Small Is Beautiful

Melissa Fay Greene, a talented author and close family friend, had a heart-warming essay in the New Yord Times a few months ago. It's about a bare-bones summer baseball clinic her 16-year-old son and his friends created to teach younger kids the love of the game. She contrasts this with the institutionalized, all-too-serious baseball camps that are now an essential part of the soccer-mom generation.

Here's what the teenagers didn't require of their players: tryouts; advance registrations; birth certificates; assignments to teams by age, sex and skill level; uniforms or team names; parent volunteers; snack schedules; and commuting to fields in distant counties in search of the appropriate level of competition.

Here's what the players didn't miss: almost none of the above. (Uniforms are pretty cool.)

The charge for each clinic was $5 per kid per day. The news was spread by a single flier tacked up at a neighborhood pool and word of mouth. I was unsure such a last-minute ad hoc approach would work, since many children in our community seem to have been booked into summer camps and enrichment programs by the end of the previous January. And an entire generation is being raised to expect sports training to resemble that of professional-league players, unfolding on well-maintained fields under the direction of paid coaches.

But just before 5 p.m. every afternoon, a swarm of children from about 7 to 12 years old appeared on foot or on bike at the top of the grassy hill leading to the playground and fanned out into the field. Their numbers increased daily. I sat in a folding chair at the far edge of the playground in a singing haze of mosquitoes. I collected the five-dollar bills in a shoe box. Also I was in charge of the box of Band-Aids.

To my amazement, a few of the obviously sporty boys drew back, balked, even shed a few anxious tears, on their first day. ''He's never played baseball before,'' a mom would explain apologetically. Or just one word sufficed: ''Soccer.'' I understood. The outdoor lives of today's children -- like their inner lives -- have fallen to adult dictatorship. Early and intense specialization is part of the package. Twice- or thrice-a-week practices plus two games a weekend send young players barreling across green fields, fit and competent. But parents sometimes forget to pencil in the days on which the child is allowed to dabble in hopscotch or roller-skating, jump-rope or jacks, fort-building or hide-and-seek, or pickup neighborhood baseball.

Although she doesn't discuss it, I think something similar is happening with schooling in general. For some reason, we've come to think that school means dropping your kid off at 8 a.m. and picking her up at 3 p.m. (or later if she does extra-curricular activies after class). We've come to think that a good school must have a fully-stocked library, a gymnasium with top-of-the-line equipment, an auditorium, a swimming pool (!), and countless other amenities that could just as easily be found at a local community center or health club. We've come to think of school as an institution - the bigger and more institutionalized, the better.

I suspect that part of the reason why we've come to expect all this, part of the reason why we've been moving towards more and more amenities each year is that parents, as consumers of education, are not directly faced with the costs. Public schools are funded by the government, which in turn is funded largely by property taxes. Wealthy neighborhoods can only spend so much on things directly related to education, so they divert some of their funding to what could more properly be considered sports and entertainment. Public schools in poor neighborhoods can't afford all these extras on property taxes alone, but no parent wants to send their kid to a lesser school, so these amenities are funded with discretionary state or federal taxes, or voluntary fundraising. And of course, private schools can't provide less services than public schools, so they must offer these extras as well. Over time, this conspicuous consumption continues to increase, schools become larger and nicer, and ever more expensive.

But let's think outside the box for a moment. Just because this is the way things are doesn't mean this is the way things have to be, or the way things should be. Does it makes sense for schools to duplicate the efforts of fitness clubs, community centers, libraries, and concert halls? Is this efficient? Are these services part of a school's comparitive advantage?

I don't know. Maybe it does make sense for some schools to offer all of this extra stuff. (I'm thinking of boarding schools especially here.) But it certainly doesn't make sense for all schools to do this, and the only reason they all do is the "keeping up with the Joneses" phenomenon identified above. The monopolization of public schools is a large part of it as well. And since private schools are mostly available only for the rich (because only the rich can afford to pay both their school taxes and private school tuition), schools catering to rich people certainly can't offer less services than public schools.

And all of this leads to a common worry about school choice programs. Consider the following objection voiced by "monkyboy" in this comment thread:

An average elementary school costs about $30 million to build. Throw in books, cubbies, school buses, etc. and you are looking at over $50 million. There is one in every neighborhood in America.

School districts enjoy certain economies of scale because they are educating every kid in America. Under the voucher program, the cost of replacing one elementary school with 30-40 smaller ones to suit the tastes of different parents would probably double or triple the costs.

There is much that is true with this objection. Schools, as they currently exist, are indeed incredibly expensive, and cost millions of dollars to build and millions of dollars to maintain. And because of this expense, it is reasonable to think that the market for schools is characterized by economies of scale, where the larger an educational institution is, the more students it can handle - the fixed cost of constructing swimming pools, sports arenas, and amphitheaters may be astronomical, but the variable cost of admitting one additional student is quite small. So we would expect there to be a handful of really large schools in each city, but almost no small ones, because small schools just don't make economic sense. And smaller towns with fewer children might have even bigger problems, where there is not enough demand to make any size school profitable. Because of these economies of scale, we would expect the market for schools to look like an oligopoly. Not the kind of market you'd want to privatize.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that we are stuck in the mold of thinking that the free market will provide education in exactly the same way the current government monopoly does. When parents must directly face the cost of their childrens' education, would they rather pay many more thousands of dollars each year for enormous campuses with swimming pools, gymnasiums, and amphitheaters (all of which might be more efficiently and more cheaply provided via other organizations) that are no better at educating students? Some parents no doubt would prefer these sorts of schools. Others would not.

The high school I attended had about 130 students total, from 9th grade to 12th, so about 30 students per grade. I knew each student in my class and most of the students in the school by name, unlike many public schools these days with thousands of other students in each grade.

I teach part-time for Kaplan, a company that specializes in test preparation. (I speak only for myself here and not my employer.) Kaplan has a large number of offices with classroom facilities in every state in the U.S. (and multiple in driving distance from me), and they also offer classes at local schools and community centers. Their offices are nothing more than your standard strip-mall office complex, like a dentist's office with larger rooms. They spend a tiny fraction of what regular schools spend on teachers and building space. They don't have swimming pools or gymnasiums - just the basic classroom materials: desks, chairs, markerboards, books, and pencils. And yet we cover a good portion of English, math and science in under three hours each week for nine weeks. Sure, we're teaching to a test, and not for general knowledge, but I see no reason why a regular school couldn't be modeled in a similar way. My students seem to have a difficult time paying attention to academic subjects for more than three hours at a time, and the classes are structured to accommodate this limitation.

Would people want to send their kids to small, simple, less expensive schools? Would some parents drop off their kids at an individualized schooling program for a few hours, and then take them to the gym or the community center for a sports league or a friendly pick-up game with other children? Those who are satisfied with the current system of institutionalized babysitting may want to stick with the status quo. Those who would prefer a close-knit atmosphere, where everyone knows each other by name, and where the programs and costs are specially tailored to each individual student's needs, may conclude that bigger is not always better.

Share this

Micha, Sure we're teaching


Sure we're teaching to a test...

Isn't that where the public schools are headed with their 'must pass to graduate tests' ?

Regards, Don

Friday Random Ten:

Friday Random Ten: subversive lazy linking edition
Like the Holy Roman Empire, this Friday Random Ten is neither Friday, nor Random, nor Ten. But it is (I think) a good idea; thanks...

This reminds me of the

This reminds me of the chapter on "Adam Smith U" from _Machinery of Freedom_. It's not just the third-party payer problem, its also the fact that you are paying one huge overhead fee for all services. So the money gets spent via the school's internal political process, rather than going to the sections that make more. A popular teacher doesn't get paid more for having good classes. Recreational facilities aren't built based on demand. And so forth.

An efficient school would be totally modular, renting space to its teachers who then charged students.

Patri, I was just thinking


I was just thinking about that chapter when I wrote my previous post on Coase's List.

Nice article, and comments.

Nice article, and comments. One thing I've been learning the past couple years, in researching the right school for my 19 month old boy, is that the traditional type of school environment at least for young children is not at all ideal to the way children learn and develop. I have become convinced that the Montessori approach is vastly superiori. It makes so much sense in almost every respect--at least, again, for very young children. It's just amazing to see their very practical, integraged, and well-thought-out approach bear fruit.

We have both our boys in a

We have both our boys in a Montessori school, Stephan. They are really thriving, and most days actively wanting to go to school. I really have no complaints, and the school is quite reasonably priced and about 1.5 miles from our house, too.

Oh, and to keep my comments

Oh, and to keep my comments even more topical, the Montessori school my boys attend, although not religiously affiliated, is run out of classroom space leased from a Methodist church which closed down its religious school. It has 100+ students, a gym, and a nice playground. No swimming pool, though.

Well, my Montessori school

Well, my Montessori school is apparently the most expensive school in all of Houston, for some reason. It is secular though, which I like. Also, it is one of only 2 AMI certified schools in Houston--the other 60 or so Montessori schools are all AMS or noncertified, I think. I prefer AMI to AMS for the same reason I prefer Catholicism to Protestanism :)

One thing I have not yet figured out is what is the right age to transfer over to conventional school. My boy's school goes to 8th grade, and may extend to High School by the time he is that age. It seems to me the Montessori method makes a lot of sense for the very young but the method has to peter out at some point... what is that point? I have not seen a lot of literature on this, arguing that the basic approach is "better" all the way to, say, 12th grade. Any thoughts?

I don't really know, but

I don't really know, but I've given some thought to the question. The two primary things to ask would be, how much is he learning, and how much is his learning meeting our/his purposes? Certainly the Montessori method allows them to avoid, to some extent, subjects which bore them to death, that in a conventional school they would be forced to sit through classes on. However, from my personal experience, I didn't learn much in the classes that bored me, and at least in Montessori they can use that time to learn something that does interest them, rather than, say, surreptitiously reading a sci-fi book in the back of the class.

If one of the purposes of his education is to score highly on SAT's, or whatever the equivalent is in 2018, so as to get into a good college, and he is not learning one of the major components of said test, it might be time to re-evaluate, or send him to a test-prep place, or just to do some practice tests at home.

My fiance went to a

My fiance went to a Montessori school for kindergarten, and looking back, he thinks it was great. They were reading and learning multiplication tables at the age of 5. He transferred to a public school for first grade when the Montessori school lost their lease and had to close down, and he remembers that when he got to public school the knowledge level of the other kids and the class material and pace were way behind what he'd already done. He was young, and I haven't talked to other people about it, but I suppose it's possible that if you transfer your son out of Montessori he might end up in a classroom that's too slow or too far behind his educational level. We both went to public school through grade 12 and swear that any kids of ours never will. Hope this helps.

Just based on the nature of

Just based on the nature of brain development, from what I gather around 10-12 a child's brain loses plasticity and gains computational power- it can do a lot more of what its wired to do but is less nimble at picking new things up.

At that point, it may be better to find a method best adapted to the juvenile brain vs. a child's brain.

Any thoughts [on when to

Any thoughts [on when to transition between teaching systems]?

Although my wife and I prefer homeschooling, we let our sons have a say in whether they want to attend school or not. When the youngest was the age to enter third grade, one of his best friends was going to school, and our son was afraid he was missing out. Rather than keep him at home, and thereby give the school a forbidden appeal, we let him attend. By the end of the year, his complaints about school were the same as ours.

We've focused on character first, then concepts, then skills, and details last in education.

Thanks for asking, and good luck!