School & District Management

Research: Smaller Is Better

By Debra Viadero — November 28, 2001 12 min read
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Seventeen-year-old Marika Malkerson figures she was one among 500 freshmen when she started high school three years ago in North Carolina. When she began failing classes a few months later, Malkerson recalls, no one besides her own family even noticed.

Studies show the benefits of intimate settings, but schools continue to grow.

Her academic fortunes improved, though, when she moved to Chicago and enrolled in Perspectives, an intimate, 150-student public charter school in the heart of downtown. With no grade lower than a B now, Malkerson doesn’t need to be convinced that, when it comes to learning, school size matters. She knows from experience.

“I know everyone in my classes really well now, and I like that a lot,” she says. “And we all get help from our teachers when we need it.”

Many researchers, looking at the growing body of reports pointing to the benefits of small schools, feel much the same way. Studies conducted over the past 10 to 15 years suggest that in smaller schools, students come to class more often, drop out less, earn better grades, participate more often in extracurricular activities, feel safer, and show fewer behavior problems.

In fact, writes Mary Anne Raywid, one of the pre-eminent researchers in the field, the superiority of smaller schools over larger, more impersonal settings has been established “with a clarity and a confidence rare in the annals of education.”

“An awful lot of people, including some who are professional educators, think the secret of education is in curriculum and pedagogy, and those are the only two things that matter,” Raywid, a professor emeritus of education at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., adds in an interview. “And that is wrong.”

Yet a recent national opinion survey suggested the American public is not quite as sold on the idea. In a report published in September by Public Agenda, a nonprofit opinion-research group based in New York City, 48 percent of the parents and 44 percent of the teachers who were surveyed said that, if their own districts wanted to break a large high school into schools of 500 or fewer students, they would support the idea. One in four parents and teachers, however, said they would oppose it. The remaining 19 percent of parents and 16 percent of teachers chose to take a more neutral stance on the subject.

And statistics show that American schools, all the while, are getting bigger. Currently, U.S. Department of Education figures indicate, nearly 44 percent of all public elementary and secondary students attend schools of 750 students or more. Among high schools, enrollments of 1,000 or more are the norm in at least seven states.

“There seems to be a disconnect,” says Michael D. Klonsky, the director of the Small Schools Workshop, a nonprofit group in Chicago that supports efforts to establish small schools. “The research still has not been communicated well to ordinary folks. You can fill a library with reports saying small schools are better, but it doesn’t make much difference.”

Ideal Sizes?

When the late James B. Conant called in 1959 for the development of large, comprehensive high schools across the United States, the size school that he had in mind was no fewer than 400 students. In a landmark report, the former Harvard University president argued that, with any fewer students, schools would not be able to offer an adequate range of rigorous academic courses such as calculus, physics, or French 4.

By the lights of most experts now, a 400-student school would be considered small. Researchers Valerie E. Lee and Julia B. Smith, writing 38 years later in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, suggested that the “ideal size” high school would enroll between 600 and 900 students. Their conclusion, based on an analysis of national data on school size and scores from reading and mathematics tests, helped bolster the case for smaller schools.

But many experts now argue for even smaller schools on the order of Perspectives, the school that Marika Malkerson attends.

‘I know everyone in my classes really well now, and I like that a lot.’

Conant’s study, meanwhile, helped drive the growth of the large, comprehensive high school in the United States. Over the next 40 years, big high schools, with their competitive football teams and strong music programs, became the norm in communities throughout the country, representing Americans’ ideal of what high school ought to be. And elementary and intermediate-level schools, out of necessity and in the interest of economic efficiency, grew alongside them.

“It’s difficult to desire what you do not know,” said Tom Vander Ark, the executive director for education at the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has sunk $277 million into efforts aimed at creating small schools or carving smaller “learning communities” out of bigger schools. “Most of us have grown up in communities with big schools, and we all have idealized memories of high school. Most of us don’t realize that schools have doubled in size since we left them.”

To students such as Malkerson and a small but growing number of educators and experts, today’s “mega schools” more often feel like impersonal, intimidating, and inefficient warehouses. In her first high school, the Chicago teenager recalls, when students “goofed off” in class, “no one was there to enforce the rules.”

“Most teachers discouraged me to work,” she goes on to say. “If I actually knew something and raised my hand to answer in class they’d be, like, ‘Oh, so you decided to raise your hand.’ ''

That kind of dissatisfaction led small bands of educators in a handful of big cities to launch their own small schools, beginning two decades ago. Located mostly in impoverished neighborhoods in New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago, those newer-generation small schools were small by design, rather than by accident. Their size was seen as a necessary ingredient—a precondition—to improving instruction for the poor, mostly minority students they enrolled.

Nationwide, the small-schools movement also got a boost in 2000 from the Department of Education’s Smaller Learning Communities program. Begun under President Clinton, that initiative set aside $170 million over two years for startup grants to districts seeking to foster school communities that “feel” smaller, whether those communities are housed in separate schools or smaller subunits within larger schools. President Bush, however, has not asked for federal funding to continue the program after next year.

In the Vanguard

Perspectives was in the vanguard of Chicago’s small-schools movement when it was launched by two high school teachers in 1992. In addition to offering a smaller, more personal learning environment, the school imparts a philosophy that encourages students to value high-quality work, take responsibility for themselves, think critically and open-mindedly, and acquire other attributes of “a disciplined life.”

Enrolling 150 students in grades 6-12, the school operates out of a refurbished furniture warehouse close to many of the businesses where its students find internships.

A recent national opinion survey suggested the American public is not quite as sold on smaller schools.

According to Kimberlie Day, the school’s co-director and co-founder, between 87 percent and 90 percent of the school’s students go on to postsecondary study. The school’s dropout rate is zero, and 98 percent of students return each year. A study published last year looking at Perspectives and 149 other small-by-design schools and smaller learning communities in Chicago suggests that the school’s record is not an anomaly.

After visiting schools, surveying students and teachers, and comparing statistical data, the team of researchers from Bank Street College of Education in New York City concluded that, on average, students in the smaller schools or subschools came to class more often, dropped out less frequently, encountered less violence in school, and got better grades than those in regular-sized schools. (“Research on Chicago High Schools Finds Benefits in Smaller Size,” July 12, 2000.)

“When teachers, regardless of what they’re teaching, know the names of all the children in the school, that makes a big difference,” says Patricia A. Wasley, the lead author of the Bank Street study, one of the few to examine the size effect in elementary, middle, and high schools. She is now dean of the college of education at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Klonsky, who is currently writing a book about small schools and violence, says the finding that students and teachers feel—and are—safer in smaller schools is one that crops up consistently in the literature on the subject. In his own work, he cites federal statistics showing that violent incidents are eight times more likely to occur in schools with 750 or more students than they are in schools of fewer than 350.

That perception, he adds, could be a help to urban districts looking to attract better-qualified teachers. “We’re finding that when it comes to high schools trying to recruit teachers, school safety is really on the front burner,” he says.

Interest has also been heightened by the string of deadly shootings since 1997 at suburban and rural high schools around the country. Deadliest among them was the 1999 massacre by two students at Columbine High School, a 1,965-student, high- achieving suburban school in Jefferson County, Colo.

“When you get an incident like Columbine, and you see what can happen to kids who are badly bruised, then it makes a whole lot of people listen to the importance of other things besides standards and accountability,” says Raywid.

Equally strong, says Kathleen Cotton, a researcher who has reviewed more than 100 studies on the subject, are data suggesting that students are more likely to take part in extracurricular activities in schools of fewer than 400 or 500 students.

“Other research shows that extracurricular activities can keep kids in school who might not otherwise stay,” she says. “People get drawn into the fold.”

Tradeoffs Necessary

But defenders of large, comprehensive high schools argue that one of the tradeoffs with small high schools is that they cannot support the wide range of athletic teams, clubs, theatrical productions, and competitions that Americans expect from high schools.

That is often true, says Cotton, a research associate at the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory, a federally financed research organization in Portland, Ore. She adds, however, that typically only 5 percent to 12 percent of students in large schools take part in such activities.

‘When teachers know the names of all the children in the school, that makes a big difference.’

“If you think of the situation in a large school, it kind of has a small school in the middle of it,” Cotton says. “There are concentric circles, and at the center are a small number of students who participate in everything and get most of the attention of the adults in the school.”

Somewhat more tenuous is the link between academic achievement and smaller schools. In the Bank Street study, for example, students in high schools of fewer than 400 students outperformed the school system as a whole on reading and math tests given in 1999, but elementary pupils in schools with fewer students still scored below the system average that year.

Similarly complex findings emerged last year in a study of 13,600 public schools in four states: Georgia, Montana, Ohio, and Texas. Researchers Craig B. Howley and Robert Bickel, in a report published by the Rural School and Community Trust, a nonprofit education and advocacy group based in Washington, concluded that schools with smaller enrollments consistently and significantly outdid larger ones when it came to the achievement of children from low-income families.

“The effect is such that, the lower the students’ socioeconomic status, the smaller the school should be,” says Howley, who is an adjunct associate professor at Ohio University in Athens and a co-director of the Appalachian Educational Laboratory. The same is true, the researchers found, when it comes to school district size: Students from poor families fare best of all in small schools located in small districts.

At the other end of the income scale, the researchers found a slightly different phenomenon, however. To a lesser degree, they conclude, better-off students tended to get higher test scores in bigger schools.

“Large schools and large districts compound the effects poverty,” Howley says, “and they also compound the effects of affluence.” He is quick to add that even in well-off communities, no high school should have more than 1,000 students—a conclusion that many elite private schools also reached decades ago.

Years earlier, Herbert Walberg, a research professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, looking at standardized-test data from 38 states, also found a link between small schools and academic achievement. But he is less convinced now that the case for smaller schools has been made conclusively.

“If you had a good curriculum in a large school, you might easily overcome a small school with a bad curriculum,” Walberg says. “What we need are more third-party evaluations.”

Low ‘Costs per Graduate’

Walberg says the burden of proof should be heavy because of the cost and effort involved in building and operating smaller schools.

“What do we do with all the big buildings that we have?” he said.

His concern is one that crops up often in communities weighing whether to consolidate their schools, keep them as they are, or make them smaller. The growth of large schools was fueled to a large extent by the belief that economies of scale called for building bigger schools.

Critics argue that small high schools cannot support a wide range of athletic teams and clubs.

“That may have been a bit of an exaggeration, to say there are economies of scale,’' Howley says now. Some newer studies, he says, suggest that small schools may in the long run be cheaper.

A case in point is a 1998 study on New York City’s pioneering small schools. In that study, New York University economics and education professor Leanna Stiefel and colleagues concluded that, even though the city’s small-by-design schools cost more per pupil, their “cost per graduate” was much lower.

To replicate a small-school atmosphere in existing larger buildings, many districts are turning to schools-within-schools, “houses” or teams made up of smaller groups of students and teachers, and other configurations. Cotton, in a not-yet-published review of the small-schools literature, identifies 20 different labels for these newer subschool arrangements.

But the consensus among researchers is that the evidence suggesting that such smaller school units produce the same benefits that smaller schools do is mixed at best.

In the Bank Street study, for example, researchers found that many of the schools-within-schools turned out to be fragile. Several closed after two years.

“The minute they become more successful than the host school, things like this happen,” Wasley says. “The principal will want the teachers to come and do coaching with the larger school faculty, or the host school staff becomes resentful of the smaller unit and works to undermine it.”

The more successful of the quasi-small schools, she adds, tended to be those that operated with a high degree of autonomy.

Among many researchers, the fear is that the proliferation of schools-within-schools and other smaller learning communities could ultimately make the case for small schools an even harder sell to the public.

“People will tell you later the evidence has been tallied and ‘well, we tried it and it just doesn’t work,’ ” Raywid says, “and that’s a real danger.”

The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Research: Smaller Is Better


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