Teaching Profession

Survey Finds Mixed Views On Smaller Schools

By Linda Jacobson — October 03, 2001 3 min read
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Most public high school parents and their children’s teachers say breaking up large high schools into smaller ones would help educators identify troubled students and make the schools more welcoming places, according to the results of a survey released last week.

A summary of the survey’s findings is available from Public Agenda.

Still, the survey—conducted by Public Agenda, a nonprofit opinion-research group based in New York City—found larger percentages of parents and teachers identified decreasing class sizes and improving discipline as higher priorities than making schools smaller. Breaking up big schools is a policy move many districts have taken or are considering.

“Many parents and teachers have very positive first impressions of smaller schools, but reducing school size is just not at the top of their agenda for education reform,” Deborah Wadsworth, the president of the nonpartisan organization, said about the survey.

Anne Miller, the director of school leadership services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said the poll results did not surprise her.

Even though creating smaller schools was a central recommendation in a 1996 report from the Reston, Va.-based NASSP and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, it was class-size reduction that “got repeated visibility from the Clinton administration,” Ms. Miller noted.

Public Agenda’s national telephone poll of 801 public high school parents and an accompanying mail survey of 920 public high school teachers were conducted last spring. The results offer a first look at the findings. A more comprehensive report, which will include the views of high school students, is scheduled to be released in December.

The survey found that 66 percent of the parents and almost 80 percent of the teachers who responded said that smaller high schools, defined as those with fewer than 500 students, were more likely to give students a feeling of belonging and community than schools with more than 1,000 students.

Majorities of the two groups—76 percent of parents and 65 percent of teachers—also said that teachers in smaller high schools would be more likely to meet students’ individual instructional needs.

What’s more, 69 percent of the parents and teachers said smaller schools have an advantage over larger high schools in identifying bad teachers; 68 percent of the parents and 70 percent of the teachers said larger high schools have more student discipline problems.

But those favorable opinions of smaller high schools do not add up to a “firm nationwide consensus” for smaller schools as a reform measure, the researchers said.

When asked to choose what they thought was the best way to improve schools, 27 percent of the parents and 29 percent of the teachers picked reducing class sizes; 26 percent of the parents and 32 percent of the teachers chose improving discipline.

By comparison, 20 percent of the parents and only 14 percent of the teachers picked making schools smaller. Eighteen percent of the parents and 23 percent of the teachers chose raising teacher salaries.

Moreover, the survey revealed some concerns about small schools. For instance, just over half of both parents and teachers said small schools probably have less money for equipment and elective courses.

And 54 percent of the parents and 70 percent of the teachers believe students in small schools probably would have a tough time transferring into another class if they were having a problem with a teacher.

The survey—which has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points— was financed by the Seattle- based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed more than $240 million over the next several years to help districts downsize their high schools.

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