Opinion
Education Opinion

Less Is More

January 01, 2002 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
Why, in the face of the evidence, do policymakers and educators continue to build big schools and expand existing ones.

Over the past half-century, a combination of population growth and school consolidation has led to fewer, but bigger, public schools. Between 1940 and 1990, the number of elementary and secondary schools decreased from 200,000 to 82,000, despite a 70 percent rise in the U.S. population. As a result, the average school enrollment skyrocketed from 127 students to 653.

From 1988 to 1999, elementary schools grew from an average of 433 students to 478. And, in that same period, the number of high schools with more than 1,500 students doubled. In the past 50 years, the percentage of secondary schools enrolling more than 1,000 students has grown from 7 to more than 25 percent.

Districts across the country continue to build and operate large schools even though research, experience, and common sense tell us that one of the most effective ways to improve public education and increase student learning is to create new small schools and break existing large schools into smaller ones.

We know from various studies that students in small schools earn better grades, fail fewer courses, miss fewer days, and are much less likely to drop out than students in large schools. Teachers report greater job satisfaction, collaborate more with each other, and tend to adapt their teaching to student needs. Because teachers and students know each other, there is less violence and disruptive behavior.

Ironically, those kids who need the kind of personalized attention that characterizes small schools usually end up in big schools. Urban high school students, disproportionately poor and minority, are 25 percent more likely than their non-urban counterparts to attend schools of more than 900 students.

So why, in the face of such evidence, do policymakers and educators continue to build big schools and expand existing ones?

The most common reasons given are that small schools are too expensive to operate and large schools offer economies of scale. But research has shown that if cost is calculated on the basis of the percentage of students who actually graduate, small schools are more efficient. That’s because high dropout rates in big schools make them less productive.

We know that small schools work better than big schools, and if we really want better education, we should act on that knowledge.

Advocates of big schools also argue that it would be too costly to abandon existing physical plants and replace them with smaller schools. But five years ago, a federal study found that one-third of the nation’s schools are so desperately in need of repair that the bill for fixing them would exceed $112 billion. So why not knock down these decrepit old “factories” and build small schools instead? That would be a great leap forward.

Another justification for large schools is that they offer students a much broader curriculum. That may be true, but small schools can provide students with varied learning opportunities by taking advantage of such community resources as libraries, art galleries, and museums. Effective use of technology also links kids to a universe of information and knowledge. And mentors and school-to-work programs are not dependent upon the size of a school.

Extracurricular activities are very important, especially for teenagers, and most big schools undoubtedly offer a wide range of them. But smaller schools, by sharing facilities, can collaborate on social and athletic activities; they can form club leagues for sports and help their students get involved in community musical and theatrical programs. In fact, it’s easier to find creative solutions to extracurricular challenges than it is to solve the social and academic problems of big schools.

Simply reducing school size would not be enough to solve all the problems besieging public education. Smaller classes, new roles for teachers and students, more effective use of technology, more parental involvement—these and other interventions also are needed. But we know small schools work better than big schools, and if we really want better education, we should act on that knowledge.

—Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2002 edition of Teacher as Less Is More

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Deepen the Reach and Impact of Your Leadership
This webinar offers new and veteran leaders a unique opportunity to listen and interact with four of the most influential educational thinkers in North America. With their expert insights, you will learn the key elements
Content provided by Solution Tree
Science K-12 Essentials Forum Teaching Science Today: Challenges and Solutions
Join this event which will tackle handling controversy in the classroom, and making science education relevant for all students.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Stronger Together: Integrating Social and Emotional Supports in an Equity-Based MTSS
Decades of research have shown that when schools implement evidence-based social and emotional supports and programming, academic achievement increases. The impact of these supports – particularly for students of color, students from low-income communities, English
Content provided by Illuminate Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: January 12, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education School Bus Driver Retires After 48 Years Behind Wheel
Charles City school bus driver Betty Flick sat behind the wheel for the final time last week, wrapping up a 48-year career for the district.
3 min read
Charles City school bus driver Betty Flick poses with one of her farewell signs. Flick has been driving for Charles City School District for 48 years.
Betty Flick quickly fell in love with the job and with the kids, which is what has had her stay in the district for this long.
Courtesy of Abby Koch/Globe Gazette
Education Briefly Stated: December 1, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: November 17, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read