This is a slightly lengthened version of a Guest Editorial that was
published in the Boulder Daily Camera, (Boulder, Colorado) June 26, 1999, Pg. 11A
BIGGER ISNT BETTER IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Albert A. Bartlett
Sunday's Camera (June 20, 1999) printed a collection of some two dozen
essays by Boulder County teenagers expressing their views on violence in
society. These essays were motivated by the tragic killings of students
and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado earlier in
the year. The essays were excellent.
One particularly perceptive teenager got straight to the heart of the
matter when she wrote:
"I would not blame the school board, or the protection of the school
itself, but the size of the school population. When there are around 2,000
kids crammed into one building and 30 or so kids in each class, there are
bound to be some serious problems that go unnoticed ... I go to a school
that has around 100 students total. The main focus of our school is
'community.' We focus our energy to meet everyone, feel equal to everyone
(including the teachers and students), to get to understand each others
views on different subjects, and to feel welcome and accepted ... Since our
school is so small, we can have all-school discussions where everyone can
This student sees what many of our community leaders choose not to see.
She recognizes that bigness in societal groups is the catalyst that causes
breakup of the big population into smaller separate sub-populations based
on the members views of shared problems, values, and "solutions."
Another student wrote: "When a student seems to be taking a U-turn with
their school work, someone should be concerned." The bigger the school the
less likely this is to happen.
Another student made the observation: "I believe that giving a sufficient
amount of personal attention to today's youth would be a forward step to
ending teen violence." This student is calling for the personal attention
that is diminished and destroyed by bigness in our schools.
Another student observed that: "Most of these teenagers attend public
schools where a single teacher may have as many as 150 to 200 students in
one semester, leaving them barely enough time to even memorize their names.
I believe a reasonable solution to this problem would be to hire more
teachers in the public schools, allowing for smaller classes."
It is clear that these young people recognize that bigness is the central
cause of the problem.
"I mean half of the kids out of 26 kids in my entire eighth grade class...
are leaving to go [next year] to either Boulder, Fairview, or Niwot, all
public high schools. At our school we are so close we are like sisters and
brothers. When the shootings happened at Columbine, it scared the life out
of us because we, or our friends, are going to [these big] public high
schools next year."
Yet another perceptive student wrote: "The solution I can think of for
schools is advisor programs, where kids at first get comfortable with an
adult. Trust is built and friendships are made. The advisor has a group
of no more that 15 kids, so there is more one-on-one attention. When one
of the kids is having trouble, the advisor can do something about it before
something happens. At the school I go to, we have an advisor program. I
know it works, because I use it every day."
Another student, from a larger school wrote: "If schools were able to hire
more counselors, it would give them more time with the students. For every
75 students there should be one counselor... The schools should have it so
there would be only about eighteen students in a class. That way, you get
more one-on-one time with your teachers. A smaller class gives the teacher
a chance to get to know their students and then they might be able to
notice if something is not right. The students even have a chance to get
to know each other."
Another student observed: "The answer is not putting metal detectors in
every doorway. The answer is not banning all violent games. The answer is
not as easy as that... I mourn for this country as we try to open up our
eyes and see that everything isn't okay, and that each one of us is
responsible. I mourn."
The common thread of the impersonality of bigness runs through many of
these excellent essays. The bigness has its cause in two obvious things:
the first is population growth in our communities,
and the second is the belief in the economies of scale that are alleged to
result from making our schools, especially our high schools, larger and
For many in the community, population growth is synonymous with the
"healthy economy." And, as they have said so frequently, our community
leaders are determined to maintain a "healthy economy." It has been amply
demonstrated that their continuing success will mean larger schools, larger
classes, less personal attention for students, and, predictably, more
As for the alleged economies of scale in large schools vs. small schools,
we need to look not only at the bottom line of the financial managers, but
we need to look at the real bottom line, the community outcome. I believe
people are beginning seriously to question the conventional wisdom about
the efficacy of bigger schools.
This collection of essays by teenagers in the Camera opened with the
headline question, "Is the deck stacked against America's youth having a
peaceful future?" If we continue our commitment to a "healthy economy" as
it is presently perceived and defined, the answer almost certainly is YES.
The annual loss of a few students and teachers is a small price to pay for
the continued annual growth of the Gross Local Product.
(Bigger Isnt Better)
Albert A. Bartlett; Professor Emeritus of Physics
University of Colorado, Boulder, 80309-0390; (303) 492 7016
Department Office: (303) 492 6952: FAX (303) 492 3352
"Albert A. Bartlett" <Albert.Bartlett@Colorado.EDU>