Education Commentary

Small Is Often Better Than Big

By Stuart A. Rosenfeld — January 14, 1987 8 min read

For at least 70 years, policymakers, administrators, and school boards have been asking, how many students does a high school need in order to provide high-quality education at reasonable costs? Now, because of new evidence from the business and education sectors, this issue is more urgent than ever. And it seems to me that the question “how small is too small?"--which is usually the one asked--ought to be turned on its head and reframed as “how big is too big?”

In 1959, when James Bryant Conant released The American High School: A First Report to Interested Citizens, the 1950’s version of A Nation at Risk, a strong case could still be made for larger schools. For instance, Conant’s study showed that 32 percent of high-school seniors were in graduating classes of fewer than 100 students. In these circumstances, educational resources had to be too thinly spread, and the case for economies of scale, which had driven the move toward larger and larger schools from the beginning, continued to be persuasive.

There was, however, resistance to consolidation of schools into larger units. While administrators and business leaders drew upon the latest scientific management theories to rationalize school mergers, they frequently found themselves pitted against school-board members and parents, who vigorously defended their small schools as critical to the vitality of their communities and the last bastion of local control.

In the end, the experts’ promises of lower costs and expanded educational opportunities generally prevailed and consolidation became the conventional wisdom of education policymakers. Over the years, most high schools merged and educational opportunities did indeed improve for many youngsters.

Because consolidation was undeniably successful in the past, policymakers today believe that larger enrollments will make high-school education even better. But I believe they’re wrong. The educational landscape in 1987 is quite different from what it was when school and district m g were commonplace.

First, the tiny school with 20 in the graduating class still exists in rural and sparsely populated areas, but it is becoming almost as rare an artifact of Americana as the bald eagle. In many states, “small” is the school with 400 to 800 students, which often is served by an area vocational center. Most city high schools have more than 1,500 students. Yet administrators still argue for larger size.

Second, the industry-based scientific management principles based on division of labor, which led school administrators toward consolidation and specialization, are becoming passe. Successful businesses are now beginning to reorganize into smaller units and shed layers of supervision to improve productivity.

Third, the notion that more curricular choice for students automatically provides a better education is coming under increasing scrutiny: Education researchers are now finding that the range of options needed for a strong, basic education is not as wide as was once believed.

And last, most schools are large enough so that further consolidation is likely to produce negligible savings. In fact, the added layers of administration, number of specialists, and busing required by consolidation could very well increase costs.

Under these new conditions, demands from policymakers for further consolidation of high schools that were once categorized as “large” seem more blind habit than true educational reform. By contrast, educators and economists alike are finally able to focus attention on the effect of the size of the education setting on learning. More precisely, once high schools are large enough to provide a sufficiently diverse curriculum at reasonable costs, how does their size affect student behavior and what they learn? The answer appears to be that once a school exceeds a certain size, its students become distanced from the school as a unit, less involved, and less motivated.

This conclusion should come as no surprise. More than two decades ago, Roger G. Barker and Paul V. Gump conducted an intensive comparison of high schools of varying size and found exactly that. In their book Big School, Small School, they reported that in a smaller setting, for example, students were more motivated and more likely to participate in activities. The best school, they suggested, is the one that is “sufficiently small that all of its students are needed for its enterprises. A school should be small enough that students are not redundant.” The small school, they added, is particularly effective with marginal students. Why was Barker and Gump’s message ignored? Perhaps because such a conclusion was ill-timed, coming as it did during those post-Sputnik years, when the nation was moving toward even greater specialization, and school and district consolidation were chief instruments of education policy.

A decade later, in 1974 the prestigious Panel on Youth, chaired by James S. Coleman, came to similar, though more tentative, conclusions. The panel suggested that small schools may be better than big schools, ''but the benefits of small size have lain in what are often described as ‘intangibles': the quality of the relationships, the motivation created, the involvement in common goals.”

In the latest round of educational changes, size once again shows up as a contributing factor to the quality of education, though it is buried deep in the studies that undergird the education reforms. In one of the most comprehensive recent studies of contemporary schooling, A Place Called School, John I. Goodlad found that most of the schools in the group of most-effective schools in his sample were small compared with those schools in the group of least-effective schools. He concluded that it would not be impossible to have a good large school, but that it would certainly be more difficult. There is little reason for a high school to become larger than 500 to 600 students, he said, except to field a strong football team, which he dismissed as a legitimate reason.

Experts outside education have also begun to question the conventional wisdom of large schools and large school systems. Theodore Schultz, the economist, denies that big school systems have a comparative advantage in providing quality instruction. He states that in many cases the poor performance of teachers in city schools is caused by the organization and administration of excessively large systems: “Although I do not believe that small is necessarily beautiful, and it can be expensive, the belief that bigger is better must be challenged.”

There is no doubt that educational resources in small schools and large schools do differ quantitatively. Scale affects, among other things, the number of volumes in the library, the number of languages that can be offered, the sophistication of the science labs, and the number of extracurricular activities--all frequently used as measures of quality of education. But as both John I. Goodlad and Theodore Schultz argue, large and small schools also differ qualitatively, and this is the key issue.

Size influences the ethos of the school--social relationships among students, among teachers, between students and teachers, and between school and community, all of which are difficult to describe, much less evaluate. But as researchers gain a clearer understanding of what goes on inside the school and in the classroom, they are beginning to realize that the size of the school does, in fact, influence motivation and morale and cognitive and behavioral outcomes.

For example, Ernest L. Boyer in High School, his 1983 study of secondary education for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, confirmed that “small schools appear to provide greater opportunity for students’ participation and greater emotional support than large ones.” Mr. Boyer, however, accepts that large schools exist and are here to stay, and therefore recommends “smaller units--'schools-within- a-school'--to establish a more cohesive, more supportive social setting for all students.”

In another 1983 study, Necessary Lessons: Decline and Renewal in American Schools, Gilbert Sewell came to even stronger conclusions about size and quality of education, and argued that “small secondary schools are more conducive to high educational outcomes than cost-effective comprehensive schools.” Small schools, he found, “seem to make up for their alleged resource deficiency by achieving high levels of school solidarity and purpose . . . each student has a greater opportunity to find an extracurricular niche from which to exercise some authority or earn some sort of schoolwide reputation and trademark.”

Small schools have proven particularly successful in helping marginal and at-risk students. An article in the Harvard Educational Review in 1981 stated that the opportunity that small schools provide for sustained contact among all members is a safeguard against alienation and leads to better discipline. It is therefore not surprising that rates of school vandalism and violence also are lower in small schools, according to a study by the National Institute of Education in 1978. And, in 1986, the Institute for Educational Leadership reported that students are more likely to drop out of large schools.

By providing greater opportunity for participation, small schools particularly influence attributes and skills associated with leadership and entrepreneurship, which are among the emerging goals of economic-development-driven education reforms.

The preponderance of new evidence about the effects of size drawn from both business and education suggests new directions in school organization. The scale of the environment in which learning occurs influences not only the costs of education and the range of opportunities, but also behavioral and educational outcomes. As the Norwegian Parliament concluded in 1978 when it set the maximum high-school enrollment at 450, bigger schools would no longer be educating individuals; they would merely be processing them through the institution.

Despite this new information, schools still continue to grow larger. It is therefore time to reconsider the conventional wisdom that the larger the school, the better and less expensive the education. State boards of education and school administrators would be wise to look closely at the mounting new evidence and re-examine the organization of schools in light of their education goals for the 21st century. Schools that are too large can be just as great a barrier to educational excellence as schools that are too small.

A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 1987 edition of Education Week