or the teacher's degrees and certification, or teachers' salaries, or curriculum. Former President James A. Garfield had it right when he spoke to Williams College alumni in 1871: "Give me a log hut," he said, "with only a simple bench, Mark Hopkins [the president of Williams] on one end and I on the other, and you may have all the buildings, apparatus, and libraries without him."

My father often reminded listeners that no one worried about the faculty-student ratio when Walter Cronkite went on the air with the evening news. "No one complains," he said, "that somehow that 20 million-to-one ratio has to be cut back so that people watching the news will understand it better." The difference, of course, was that Walter Cronkite was a master communicator who understood his subject matter and was on the wave-length of his listeners. In Sunday school next week, would you rather be one of 500 people listening to Charles Swindoll or R.C. Sproul-or one of just five listening to some schlock?

Here's the irony: It's basically the same educational experts who for the last 50 years have told us we had to consolidate and merge our little schools into educational megaplexes-it's basically those same experts who now seek to prove to us that it's the sheer immensity of those schools that leads to the depersonalization and loneliness producing tragedies like the one at Columbine. But they don't know what they're talking about any more now than they did when they closed down the one-room country school houses. Such people tinker incessantly with externals but never get down to the heart of the issue.

So it is pretense on the one hand to imagine that any school will ever get big and efficient enough to teach its students everything there is to learn in life. Life is simply too big and too complex. All a school can really do is equip its students with tools to be good learners for the rest of their lives.

But it is pretense of an equally misleading nature to suppose that any school will get small enough to offer its students the kind of personal attention and socialization to avoid getting lost in the bigness of life.

There are great big schools where teachers-and their students-are excited about discovering the truth of God in all of life. There are tiny schools (even including some homeschool settings) that fail in the educational process because that same truth is excluded, ignored, or marginalized. Wise educators of every kind will focus on those and related issues long before getting sidetracked with meaningless discussions on class and school size.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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