Dear Homeroom:

Please devote some time and space to exploring the role of school size in keeping high school students in school and sending them on to college.

Marcia Rucker

Bethesda

The last time we talked about school size in Homeroom (June 17), I said that we needed more research on the subject. Well, the U.S. Department of Education recently issued a report, which reviewed all the available research and came to pretty definite conclusions that students learn "more and better in small schools."

The report said that students make more rapid progress toward graduation in small schools, that they behave better in small schools and that they like them more. Disadvantaged students in particular "perform far differently in small schools and appear more dependent upon them for success than do more fortunate youngsters."

Although small schools cost slightly more for each enrolled student, the research has found, they are cheaper when the costs are calculated for each student who graduates. This is because fewer students drop out of school when they attend smaller schools.

"It is rare indeed to find empirical support or justification for the large high school," says the report.

The report goes on to explore what constitutes a small school. A consensus seems to be building toward 350 students for elementary schools and somewhere between 500 and 900 students for high schools, with arguments for each end of that spectrum. Many jurisdictions are creating schools of these sizes. New York City, which has broken up many of its huge, failing high schools into separate academies--without building additional buildings--is seeing enormous success in keeping and educating students.

This should have particular resonance for Montgomery County, which has elementary schools as small as 300 students but has a much higher average size. The county builds all its elementary schools for somewhere between 650 and 750 students. It does have a high school--in Poolesville--that has only about 700 students, but most of its high schools have many more students. The high schools the county is planning will have 2,000 students. That doesn't include Blair High School in Silver Spring, which is hovering around 3,000 students.

In a recent speech, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley referred to this issue by saying that "we need to find ways to create small, supportive learning environments that give students a sense of connection. That's hard to do when we are building high schools the size of shopping malls. Size matters."

Dear Homeroom:

Your "Short Shrift to U.S. History" column (Sept. 9) reflects an outdated view of what social studies contributes to the education of children. If these studies stress ". . . concepts and skills rather than specific knowledge," as you said, you, and parents who care about the education of their children, should be overjoyed.

Pumping students full of facts, or what you call "specific knowledge," is the "smorgasbord approach" you disdain. Memorizing and regurgitating facts yield little knowledge. All of us have forgotten the vast majority of factual information we covered in school. Fortunately, well-taught social studies focus on development of skills and grasp of concepts that lead to understanding and appreciation of the broad sweep of history and the triumphs and failures of society. Montgomery County curriculum developers are to be congratulated for employing this approach.

Robert F. Carbone

Professor Emeritus

University of Maryland

I do not know of anyone who argues that we should return to the days when children memorized and regurgitated unrelated facts with no context or depth. My favorite description of that style of teaching history is in George Orwell's essay with the ironic title, "Such, Such Were the Joys," in which he described his days in an English school: "Who plundered the Begams? Who was beheaded in an open boat? Who caught the Whigs bathing and ran away with their clothes? Almost all our historical teaching was on this level. History was a series of unrelated, unintelligible but--in some way that was never explained to us--important facts with resounding phrases tied to them."

No one advocates returning to those days. But having said that, I think it is important for children to know stuff--specific stuff--that gives solidity to any ideas they may have about what you call the "broad sweep of history and the triumphs and failures of society."

Developing children's "skills and concepts" without facts is like teaching them to fly an airplane without teaching them about altimeters, fuel mixtures and lift and drag. It is patently silly and dangerous--dangerous because it opens our children up to demagogues and propagandists who prey on their lack of knowledge to manipulate them politically. Witness the shocking number of kids around the country swayed by liars and demagogues who say that the Holocaust never happened and that slavery wasn't so bad.

That is not to say that children shouldn't also learn how difficult it is to establish a clear fact and how our view of history changes when we have more information. Our understanding of the American slave experience, for example, has changed enormously in the last few decades as new scholarship has established new facts.

But to denude history of facts and relegate our children to social studies "skills" is terribly unfair, politically dangerous and, when all is said and done, a lot less fun and interesting. The fact is, when it is properly presented, most kids love knowing stuff. They love knowing what happened and what life was like in other places and other times. They love knowing the stories of historical figures, what decisions they faced and how their decisions were shaped by the events of the day. And knowing all that requires knowing facts and having some idea of the chronology of history.

Most parents probably don't realize that this fact vs. concept debate has raged in the world of social studies since the field began in the 1920s. Part of the purpose of social studies was to combat the style of history teaching described by Orwell. But I'm not sure even the most ardent social studies advocates realize how many ill-considered art projects--colored maps, mobiles, brochures, posters, clay models, dioramas, cereal boxes and song lyrics--are being created in the name of social studies "skills and concepts." I am happy that Montgomery County's social studies curriculum appears to be moving toward a more historical, fact-based approach, and wish it could happen a bit faster.

For those of you who are interested in this, Martin Creel, the elementary social studies curriculum coordinator, will present plans for the revision of the elementary curriculum tonight at 6 in the Carver Educational Services Building, at 850 Hungerford Dr., Rockville. You can view the documents next week at www.mcps.k12.md.us/ curriculum/socialstd/.

Dear Homeroom:

I agree that we want students at the lower end to improve. However, I disagree that the way to do this is by doing anything (including repetition of already-mastered material) to hold back the upper end of the distribution. You wouldn't advocate that kind of repetition for the lower end, because it would keep them low. Why advocate it for the upper end?

I believe that if Montgomery County Public Schools is serious about its slogan, "Success for Every Student," then it should include students at the upper end as well.

In addition, my personal view is that the success of our country on the national scene will be determined not so much by the degree of education of the average student or the below-average student, but by the best students. Let's help the best students to be the best they can be.

Tom Nelson

Rockville

I missed the column in which I advocated holding back students through repetition of already-mastered material. I said the school system should spend less time sorting children into separate schools--especially because its sorting methods are demonstrably fallible--and more time teaching them all a rigorous and challenging curriculum.

You and I will have to disagree about where the success of our country lies--I think it lies not with a selected elite but with the combined wisdom of us all, which is why I think it essential that all of our children have access to the best education a wealthy and powerful nation can provide.

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