Small Schools + Local Control = A Winning Combination

The plans and laws aimed at school reform have become exercises in futility because, like Cyclops, the vision, thought, and goals of the do-gooders are narrow and limited. This paradigm of failure, of throwing good money after bad, of cheating yet another generation of children — has come about because all but a very few of us insist on factoring large centralized governmental control into any and every schooling equation. The reformers will surely fail, no matter which test, which curriculum, which guideline, which child they determine not to leave behind. The reformers will fail because they, like the Cyclops, are feeling the backs of the sheep while the answers are hidden in places they are incapable of considering, or places that they simply refuse to consider.

The small rural schools of yesteryear worked, and worked well. The mail that arrived in response to my two articles on one-room schools, attests to that fact. Those who attended such schools remember them fondly and credit them with providing each student with a strong academic start. Families with children still attending the few one-room schools that are left in America, report that they must stay ever vigilant and ready to fight to keep their small, local schools.

Colin Colenso described his experience with such programming:

“I write to you today to share my own experience with One-room Schooling, which I believe is quite unusual but provides strong support for your opinions on the superiority of One-room Schooling. In 1974, as a third grader in Geelong, Australia, I was chosen for an experimental Rural School Project, 12 students, 2 from each grade 1 through 6 took part in this one-room, one-teacher rural school, placed in a separate small house, within the confines of a typical Primary School of about 400 students.

That year shines in my memory, while the years before and after are vague and uninspiring. In that year, we played sports and sang songs everyday, and for another few hours we worked on lessons. We were able to progress at our own pace. I remember that before the end of that year I had progressed through all the mathematical requirements of a 6th grader. I was disappointed that I could not be given more knowledge at that point.

The following year the project was cancelled (I do not know the reason), and so I was sent back to the dark and boring world of a typical Grade 4. That year and the next two years seemed like a coma of repeating what I already knew. I grew to dislike school and distrust teachers. I never again was inspired in school as I was that year in a One-room School. My own experience confirms to me very clearly the negative effects of being confined to classrooms where the learning rate is set.” (Email, June 28, 2004, quoted with permission.)

Colin’s experiences describe what the rest of us gained from one-room schooling, as well as what we suffered upon leaving such personal and local programming and moving to large consolidated schools. In the small schools the curriculum and expectations were rigid but open-ended. The teachers taught reading, — you may recall the statistics from Regna Lee Wood — that of WW-II recruits, only .004 percent were illiterate — most had been educated in rural schools and with phonics; that of Korean War recruits, 17% were illiterate — many had been schooled during the era of Look-Say whole language and consolidations. Rural teachers also taught penmanship, English grammar with parsing and diagramming of sentences, writing, mathematics (through pre-algebra), U.S. History, geography and physiology. The teachers were committed to teach all of these subjects, but they wisely allowed each student to learn as much as they could absorb and to move ahead at their own pace. The strategy paid off for those who attended such schools.

Small schools focus more specifically on building a foundation of skills and knowledge that will serve the children for the remainder of their lives. Big schools? I recently attended a school board meeting at the district we support with our property taxes. I heard the elementary principal inform the board of education that the goal for next year is to “have 30% of the children score at least 50% accuracy on the MEAP test.” They were discussing the stronger students! The unspoken message was clearly that it would be satisfactory for the other 70% to only score 49% or lower on the test! What kind of academic focus; what kind of standard, does such a goal set for the future of the children in that district?

Discipline is another area that must be considered in the equation for small schools. In the rural schools the teacher was free to handle discipline so as to maintain a quiet, calm, productive atmosphere for learning. Some will recall that I learned to be quiet in school by being made to color all letters with circles on a page of small print. That was discipline, not punishment. It taught me to stay on task and not disturb the learning of others. Had I rebelled, my family would have been called, or the teacher would have made a home visit. My parents would have taken strong measures to correct my behavior. Such was the power of small schools.

Recently, Charles R. Lewis wrote an article entitled “How Teaching Has Been Rendered Impossible in Government Schools.” He discusses how “the discipline of arithmetic…had…been about 90% eliminated from the curriculum.” He points out that “Arithmetic was not the only institution that had gone by the wayside…The remaining class time had to be devoted to a combination of ‘touchy-feely’ techniques, politically correct propaganda, and ‘activities’.”

In discussing unruly behaviors that interfere with learning, Lewis says,

Additionally, teachers had been de-fanged. For one thing, one could no longer eject disruptive pupils. This was particularly vexing to me, for a pair of reasons. First, I recalled that in my student days the abject fear of the consequences of a hypothetical ejection had been enough to keep my classmates and me perpetually in line. Second, by 1987, government school students were, as a rule, completely devoid of personal responsibility when it came to behavior…Any teacher who put students out of class…became branded with the indelible stigma of having poor social director skills.

Lewis’ closing is classic, “You do not have to accept that there is an organized conspiracy to keep our kids ignorant to get the picture. As long as you realize that things are exactly as they would be if there were such a conspiracy, that will suffice.”

Parental involvement/local controls are yet more elements in an equation for successful schools. The local people should set the standards for the schools they support. They should hold accountable anyone or anything interfering with the process of educating and learning, whether it be unruly students, poor teaching, or governmental agencies, at any level above the neighborhood district, attempting to overtake and destroy successful small schools. Too many people are fooled into believing that local school boards serve that purpose. They do not! They are rubber-stamp groups and know little about what really goes on inside the schools.

They believe that they must cater to every whim coming out of the state and federal departments of education. Despite their dearth of knowledge, they approve anything the superintendent hands them: any strange new scheme; any highly publicized curriculum whether praise is warranted or not; any new intrusion by state and federal manipulators. School boards seem to have forgotten that the superintendent works for them; not visa versa. School boards have forgotten that state and federal authorities should be kept out of local decisions, even if it means that each community stands firm and refuses to accept state and federal bribe money.

I often think of a local family I have known of for my entire lifetime. I have had two of the 4th generation sons in my reading classes. The gossip in the teachers’ lounge has always claimed that the family doesn’t care about education and that the father can’t read, either. (That is supposed to excuse the teachers for their failure to interest the children in learning.) I know that the father does not read well, for he and I have discussed it on numerous occasions, but the youngest son has made just remarkable gains since I taught him the phonetic/alphabetic Code for written English.

I also questioned whether or not it were true that the family did not value education, for the father has always been most supportive and appreciative of my work with his children. Then one day, as I sorted through long-kept papers at my family’s farm following the death of my father, I came across a notebook of school board minutes from the time when the Williams School (my first home) was in operation. The minutes were signed, and one of the board members was the 1st generation male of this family to live in that area. He had signed the minutes with his ‘mark’ so obviously he could neither read nor write. I realized that the gentleman did indeed care about schooling for his children, and probably all the more so since he, himself had missed out on the chance. My young student reports that his grandmother reads fine, and she would have been attending the one-roomed school when her father cared enough to serve on the Board. The next two generations were mis-educated in the consolidated school system.

Neil Postman, in his book Building a Bridge to the 18th Century — How the Past Can Improve Our Future offers many insights into the past, and suggestions for how we can look backwards to find our way out of these times of despair. Postman posits,

Where shall we look for such a way? Well, of course, one turns first to the wisdom of the sages, both near and far. Marcus Aurelius said, “At every action, no matter by whom preferred, make it a practice to ask yourself, ‘What is his object in doing this?’ But begin with yourself; put this question to yourself first of all.” Goethe told us, “One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words.” Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Rabbi Hillel said, “What is hateful to thee, do not do to another.” The prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with Thy God.” And our own Henry David Thoreau said, “All our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end.” (Page 11)

Consolidation — “improved means to an unimproved end.” Sounds exactly right.

Postman continues,

What I am driving at is that in order to have an agreeable encounter with the twenty-first century, we will have to take into it some good ideas. And in order to do that, we need to look back to take stock of the good ideas available to us. I am suspicious of people who want us to be forward-looking. I literally do not know what they mean when they say, “We must look ahead to see where we are going.” What is it that they wish us to look at? There is nothing yet to see in the future. If looking ahead means anything, it must mean finding in our past useful and humane ideals with which to fill the future…I am referring to ideas of which we can say they have advanced our understanding of ourselves, enlarged our definitions of humanness…Is it not obvious that our century has been an almost unrelieved horror? (Pages 13—14)

This question — Where shall we look for guidance about what to do and think in the twenty-first century…is as significant as it is daunting, especially hard for those who are strangers to history…I suggest that we turn our attention to the eighteenth century. It is there, I think, that we may find ideas…I am not suggesting that we become the eighteenth century, only that we use it for what it is worth and for all it is worth…Let us adopt the principles rather than the details…This is the century which Isaiah Berlin summed up in these words: “The intellectual power, honesty, lucidity, courage and disinterested love of the truth of the most gifted thinkers of the eighteenth century remain to this day without parallel. Their age is one of the best and most hopeful episodes in the life of mankind.” (Pages 17—18)

It is important to remember that eighteenth century philosophies, ideas and inventions came forth from individuals schooled at home or in one-room schools. The innovations in schooling during the twentieth and twenty-first century have not improved our culture nor our individual lives. To look forward, we need to look back. We need to accept that those small schools, guided by local individuals with close ties and vested interests, did indeed make a winning combination for all, from the individual schoolchild to the possibilities and potential for the nation as a whole.