Over the last several years, I have been following with interest and some sadness the frustrating efforts to give life to the word “unified” in the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD). Recently, the stories have focused on the protracted discussions and the several studies done relating to the efforts to restructure the configuration of schools in the district. I don’t have any children in the district so, in a sense, I don’t have a dog in this fight. Yet, I feel compelled to speak because I fear that much of the discussion misses the point. There is a recognition that one or more schools will likely be closed or repurposed and a view that the need to do so is driven by economics. While economics may be precipitating the discussions, ultimately the goal of providing the best possible education to our children compels the changes being considered.
Many parents grudgingly acknowledge that schools will be closed but argue that it should not be the school in their town – pick another town, any town. They do so in the good faith belief that the quality of education their children will receive will suffer if they go to another school in the district. The reality is that the education a child receives suffers when class size is too small. That may seem counterintuitive, but when you think about it, it becomes obvious.
I am prompted to write this because I just finished reading “David and Goliath,” a wonderful book written by Malcolm Gladwell. In chapter two, Gladwell makes the persuasive case that just as education suffers when class size is too large, so too, it suffers when class size is too small. When there are too few students in the classroom, there is a loss of critical mass. The possibility of vibrant classroom discussion to stimulate children and keep them interested is reduced; there is less chance there will be diverse views expressed; it becomes more difficult for children to interact with and learn from their peers; and it becomes more likely that one or a small number of children will dominate the class. In addition, larger classes and larger schools make it easier to broaden the curriculum by offering additional programs and resources.
All things being equal, everyone would prefer to go to a school located in their town. The advantages are obvious – convenience, less travel time, greater opportunity for parents to be involved in the school and the intimacy of going to school with your friends and neighbors. But all things are not equal. These apparent advantages do not translate into better education when there are not enough students to support a school. Ensuring that school size and class size are right sized are far more important determinants in producing positive outcomes. I urge parents to worry less about preserving the status quo and do what is really best for their children.
George Mazin lives in Fayston, Vermont.