Are Smaller Learning Communities (SLCs) Synonymous with Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)?
Education thrives on acronyms: IEP, UBD, RTI, ESL, SES, LD, NCLB, AYP, API. Sometimes this abbreviated attempt to communicate can create confusion. Recently, we received a query from a high school principal who felt his efforts to help his school become a professional learning community (PLC) would be enhanced by converting the school into a Smaller Learning Community (SLC). Teachers in his school had been working collaboratively in content-specific teams as they attempted to implement the PLC concept. The principal proposed the school should be re-organized into separate houses with teachers working in interdisciplinary teams. He felt certain the SLC structure would promote the PLC concept, and he asked if we felt he should press forward despite the resistance of the staff. We did not, for the following reasons.
- Moving teachers from working in isolation to working in collaborative teams is a difficult and challenging task. The school should stay the course it is upon rather than heading off in a new direction.
- The principal should focus on building the capacity of staff to work within a collaborative culture rather than shifting his focus to structural issues.
- There is little in either the history of American education or recent developments in the field that suggests converting schools into smaller learning communities will improve student achievement.
The current push for smaller high schools stands in direct contrast to the recommendations presented by James Conant after he conducted a study of high schools for the Carnegie Foundation in 1959. Conant, the former president of Harvard University and Ambassador to Germany, called for the consolidation of small high schools, arguing any school with fewer than 400 students should be abolished as ineffective and inefficient (our emphasis). His book on the subject, The American High School Today, became a national best seller.
At the time of Conant’s recommendation, 12,000 of the nations 21,000 high schools served fewer than 400 students. If "small" was the answer to the problems of high schools, the 1950s offered secondary students the perfect environment for a fabulous education. There is little evidence to suggest, however, the students of the 1950s were particularly well served by their small schools. In fact, almost one of every three high school-aged students had left school prior to graduation throughout the decade.
More recently (2005 and 2006), two independent research organizations conducted independent evaluations of the progress of the schools that had been organized into smaller learning communities between 2001 and 2004 with the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Their reports to the Gates Foundations concluded:
- Students reported improved relationships with their teachers.
- The attendance rate of students in the restructured schools was worse than attendance in other schools in the district.
- When taking previous achievement into account, students showed slightly better performance in language arts but worse performance in math than other high school students in the same district.
- The quality of student work was low in the restructured schools.
- Demanding and unwieldy teacher work loads "may be endemic to the staffing structures of many small high schools" (p. 6), and the resulting teacher burnout threatened the viability of the initiative. Staff turnover at the schools was high.
- Staff cited lack of tutoring services and appropriate opportunities to do homework as a barrier to the success of many students.
- Lack of staff capacity made the restructured schools vulnerable,
- Changes in teaching and learning lagged behind the structural changes that characterized the schools (American Institute for Research and SRI International, 2005).
A year later the same two research agencies issued their final evaluation of the Gates initiative. They reported Gates schools confronted significant difficulty in bringing the attributes of high-performing schools into their restructured schools because "entrenched cultures and sets of expectations about student achievement and behavior often became obstacles" (American Institute for Research and SRI International, 2006, p. 6, our emphasis). They urged the foundation to: "Rethink the school redesign strategy. Although there have been some isolated examples of apparently successful small schools emerging from the restructuring of a large high school, these have been the exception rather than the rule. On the whole, the data that we have for school redesign efforts are not encouraging" (p. 82, our emphasis). The better hope for changing schools, according to the report, was to emphasize continuous monitoring of student learning, a "tight" school culture, and "greater attention to issues of curriculum and instruction" (p. 4-5).
In other words, even with the support and backing of one of the world’s greatest private philanthropic organizations, structural change alone will not reform schools. Those who pin their hopes on high school reform based on the size of the school are destined to be disappointed. Ultimately the culture must change to impact classroom practice and student and staff expectations, and the best strategy for improving schools at any level will focus less on the structure of the organization and more on building the capacity of people within the schools to create a new culture.