A great school is a great school is a great school. It may be big, it may be small. Brockton High School, one of the largest in America, is now producing very strong (not yet stellar) results; it used to produce dreadful results. It has accomplished a successful school turnaround, one of the toughest feats in U.S. education, in an urban high school attended mainly by poor and minority kids — the other toughest challenge in U.S. education. It even pulled this off without a major teachers-union hissy fit. Plenty of credit is due and applause warranted.
The ingredients of such success are no mystery, just scarce as hen’s teeth: Dynamic, focused, sustained leadership. Clear educational goals. A unified team effort. Lots of hard work, including nights and weekends. High aspirations for kids’ success. “Best practices” curriculum and instruction, including serious academic content for students who once would have been tracked into “job skills.” Uniform standards for everybody, even the athletes.
The policy environment played a key role, too. During the period of Brockton High School’s renaissance, Massachusetts was turning itself around educationally at the state level, too, with some of the country’s best and most rigorous standards for students and teachers and a tough-minded “you gotta pass this test or you don’t graduate” accountability system. (Relatively generous per pupil funding, too.)
The stars aligned. The principal took charge. Change was gradual at first, then success fed on success.
Pulling this off in a giant urban high school is a rare and remarkable accomplishment. At the end of the day, however, it doesn’t tell us all that much about whether “size matters” in American secondary education. Smaller high schools have some definite advantages — especially when it comes to discipline. But they have less margin for error, too; they can’t offer as many courses and extras; and their costs-per-pupil tend to be higher.
But either can work. A great school is a great school. The crime of American education is that they’re so rare that a success like Brockton’s is newsworthy!
— Chester E. Finn Jr. is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.