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Published in Print: February 9, 2000, as Small Schools Found To Cut Price of Poverty

Small Schools Found To Cut Price of Poverty

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Further bolstering the case for small schools, new research suggests that schools with fewer students significantly outstrip larger schools when it comes to the achievement of low-income children. In fact, say the authors of a study to be released this week, the poorer the student body, the smaller the school should be to maximize student performance.

Follow Up
Read a summary of the report "School Size, Poverty, and Student Achievement," from the Rural School and Community Trust.

"Smaller schools help reduce the academic risks of poverty by breaking the usual negative bond between poverty and achievement," said Craig B. Howley, who along with Robert Bickel conducted the study for the Rural School and Community Trust, a nonprofit education and advocacy group based in Washington. "On average, the strength of the relationship is about half what it is in larger schools," Mr. Howley said.

The research looked at about 13,600 public schools in four states—Georgia, Montana, Ohio, and Texas. While the relationships among school enrollment, test scores, and student poverty varied somewhat, the smaller schools consistently posted higher scores than would be predicted from their poverty levels alone.

The study generally included all regular schools in the selected states, which were chosen for their variety, said Mr. Howley, an education professor at Ohio University and a senior research and development specialist at the Appalachia Educational Laboratory in Charleston, W.Va. Mr. Bickel is an education professor at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va.

'Power of Poverty' Reduced

The researchers set no fixed enrollment size for "large" or "small" schools. Instead, they used the actual sizes of all schools in their analyses. Similarly, they defined higher- and lower-poverty schools only in relative terms.

Among schools with higher poverty levels, the researchers found, smaller schools had better student achievement than the larger ones in three of the states. In Montana, where most schools are small, smaller schools seem to outperform larger ones whatever the poverty level of the students.

When the researchers analyzed the scores to calculate how much of the variation among schools could be explained by poverty levels, they found that smaller schools consistently reduced the expected correlation between poverty and achievement. In Texas' larger schools, for example, poverty level accounted for 30 percent to 62 percent of the achievement differences, while in its smaller schools the figure was as low as 3 percent, and no higher than 31 percent, the study found.

In all, according to the researchers, at the 10th grade level almost 60 percent of the schools in Texas were too big to maximize student achievement, given the average incomes of their students.

Variations in the racial makeup of the schools' student populations and average class sizes did not significantly alter the results, the researchers said. They note, though, that is it often children in minority groups who are enrolled in the "too large" schools.

"The take-home message is: Work like hell to make schools smaller in poor communities,'' said Mr. Howley. "The good news is that affluent communities can use the larger schools and benefit from them.''

Not Just Rural Schools

Marty Strange, the policy director for the Rural School and Community Trust, noted that for years people in rural communities have been fighting the move to make schools larger, a trend that has helped close thousands of schools in small towns across the country.

"That message is no longer exclusively a rural message,'' he said. "If we are trying to reduce the achievement gap, school size is something we should be taking a much closer look at.''

Mr. Strange added that while a significant body of research has found positive effects for small school size, including lower dropout rates and improved school climates, there has not been much evidence that school size can benefit achievement—only that small size does not harm it.

But even if more studies confirm results like Mr. Howley's and Mr. Bickel's, the path to smaller schools is far from clear, warned Michael W. Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University who specializes in public policy.

"The small-schools theme has been one of academics, researchers, and policy analysts, but it's been one that school administrators and policymakers have not endorsed," nor have parents outside of rural areas taken much of an interest in it, he said. While calling small-schools research in general "interesting and important," Mr. Kirst said he had not reviewed the new study.

Mr. Kirst added that, because of construction costs, states with rapid enrollment growth have often viewed small schools as a "luxury they cannot afford."

Vol. 19, Issue 22, Page 6

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