When It Comes to School Size, Smaller Is Better

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As a result of rising enrollment, aging buildings, federal mandates, and deferred maintenance, the nation's schools face an infrastructure crisis.

In his State of the Union Address last month, President Clinton again called on Congress to pass school construction legislation. As a result of rising enrollment, aging buildings, federal mandates, and deferred maintenance, the nation's schools face an infrastructure crisis. Mr. Clinton is proposing interest-free school bonds subsidized by federal tax credits to address the problem. And, after several years of bitter opposition, Republicans in Congress have unveiled a competing proposal. Clearly this is an important issue, but before politicians from both parties rush to outspend each other they should discuss the long-ignored issue of school size.

In many areas of American life, a defining mantra of this century has been "bigger is better." Education is no exception and actually has typified this trend. During this century, the size of schools has grown tremendously, particularly in urban areas. Nationwide since World War II, the number of schools declined 70 percent while average size grew fivefold. More than one in four secondary schools nationwide enrolls more than 1,000 students, and enrollments of 2,000 and 3,000 are not uncommon. In New York City, there are nine schools with more than 4,000 students; John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx enrolls 5,300.

The thinking behind large schools was that bigger meant more extracurricular opportunities, a more diverse curriculum, and more resources for students as a result of economies of scale. Intuitively, this makes sense; however, a growing body of research and public opinion indicates that it is misguided and that, when it comes to school size, smaller is actually better.

Most important, research now shows that oversized schools are actually a detriment to student achievement, especially for poor children. Even assuming that larger schools did equate to more fiscal efficiency, diverse curriculum, and extracurricular activities, those factors have not translated into better student achievement. In fact, the research is pretty clear on this point: Smaller schools help promote learning. And, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, research shows that small schools are able to offer a strong core curriculum and, except in extremely small schools, a comparable level of academically advanced courses.

Additional research has shown that students from smaller schools have better attendance, and that when students move from large schools to smaller ones their attendance improves. Smaller schools also have lower dropout rates and fewer discipline problems. A 1992 study by Jean Stockard and Maralee Mayberry stated that "behavior problems are so much greater in larger schools that any possible virtue of larger size is canceled out by the difficulties of maintaining an orderly learning environment."

According to researcher Kathleen Cotton, larger school size hasn't translated into more extracurricular participation. In a 1996 study, Ms. Cotton found that in smaller schools students are more likely to be involved in extracurricular activities and to hold positions of responsibility in those activities. Moreover, she found that as school size increases, opportunities for participation increase as well--but not proportionately.

Nor are larger schools more efficient. A 1996 study by Valerie Lee and Julie Smith reported that large schools are actually more expensive because their sheer size requires more administrative support. More important, additional bureaucracy translates into less flexibility and innovation.

Taxpayers have a right to expect that their tax dollars are being invested in effective, research-based ways that maximize the benefit for children.

Research shows that economically advantaged students can achieve in large schools. Paradoxically, it is underprivileged students who are likely to be concentrated in oversized schools.

Education researchers are not the only ones picking up on these problems--parents get it, too. When asked in a 1997 study by the Hudson Institute why they had chosen charter schools instead of traditional public schools, 53 percent of parents cited small school size. It was the most frequent response, ahead of higher standards, educational philosophy, greater parental involvement, and better teachers. It is also telling that urban parents, whose children are most likely to be in excessively large schools, are also the parents most likely to express dissatisfaction with their public schools.

There isn't agreement about what school size is ideal, although the consensus of researchers is that no school should serve more than 1,000 students and that elementary schools should not exceed 300 to 400 students. There is also a general acknowledgment that the huge 2,000-, 3,000-, and 4,000-student schools now in use are much too large.

As a policy matter, the federal government can't and shouldn't get involved in specific decisions about individual school design. On the other hand, taxpayers have a right to expect that their tax dollars are being invested in effective, research-based ways that maximize the benefit for children. Congress should include broad guidelines in any school facilities legislation to encourage construction and renovation designs that benefit kids. Districts building smaller schools or converting existing oversized schools into smaller ones should be given priority for this funding. And the federal government should collect more data and sponsor more research on this issue.

Some congressional Republicans will continue to balk at any federal involvement in school construction, and others will object to attaching any federal guidelines to funding. Liberal Democrats will cringe at even common-sense standards being attached to federal money flowing to a favored constituency. They are both wrong. Federal resources are needed to address the facilities crisis that public schools are facing, but should be invested in the most effective way possible.

All aspects of our education system should be designed to facilitate high academic performance; school buildings are no exception. Smaller, more autonomous, flexible, and accountable schools should characterize education in the next century.

Building and renovating schools in a vacuum will not strengthen America's public school system. But adequate resources are as important to effective schooling as high standards for students and teachers and strong accountability. Too often in Washington, debates are framed purely in quantitative terms. We certainly need to build more schools, but in many cases, not simply more of the same.

Andrew Rotherham is the director of the 21st Century Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington.

Vol. 18, Issue 24, Pages 52, 76

Published in Print: February 24, 1999, as When It Comes to School Size, Smaller Is Better
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