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Opinion & Essays - Jan, 1991 Issue 

Are Large Schools Humane?
By Lon Woodbury

Of course not - by definition. The Dictionary defines "humane" as, "having what are considered the best qualities of mankind; kind, tender, merciful, considerate, etc." These qualities can only come from an understanding individual. They cannot come from a body of rules and regulations. As a school gets larger, rules and regulations become more important in the lives of the students. As a school or program grows, there is a tendency for the authority of the teachers and administrators to be expressed less by their personal presence, and more through the authoritarian (demanding unquestioning obedience) body of rules and regulations. The distinction is subtle and not very obvious, but extremely important. For example, when a student in a small program of, say ten students, wants to do something, he or she will ask the authority figure. The authority figure is readily available, the answer can be tailored to the needs of the student, and there is no appeal from the decision except back to the authority figure at a later time. This forces the student to be accountable for his or her actions and to learn how to work successfully with people in authority. On the other hand, when a student in a large school of, say 1,000 students, wants to do something, he or she will check the rules and regulations, and then talk to some underling (i.e. a teacher), since the authority figure (i.e. the principal or the school board) is not readily available. The final answer will have basically been determined by some committee somewhere setting general policy, and whatever response the student gets from the teacher can easily be challenged by appeal to the authority. To get what he or she wants, the student must learn how to manipulate the system. In a large school, a clever, manipulative student can get away with most anything he or she wants with little accountability. The movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" comes to mind as an example.

Another example on a larger scale is the evolution of the public school system during the past 50 years or so. The one-room school house tends to be seen as the romantic past in the history of our public school system. The "romantic" memory is because even people who never saw a one-room school house somehow feel we lost something important when these schools disappeared.

These schools disappeared over the years to school district consolidation. The main argument for consolidation was economies of scale. A small one-room school usually struggled just to provide an inadequate facility with an underpaid teacher who too often had little training or experience. On the other hand, a consolidation of several small school districts allowed for an adequate physical plant with proper equipment such as science labs or gymnasiums. The consolidated school district could also compete more effectively for trained and experienced professional teachers. This argument held the day and the tendency toward consolidation became a major movement during the 1940's, continuing on to the present time. The number of school districts in the United States went from 127,000 in 1932 to 16,000 in 1980. Contemporary schools are consequently much larger, allowing more room for students to manipulate the system.

In looking at the public school system, it is important to remember that the gains from consolidation were at the expense of the more personal environment of the small school, especially the student learning how to work with and respect authority. It is significant to me that the young people who came of age in the Sixties by rebelling against all forms of authority were those who were the first recipients of the economies of scale and the larger schools developed in the forties and fifties. A major movement in public education this last decade has been toward smaller classes. Basically, what is happening is an attempt to modify the move toward consolidation to regain the benefits lost in the rush for consolidation. The hope is to obtain the personal contact benefits of a small school within the economies of scale from a consolidated district.

The lesson is clear for Special Purpose Schools and programs. When a program grows beyond 15 or 20 students, considerable efforts must be made to maintain the personal environment of a smaller program. If these efforts are not successful, then the program's effectiveness is either reduced or the program self-destructs. One of the things that happens is the development of an underground. It is for this reason many programs keep the number of students low. The owners of these small programs do not wish to bear the risks of reduced quality.

Copyright 1991, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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