Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Organizing Schools into Small Units: Alternatives to Homogeneous Grouping

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Organizing Schools into Small Units: Alternatives to Homogeneous Grouping

Article excerpt

Ms. Oxley demonstrates the advantages of small-unit organization for all students -- particularly low-achieving students -- and describes an approach to small-unit organization that provides alternatives to the practices of sorting students and grouping homogeneously.

LARGE SCHOOLS are primarily a tool of curriculum specialization. During the last several decades, as economic demands for workers with higher-level skills grew, fewer and fewer students left school early to take jobs. Educators responded by diversifying the curriculum and encouraging growth in school size, since a large school population is needed to support a large number of specialized courses. Students were steered into different academic tracks in an effort to match their varied interests and abilities with different curricula.(1)

Educators altered the curriculum rather than their teaching methods, on the assumption that students have different aptitudes for learning and thus require educational materials of varying difficulty. Revised theories of learning and intelligence have severely challenged these assumptions.(2) Further, research indicates that academic tracking is neither a clearly effective nor an equitable method of organizing instruction.(3) Remedial courses tend to allow students to far further and further behind until, eventually, they drop out. Special needs programs have proved inadequate.(4) Finally, secondary school curricula are out of step with the economic demand for both a greater mastery of basic skills and the ability to use higher-order thinking skills. "Less is more" proponents have largely succeeded in focusing curriculum reform on enhancing instruction in academic core subjects.(5)

Today, the alienating effect of large schools is more profound than ever. High schools in the United States often enroll as many as 3,000 students. Yet schools this large are difficult to defend on educational grounds.(6) Research indicates that large school size adversely affects attendance, school climate, and student involvement in school activities and contributes to higher rates of dropping out, vandalism, and violence.(7) Further, the social and psychological support formerly provided. by families and communities appears to have declined, especially among the urban poor, which suggests that today's students may be even less able to cope with large schools.

Dividing large schools into small units, or subschools, however, creates a context for teaching and learning that is more stable, more intimate, and more supportive. When schools are organized into units, small numbers of students and teachers interact with one another, share an expanded range of activities, and remain together across years. Under these conditions, students and teachers are more likely to get to know one another and therefore to respect and support one another.

Organizing schools by units encourages a coordinated, cross-disciplinary approach to instruction. Within a unit, teachers share a group of students in common rather than a discipline. They take collective responsibility for their students' success, and they work together to unify instruction and allow students the opportunity to exercise skills and knowledge across subjects.

Small-unit organization also has the potential to bring about significant changes in the traditional shape of school governance. Small units lend themselves to a decentralized system in which unit leaders assume the authority to orchestrate unit activities. Unit leaders are better positioned than administrators to communicate with teachers, students, and parents, while not so burdened by administrative work that they are unable to teach any classes. The tension between administrators and instructors that normally exists in large schools with centralized management is less likely to develop. Here again, the research bolsters the claims: it suggests that large school size contributes to negative student outcomes by adversely affecting school management, particularly in the areas of consensus building and staff involvement in decision making. …

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