Investigation of the impact of implementing smaller learning communities on student performance in an urban high school in Texas
Dilworth, Thomas J.
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Abstract The trend of the last 40 years to build fewer, but larger high schools has resulted in dollar savings to taxpayers, but at the cost of higher rates of absenteeism, weaker academic environments, and poorer student engagement in learning. External pressures in the way of educational reforms such as the federally mandated No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) have also had a negative impact on some large schools in urban school districts. Why is the United States undergoing such a broad national reform in education? The United States has a long history of educational reform. With every new generation comes a call for educational reform. Once education became compulsory in Texas in 1915 (Judd, 1918), so did calls to change it. Promises of changes to NCLB in the last year suggest that now we have left the “No Child Left Behind” reform movement (Duncan, 2009) and are moving toward a more culturally-centered approach to education where we acknowledge that societal problems affect the ability of students to get a quality education, we are able to provide constructive alternatives beyond the non-productive mantra that “if we just had better teachers and administrators, Johnny could learn.” Arne Duncan (2009a), United States Secretary of Education, when interviewed on the television show The Colbert Report, said, “When schools are really the centers of the neighborhood and the heart of the community, our students are going to do very, very well.” Indeed. Creating schools-within-schools (SWS) can serve to create neighborhoods – academic neighborhoods – that can serve students as the center of their educational community. The current national reform movement under President Obama as expressed by his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, (2009b) requires states seeking funds to implement four core-interconnected reforms: • to reverse the pervasive dumbing-down of academic standards and assessments by states. Race to the top winners need to work toward adopting common, internationally benchmarked K-12 standards that prepare students for success in college and careers, • to close the data gap, which now handcuffs districts from tracking growth in student learning and improving classroom instruction, states will need to monitor advances in student achievement and identify effective instructional practices, • to boost the quality of teachers and principals, especially in high-poverty schools and hard-to-staff subjects, states and districts should be able to identify effective teachers and principals and have strategies for rewarding and retaining more top-notch teachers and improving or replacing ones who are not up to the job, and finally, • to turn around the lowest-performing schools, states and districts must be ready to institute far-reaching reforms, from replacing staff and leadership to changing the school culture (p. 2). While this may seem to be more of the finger pointing found in NCLB, and does not seem to coincide with Duncan’s previously cited comments, that “schools are really the centers of the neighborhood and the heart of the community,” it does embrace the need for “far-reaching reforms.” SWS\SLC can be one of those reforms. This study explores critically and carefully the extent to which a smaller learning community within a large urban high school affected student academic achievement, attendance, graduation, and dropout rates as well as student readiness for careers and post-secondary education. This study uses a qualitative case study methodology to describe an experiment in which the researcher, rather than creating the treatment, examines the effects of a naturally occurring treatment after that treatment has taken place (Lord, 1973). While a Smaller Learning Community (SLC) in and of itself is not a panacea for student improvement, SLCs may create conditions for improved student performance. Cotton (2004) reports, that among other benefits, students achieve at higher levels than do students in larger schools on both standardized achievement tests and other measures. The results of this study suggest that SLCs can provide an improved learning environment students have better relationships with teachers, and teachers with administration and parents. Because of limitations inherent in the data base, however t his study is inconclusive in its findings regarding SLC effectiveness with regards to enhanced or diminished performance of students academically. While TAKS test scores were not markedly improved in comparison to the state average and a comparable group of high schools, college readiness indicators improved significantly. This suggests that other variables are at work in this research site and should be explored. Due to the aforementioned data issues, the reader should avoid drawing conclusions from the results that may reflect poorly on Texas High School’s administrators, teachers, and students. A number of contextual and methodological limitations outlined in the study may have restricted the researcher’s ability to investigate sufficiently the impact from SLC implementation on these performance indicators. The researcher provides recommendations for further evaluation of SLC implementation in light of these limitations.