Small high schools are necessary because they help school districts fill a niche, that if left unfilled, parents will seek alternatives outside public schools. While I do not consider myself an avid supporter of increasing the number of charter schools and school vouchers, I understand why there's interest in options for schools. Instead of constantly complaining about the increase of charter schools and vouchers, perhaps school districts need to seriously question the design of those schools they are offering parents. School districts can provide parents with high school options, but they must be willing to let go of their preconceived notions about what high schools should look like, and be willing to rethink high school design in general.
Around 2005, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and others were funding small high schools because it was recognized that large, factory-assembly-line high schools were failing too many kids. If I remember correctly, a study at the time called them "Drop-Out Factories" because there were so many instances of high schools with drop out rates well over 50 percent. Now, many of those once supporting small high schools, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have moved on to other educational endeavors. They argued that smaller high schools are more expensive to operate, offer too few educational opportunities as compared to larger ones, and they don't produce the test scores, at least at level of return for the investment. In addition, small high schools cannot churn out "credentialed students" in the same cheap and efficient manner as large, assembly-line, factory high schools. But there's a reason why "drop-out" factories exist. No one-size-meets-every-kids-need high school exists, and I doubt it will ever exist. That's why we need small high schools too.
But I can't help but ask, is the goal of a high school to churn out students who have the appropriate credentials stamped in their curriculum vitae, or is the goal of high school to foster individuals who are life-long learners, who are knowledgeable and engaged citizens who can contribute back to society and the world? At the heart of this large high school efficiency model is the mistaken belief that having high school credentials equals potential success later in life. This belief persists in spite of the fact that real skills, dispositions, aptitudes, and habits of mind are the real determinants of success later in life. While statistically, we can say "having a high school diploma" means a student is more likely to graduate and be productive and successful, we forget we aren't dealing with numbers; we're dealing with the lives of real people. Perhaps educational reformers aren't really looking for new and powerful designs for high schools and ways of reforming school; what they really want are cheap and efficient designs. And, in their decision-making efforts, they use test scores, though every educator knows how imperfect those are.
Ultimately, when all your thinking centers around values of cheapness and efficiency, you must compromise on others. The result is an imperfect, large comprehensive high school that can't possibly meet the needs of every student. So you turn to credentialing as your sole object, and engage in building large, factory-model high schools that can roll the students through and stamp them proficient as they jump through a series of prescribed hoops and declare them "graduates" when they've completed the hoop-jumping.
There are real problems at the heart of this obstinate belief is that only the comprehensive high school can serve the needs of all its students. I have been a teacher for many years in larger, assembly-line high schools, and I have also served as an administrator in them. I have also been principal of a small, redesigned high school too. We know what typically happens in the large assembly-line high school. The top 10 or 20 percent of students get the attention and focus from the school community, which includes top athletes as well. At the other end, students who struggle severely, fail multiple classes, and who are constantly in trouble also receive attention and focus from the staff. There is a large group in the middle who make up the bulk of students. These students are the quiet majority. They make no noise and can exist anonymously in high school for four years.They quietly go about the business of "getting their credentials" so they can graduate. While there have been programs like AVID and others who have tried to target these students, these programs fail to understand a program won't fix this problem. It's a design problem, not a program problem. The design problem is that the whole idea of a large, cheap, efficient credentialing system is simply incapable of addressing the needs of these middle students. These students might be in school. They may or may not have adequate grades. They may or may not be involved in arts or other programs. But the bottom line, they are largely unengaged in learning and are more engaged in just getting their credentials in the form of a diploma and get on with life.
The answer for addressing the needs of all students is not to continue to try to tweak the large, assembly-line model high school and force it to serve all students. Large high schools are cheap and efficient credentialing systems, not systems for personalizing education. That model is incapable of serving all students for the same reasons that small high schools can't meet the needs of all students either. Instead of a one-size-fits-all high school, we need a variety of high schools, small and large, academic and career-oriented, theme-based and STEM. Instead of continuing to just build these large, mullti-million dollar relics of the 20th century, we need to offer students and their parents choices. And, as indicated at the start of this, if we don't, they are going to look for solutions outside of public education.