Halfway through the class, Cody strolled through the door.
“Where have you been?” I asked him.
“I was at the ice cream social,” he replied. “You heard the intercom.”
There had been an announcement over the intercom an hour earlier that students who had participated in the Homecoming planning committee were invited to have ice cream in the cafeteria after the last lunch period had ended.
“Yes, I heard the announcement,” I said, “but you still need a pass to come to class late.”
“Just ask Mr. Jones, he can tell you I was there,” Cody said, taking his seat.
I sighed. “Cody, it is your responsibility to be in class on time. If you have an excuse for being tardy, you need to show it to me. I didn’t get a list of students who were invited to have ice cream, and I have no information about when students were dismissed from the cafeteria. If you are late to class, you need to have a pass. You know that is the way it works at this school.”
“Just ask Mr. Jones,” Cody insisted, not moving from his chair.
“I don’t know who Mr. Jones is, Cody. It is your responsibility to account for your absence the first 20 minutes of this class. It is not my responsibility to research whether your story holds up. Now, go get a pass.”
Cody was playing a game that is fairly common at large schools – getting lost in the crowd. He was counting on the likelihood that it would be too much trouble for anyone to bother checking whether he was in the right place at the right time. It is a game that has a high probability of success for the students who play it, at least at schools like the one where I worked and that Cody attended.
Built just a few years earlier to accommodate 1500 students, last year it had an enrollment of over 1800. Beautiful in appearance when empty, its flaws were evident to anyone who experienced it in use. Its hallways and classrooms bulged with students throughout the day. Its design included numerous corners and alcoves that broke up sightlines and made it easy for students who got out of class to hang out in the hallway for extended periods of time without being seen.
But the physical plant was only the backdrop for the real problem. The school was just too big to be efficient. Up to a point, there is a certain amount of sense in operating a larger school. There are economies of scale – efficiencies that are possible by consolidating tasks, particularly in administrative positions – that can’t be managed in a smaller institution. But here, the tipping point for greater efficiency had been passed a long time ago. The administration was stocked with more people than I had ever seen at one school, and they all seemed to be overworked. Yet at the same time, it was extremely difficult for a new teacher to find out which administrator handled which areas of responsibility and who could answer which questions.
Because schools serve children who deserve a safe environment in which to learn, they need to have a sense of community, and that requires both personal accountability and institutional memory. Schools that are too big for anyone to know more than a small fraction of the students cannot foster personal accountability. For most students, the adults they pass in the halls might as well be strangers they would pass on a public sidewalk. The best these schools can do is to create a draconian system of hall passes and crowd control that buries everyone in more paperwork and has nothing to do with education. Schools that are too big for any one person to know how everything works or even what everyone’s job is cannot take advantage of institutional memory. It is too fractured. People spend too much time investigating how to solve the problems that crop up instead of simply dealing with them. Those schools lose any sense of continuity, of family. No one belongs there; they simply go to work there.
In large schools, it is easy to get lost in the crowd, easy to be overlooked, easy to trade away an opportunity to learn for a moment when no one is telling you what to do.
Achieving autonomy through education and the development of good habits should be the goal of every student, and schools should be designed to help students achieve that goal. Students deserve the individual attention they need to develop competence in the areas that will be crucial to their success as adults. Devoting time and energy to crowd control is a misuse of talent and limited resources – something schools can ill afford to do. It turns teachers into policemen and students into faceless suspects. That is not the lesson we need to be teaching.