Supporting Conversion: Structure or Instruction

The movement to create small schools is driven by the desire for equity. Research and experience prove that small, autonomous schools serve students more effectively than large, comprehensive schools. While the creation of schools that are small is not in itself sufficient, smallness provides the best opportunity to create structures, relationships, and habits that define an environment for success.

One of the most difficult challenges of large high school conversions is developing and enhancing teachers’ pedagogical practices to improve engagement, learning, and achievement. Many of the first high schools to begin conversion efforts??”that is, the process by which large comprehensive high schools break down into several new small, autonomous schools??”have spent considerable time examining issues of school design, and not as much time engaged in professional development to strengthen instruction. Consequently, after restructuring, teachers had the conditions that allowed them to personalize their teaching, but they struggled to implement the necessary classroom pedagogy. Drawing on the experience of CES (and like-minded) schools and the wisdom of coaches and researchers, this article explores three ideas about how schools may build the foundation for improved academic outcomes and student growth as they make the shift from large to small.

The Keys to Improving Instruction as Schools Transform

  • Professional development should link school vision creation to instructional practice.
  • Teaching in small schools requires an active transformation of pedagogical practices.
  • Professional development for improved instructional practice prepares teachers to make the most of new small schools.

Teaching in Small Schools Requires an Active Transformation of Pedagogical Practices

In the challenge of opening small autonomous schools, it is easy to forget that the opening of the school is not an endpoint, but a beginning. The opening of a new small autonomous school provides a renewed opportunity to teach all students well. As researcher Michelle Fine writes, small schools shouldn’t be big schools in drag??”schools with the culture and learning environment of large schools. The opportunities created by a small school cannot be realized if the style of teaching remains the same (if teachers continue to teach lecture??”style even when they have a class small enough to have a seminar), if the relationships between students and teachers remain the same (teachers need to know students well to personalize the curriculum), or if the relationships between teachers and administrators remain the same (if principals continue to run their school like big bureaucracies with a hierarchical chain of command).

While the exact nature of a community’s new small schools will be unclear at the beginning of the conversion process, we do know that certain elements characterize effective small schools, such as heterogeneous classes and differentiated instruction, block schedules, advisories, personalized practice, an authentic curriculum, adaptive pedagogy, performance assessment, and anti-racist teaching. We also are learning (thanks in part to the evaluation research on the implementation of the Gates Foundation high school redesign grants) that there are predictable challenges that many small start-up schools face. In particular, small start-up schools are challenged to focus on instruction and curriculum development and preserving equity while working with students of varying prior academic achievement. Small schools developing out of a large high school conversion not only face these same challenges around instruction and equity, but also confront a standing school culture and vision of pedagogy that usually conflicts with or undermines the conditions sought in the new school.

Tom Vander Ark, Executive Director of Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, believes that struggling schools not only need a different structure but a markedly different mission and culture. However, in a school that is converting from large to small, changing these elements in the original building and with the same staff and students is extremely difficult. According to Vander Ark, changing a school culture that is complacent with inequitable outcomes requires a disruption in the school’s practices and expectations. Frequently, existing beliefs about different types of students need to be consciously interrupted as well. Many conversion efforts have focused on structural changes to create this disruption. Ultimately, however, the change must affect classroom practice. When professional development time focuses on improving instruction, it provides an opportunity for this disruption and is an essential lever for change.

What is professional development time?
When we say “professional development,” we mean the various activities that can enhance instructional practice, such as ongoing in-school collaboration with other teachers, visits to other small schools, and formal trainings. In addition to scheduled professional development opportunities, this also means time used to plan and design a new school.

Professional Development Should Link School Vision Creation to Instructional Practice

If we know what small schools look like, how do we get there? Instructional practice should drive design; as Kate Jamentz, Executive Director of the School Redesign Network, says, “We need to put teaching at the center of the structure conversation.” A solid pedagogical foundation and vision for the school makes design more effective. Instructional practice is based upon the needs of students, and discussions and decisions about design should happen in the context of professional development on instructional practice and student needs. Pedagogical support??”training to help teachers most effectively take advantage of personalized schools and classrooms??”can and should be embedded throughout the conversion process.

Eric Nadelstern, Senior Instructional Superintendent on the Deputy Chancellor’s staff at the Department of Education in New York City, says, “You need to know what you believe about how kids learn, and everything about how you conduct business in that school needs to reflect those beliefs. That’s the degree of coherence that will allow the teachers to ensure that the kids are successful. But the primary thing, really, is to get a group of people who believe something together about how kids learn and then give them an opportunity not only to realize that but to ensure that they prove the efficacy of that approach by ensuring that the kids succeed. Because in the end, it’s the connection between the teachers and the kids.” Helping teachers develop their vision of how students learn is an important part of professional development that supports powerful instruction.

While we know the characteristics of many effective small schools, each school community must still spend time developing its own beliefs of instructional practice and use them to shape its school vision. The small school provides the opportunity??”perhaps only glimpsed by the school community at the beginning of the process??”to transform instruction to best meet the needs of all students. Because it’s only glimpsed, teachers need time to engage and develop their vision. Building the vision for small schools is an important step and an opportunity for professional development in the kind of teaching that can occur in small schools.

Professional development time is more effective when it focuses heavily on instructional practice, integrates that focus in conversations on process issues and, in fact, allows it to drive structure and design decisions. The experience of Clover Park High School, near Tacoma, Washington, supports this idea. School coach Holli Hanson saw that teachers were getting “burned out” making decisions about structural issues and they were not making decisions that related to their classroom or instruction. The school was making design decisions without having spent the time to develop their school vision and a vision of instructional practice. Hanson led the school staff through a futures protocol, and seven or eight major themes emerged around what the staff wanted their school to evolve into in the future.

“From that,” says Hanson, “We saw some nuts and bolts things that we turned into action groups and people got to decide which of those action groups they were in. We also pulled out two major instructional focuses that they focused on all year. So some of every early release day is devoted to staff development around reading and inquiry. That has seemed to be the one thing about which people can say, ‘Okay, I’m excited to be here because I’m going to learn something new. I’m going to have something to take away to my classroom.'”

Clover Park’s teachers are still working in a large school, so the staff can begin to implement some of the practices they will use more often in small schools that are designed to support that pedagogy, while still walking away from professional development with something they can use right away. The school has also done several learning walks and staff observations to see what people are doing in their classroom around reading. So they are increasing the collaboration in making their practice public as well as generating ideas and scaffolding. Hanson concludes, “If we really want that powerful instruction, it takes a while to build that.”

This sort of discussion on instructional practice and vision then drives school design when redesign opportunities arise. For example, the Marble Hill School for International Studies, which opened in September 2002 at the John F. Kennedy High School, is the only school in New York City with a population comprised of fifty percent English language learners and fifty percent English-fluent students. The ESL students learn English and the English speakers must learn a second language. School staff believed that it was important to require all students to learn a second language. Iris Zucker, the principal, explains the school’s vision and how the design supports that vision.

“It’s an international studies school with a rigorous academic program, a focus of college and beyond. We want them to learn a second language, we want them to do international studies, and at the same time we infuse a lot of the arts.” Zucker praised the school’s block schedule, which allows ESL teachers to collaborate with subject-area teachers, a partnership that shakes up their traditional alliances, supports all students as they learn, and supports the mission and vision of the school.


Professional Development for Improved Instructional Practice Prepares Teachers to Make the Most of New Small Schools

The pedagogical change necessary to capitalize on the opportunities that small schools afford is challenging to even flexible and adaptable educators. Change of this scale raises understandable uncertainty. Teachers, like anyone, want to know what is expected of them, particularly at the classroom level. Teachers want to know: “What’s expected of me? Can I do this? How will I be supported?” A lack of familiarity with the teaching now expected of them??”and the lack of a concrete plan to address their needs??”is a major challenge for staff buying into the creation of small autonomous schools.

But given our knowledge of what successful small schools look like, one can identify where anxiety is focused or gaps in proficiency exist??”such as around teaching heterogeneous classes or implementing performance assessments??”and plan backwards to develop skills and generate “buy in” among teachers in the emerging small school. Training or discussions around the skills they need to teach and collaborate in a small school increases the comfort of teachers (and other community members) and ensures they are able to take advantage of the unfolding opportunities that small schools present for powerful instruction and learning. This is not to say that everyone will be an expert??”there must be a realization that the process is long and hard??”but the support, and a plan for sustaining that support, increases commitment and the likelihood of success.

Bill Hart, principal of Leominster High School in central Massachusetts, was asked by his staff to present an example of just what a complex of six autonomous schools might look like as the school community contemplated conversion. He presented to the staff a plan that showed teacher assignments, numbers of students in each school, and schedules. This plan was useful for staff to visualize what their experience would be like, and as a result, many teachers were able to articulate their worries early in the conversion process. In the case of Leominster, some staffers voiced grave concerns about moving to a block schedule; many had previously had negative experiences with this design feature. Principal Hart, along with Meg Anderson and Frank Honts, two external coaches helping with the conversion process, were able to design professional development that directly addressed this concern.

In other cases, it’s something else. Jan Reeder, Director of the CES Northwest Center, recounts the story of a thirty-year veteran teacher who was not yet convinced that small schools were needed. After a workshop on performance assessments, a key feature in the design of their new school, this teacher admitted that he had not known how to integrate such assessments into his teaching, which contributed to his concern about small schools. Now that he feels more comfortable with the new techniques and believes he has the support to master them, he is in favor of the conversion.


How to Find the Time for Conversations that Lead to Real Change

Most schools have used their contracted professional development time for these discussions, but some schools and districts have created more time. One district attempting high school conversion has six contracted days??”and has not supported finding more. Not surprisingly, this district continues to struggle mightily through their conversion effort. Another district, in Washington state, has committed to ongoing professional development time during the school’s weekly early release??”three weeks with instructional practice as the main focus and one week with design as the main focus. This time has helped the school to have the kinds of conversation they feel they need to move forward. Districts that are committed to this process must create more time for teachers and the community to engage in these conversations.


Challenges to Integrating Pedagogical Support and Design Planning

There are at least three significant challenges to providing this support during conversion efforts. First, it is difficult to get teachers to talk about pedagogy, the personal relationships and beliefs at the core of teaching, especially if they don’t know each other well. This is true whether you are involved in a conversion effort or not. Second, during conversions, especially in the early stages, design seems to be a more pressing issue. Third, there is the overwhelming feeling and reality that there is little time.

The Futures Protocol and More

Want more information about the Futures Protocol? The Small Schools Project website offers a version entitled, “Future Protocol a.k.a. ‘Back to the Future’,” originally developed by Scott Murphy of the Jefferson County Public Schools.

Many CES regional centers offer workshops and other professional development opportunities that feature protocols training. For self-study, see The Power of Protocols: An Educator’s Guide to Better Practice by Joseph P. McDonald, Nancy Mohr, Alan Dichter, and Elizabeth C. McDonald (Teachers College Press). Teachers College Press offers an accompanying list of protocols for free download at

Schools and districts in the conversion process continue to move forward, balancing the multiple demands on their time. It is possible to find some more time or other resources, and it is possible, as detailed in some of the above examples, to more fully integrate instructional practice professional development, school vision, and school structure. The structure or instruction question is, in fact, a false dichotomy. Rather, instruction is the lens through which one can view all conversion decisions. In that way, each step in the process is an opportunity for professional development, and an opportunity for change. And the change is incremental and gradual. What’s important to remember is that a good school is always one that is on a journey of continuous reflection and improvement. Questions of instructional practice and student needs are always at the forefront of discussions in good schools, and the conversion process helps schools develop and strengthen these characteristics.


Related Resources

Visit the Bill and Melinda Gates Evaluation website for Gates Foundation high school redesign grant evaluation reports by American Institutes for Research and SRI International at

Visit Small Schools to Develop Your Vision:
Visiting successful small schools is a common professional development practive that helps teachers and community members create and deepen their small school vision. These visits can be transformative, giving design teams examples of what small schools can be, of small schools’ power, and of how they can be places for more powerful teaching and learning. For more on school visits as a tool to build vision about new school creation, see Horace 20.1, “Mentoring and Collaboration among Essential Schools.”

Jay Feldman, M.Ed., Ph.D., has conducted research in child development, whole school change, forms of democratic and equitable schooling, and alternative education. His interests include the educative functions of play and age-mixing, children’s moral development, and understandings of race and diversity. Prior to CES, Jay worked at the Center for Collaborative Education, the CES regional affiliate in Boston.

Lisette López joined CES in September 2003. She is a member of the mentor and new schools project team. Prior to CES, Lisette helped schools, youth programs and community agencies respond positively and equitably to diverse student populations. Lisette has integrated action research, policy advocacy, and capacity building to facilitate institutional change. She has an MA in Education from UC Berkeley.