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Smaller Not Necessarily Better, School-Size Study Concludes

By Debra Viadero — May 23, 2006 4 min read
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When it comes to high school size, smaller might not be better, concludes a national study presented yesterday at a conference sponsored by the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

The study raises questions about high-profile efforts taking root across the country to reshape the nation’s high schools. Spurred by generous financial support from groups such at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, school districts in New York City, Chicago, Houston, and other major cities have undertaken extensive efforts in recent years to pare down high schools and establish smaller, more personal learning environments for students. But Barbara Schneider, the lead researcher for the study, said her data suggest those efforts may be headed in the wrong direction.

“In an effort like this you are dismantling large high schools and putting money into creating small high schools,” Ms. Schneider, an education professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing, said in a recent interview. “And we can’t afford to continue down this path without serious and rigorous assessment of this thing.”

Ms. Schneider and her co-authors, Adam E. Wysse and Vanessa Keesler, based their conclusions on data from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, a federal survey that tracks students beginning in 10th grade. The more than 11,000 students in the researchers’ study sample were surveyed twice—once in 10th grade and again in 2004 when they were seniors. Of the 660 schools in the study sample, the smallest tended to be in rural and suburban areas and to have mostly white student enrollments. The largest schools, most often located in urban areas and in some suburbs, enrolled higher-than-average numbers of poor and minority students.

Using a technique pioneered in the 1970s by Harvard University statistician Donald Rubin, the researchers attempted to put all of the schools on more equal footing by carefully matching students on 98 different characteristics. Those characteristics included the kinds of courses the students had taken and the extracurricular activities in which they participated, as well as traditional socioeconomic traits such as race and family-income levels. To measure students’ academic progress, the researchers examined their 12th grade achievement levels in mathematics, whether they planned to attend college or had applied, and whether they chose a two- or four-year college or some other higher education institution.

The researcher found that the only students who performed better in small schools were those who were most likely to attend them, mostly white rural and suburban students. For the urban and minority students in the largest schools, the smaller settings would have offered no significant advantages for the kinds of educational outcomes the researchers tracked.

“My thought really is that size doesn’t matter,” Ms. Schneider said. “It’s also about what goes on in schools.”

Findings Questioned

But other experts attending Brookings’ May 22-23 conference raised questions about the study. They noted, for instance, that the survey began in 10th grade, a year after students had entered high school and well after many students had already dropped out.

“It’s very hard to talk about school effects when kids have already experienced half of high school at the beginning of the study,” said Valerie E. Lee, an expert on school size and an education professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The study would have been better, Ms. Schneider conceded, if it had followed the students beginning in 8th grade. She got the same results, however, from analyzing the data in different ways as well.

A longtime proponent of smaller high schools, Ms. Schneider said she was prompted to rethink her position a few years ago after attending a meeting in Chicago with high school sports coaches who complained that the small-schools movement was threatening the existence of school-sponsored athletic teams. The coaches told her that the teams were key to keeping marginal students in school and in generating college scholarships for students who might not otherwise see college as an option.

“I’m afraid we have done a terrible disservice to kids,” she added.

Other Studies Presented

Her study was among 11 reports presented at the meeting, which focused on sorting out the research on the educational benefits and disadvantages of changes in the sizes of schools or classes. In her own study conducted with Douglas Ready, an assistant professor of education at the University of Oregon, Ms. Lee also found that school size did not seem to have a direct impact on learning for kindergarteners and 1st graders in elementary school.

However, that was not the case for changes in class size, Ms. Lee and Mr. Ready said. Using federal data from a nationally representative sample of 7,740 children, the two researchers found that kindergartners and 1st graders learned at about the same pace in both medium-sized classes—those with 17 to 25 students—as they did in classes with fewer than 17 students. Only large classes, those with 25 or more students, seemed to have a negative impact on children’s mathematics and literacy learning, according to their study.

The researchers said their findings raise questions about expensive investments by some states and districts to shrink classes to fewer than 17 students in the early grades because most children already experience medium-sized classes during those years.

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