How effective is whole-school high school reform, such as the Schools-Within-Schools (SWS) model? What benefits does it have for students and in which areas does it fall short? This book seeks to answer these questions through the compelling stories of five public high schools that have embraced the SWS method. In order to fully understand the effectiveness of such a system, Valerie Lee and Douglas Ready have delved into every aspect of the reform in these settings, including participants’ reactions, curriculum structures, governance and leadership, and the allocation of students to the schools. The result is a thoughtful look at the SWS model that considers the benefits and problems of implementation, along with issues of equity and access.
The idea that many U.S. high schools are too large and impersonal to serve students well has gained considerable credence in research and policy circles.
But starting over from scratch with thousands of small, stand-alone high schools is also often seen as expensive and impractical. As a result, many districts in recent years have pursued the cheaper option of simply breaking up their large high schools into smaller schools within schools.
A new book tells a cautionary tale about that understudied alternative, training its sights on five high schools examined closely over time. What emerges is largely a story of the differences between theory and reality, of what can go wrong if school officials aren’t careful, and of many missed opportunities to make the most of a smaller learning environment. Probably the single most salient finding of Schools Within Schools: Possibilities and Pitfalls of High School Reform is that the approach led to increased stratification of students by race, academic ability, and socioeconomic status. The authors also describe as surprisingly rare the cases of instructional innovation tied to the smaller structure.
The book says that, typically, the same campuses would have separate academies, or subunits, as the authors call them, ranging from those known to be “full of brains” to others that were deemed “dumping grounds” for weak students.
The authors note that while there has been substantial research on high school size and small schools, “very little research” has specifically evaluated the effectiveness of the schools-within-schools model.
“Similar to many other educational reforms,” the book says, “the SWS reform has been promoted and implemented without a solid base of empirical evidence to support it.”