By Paul W. Bennett, director of Schoolhouse Consulting
“Bigger is better” remains almost unchallenged as the governing principle in most public education systems. Since the origins of state schooling in the mid-19th century, public education has been championed by a class of “educrats” firmly committed to the ideal of “progress and efficiency” and relentless in pursuit of school consolidation. In spite of periodic warnings by prominent education scholars such as Michael Katz (OISE and the University of Pennsylvania) and Bruce Curtis (Carleton University), the evolving system thrived on centralization, consolidation, and bureaucracy. Right from the beginning until today, the schoolhouse has been a contested terrain in an ongoing struggle over local education democracy as well as the goals and purposes of public schooling.
Bureaucratization has been a relentless force transforming school communities into “systems” of schools. Education’s current rock star, Sir Ken Robinson, claims that we have essentially sold ourselves out to the “fast food” model in public education by embracing organizational efficiency, mass production, and uniformity.
Everywhere you look, the march of urbanized, bureaucratic, centralized education is nearly complete, marking the highest stage of the modern bureaucratic education state. Today’s central administrative offices, layers of administration, “super-sized” elementary schools and “big box” high schools all testify to the dominance of the trend. Elected school boards, a last vestige of education democracy, are often considered nuisances and becoming a threatened species. Critics of educational bureaucracy and even quiet doubters are either ignored or dismissed as “turn-back-the-clockers” in our 21st century universe.
Yet all is not lost. Local communities threatened with losing their rural community schools and urban neighbourhood schools have begun fighting back in a much more effective, coordinated fashion.
American school preservationists continue to fight the good fight. In 2008, the National Trust for Historical Preservation launched a new initiative, Helping Johnny Walk to School, aimed at reversing the trend. Alarmed to discover that only 35 per cent of America’s K-8 students now live within two miles of their school, NTHP President Richard Moe has been actively promoting “community-centred schools.” A March 2010 report, written by Renee Kuhlman, identifies the state level policy changes urgently needed to “ensure that educational, environmental, health, community, and fiscal considerations” are weighed by school districts when making “school closing, consolidation, and site selection decisions
Right across Atlantic Canada, in the American Mid-West, and in places as disparate as Albany, New York, southwestern Ontario and mainland British Columbia, defenders of community schools are waging determined local battles because they steadfastly believe that older schools are worth fighting for. For a few “Save our School” groups, the fight is all about restoration and bringing older neighbourhoods or dying communities back to life. Some citizens’ groups simply want to save a piece of history, but most resist school closures because they also threaten the vitality of the local community.
The Small Schools movement championed in Nova Scotia by Dr. Michael Corbett and Save Community Schools has instilled hope in, and opened up new possibilities for, threatened rural communities. “For many decades of the 20th century,” Corbett and Dennis Mulcahy wrote in Education on a Human Scale, “school consolidation was considered synonymous with school improvement, despite the fact that there was virtually no evidence to support that assumption.”
The fundamental concerns of “School Savers” in the Maritimes as elsewhere run deep and point us in a different direction. Since the pioneer era of education, schools have always been a vital social anchor for communities and neighbourhoods. “Civic engagement and social connectedness,” renowned American political scientist Robert D. Putnam has reminded us, “are practical preconditions for better schools, safer streets, and healthier, longer lives.” Yet the “bonds of community” have withered over the past century or so. ( http://www.hks.harvard.edu/saguaro/background.htm )
How did it happen and what are its lessons? Modernizing and supposedly progressive changes in schooling undoubtedly played a central role. Bigger schools and increasing bureaucratization have served to undermine both civic engagement and social connectedness. “Smaller schools, like smaller towns,” as Putnam pointed out in his best seller Bowling Alone (2001), “generate higher expectations for mutual reciprocity and collective action. So deconcentrating megaschools or creating smaller ‘schools within schools’ will almost certainly produce civic dividends.”
Bigness and bureaucracy are not always good for students, teachers, or schools. It is not a matter of turning back the clock, but rather one of regaining control over our schools, rebuilding “social capital”, and revitalizing local communities. That’s a theme connecting history with public policy and one worthy of further serious research and discussion.
Dr. Paul W. Bennett, Director of Schoolhouse Consulting, Halifax, will be expanding upon this theme in his upcoming book, Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities: The Contested Schoolhouse in Maritime Canada, 1850-2010 (Fernwood, April 2011)