Less Is More

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Why, in the face of the evidence, do policymakers and educators continue to build big schools and expand existing ones.

Over the past half-century, a combination of population growth and school consolidation has led to fewer, but bigger, public schools. Between 1940 and 1990, the number of elementary and secondary schools decreased from 200,000 to 82,000, despite a 70 percent rise in the U.S. population. As a result, the average school enrollment skyrocketed from 127 students to 653.

From 1988 to 1999, elementary schools grew from an average of 433 students to 478. And, in that same period, the number of high schools with more than 1,500 students doubled. In the past 50 years, the percentage of secondary schools enrolling more than 1,000 students has grown from 7 to more than 25 percent.

Districts across the country continue to build and operate large schools even though research, experience, and common sense tell us that one of the most effective ways to improve public education and increase student learning is to create new small schools and break existing large schools into smaller ones.

We know from various studies that students in small schools earn better grades, fail fewer courses, miss fewer days, and are much less likely to drop out than students in large schools. Teachers report greater job satisfaction, collaborate more with each other, and tend to adapt their teaching to student needs. Because teachers and students know each other, there is less violence and disruptive behavior.

Ironically, those kids who need the kind of personalized attention that characterizes small schools usually end up in big schools. Urban high school students, disproportionately poor and minority, are 25 percent more likely than their non-urban counterparts to attend schools of more than 900 students.

So why, in the face of such evidence, do policymakers and educators continue to build big schools and expand existing ones?

The most common reasons given are that small schools are too expensive to operate and large schools offer economies of scale. But research has shown that if cost is calculated on the basis of the percentage of students who actually graduate, small schools are more efficient. That’s because high dropout rates in big schools make them less productive.

We know that small schools work better than big schools, and if we really want better education, we should act on that knowledge.

Advocates of big schools also argue that it would be too costly to abandon existing physical plants and replace them with smaller schools. But five years ago, a federal study found that one-third of the nation’s schools are so desperately in need of repair that the bill for fixing them would exceed $112 billion. So why not knock down these decrepit old “factories” and build small schools instead? That would be a great leap forward.

Another justification for large schools is that they offer students a much broader curriculum. That may be true, but small schools can provide students with varied learning opportunities by taking advantage of such community resources as libraries, art galleries, and museums. Effective use of technology also links kids to a universe of information and knowledge. And mentors and school-to-work programs are not dependent upon the size of a school.

Extracurricular activities are very important, especially for teenagers, and most big schools undoubtedly offer a wide range of them. But smaller schools, by sharing facilities, can collaborate on social and athletic activities; they can form club leagues for sports and help their students get involved in community musical and theatrical programs. In fact, it’s easier to find creative solutions to extracurricular challenges than it is to solve the social and academic problems of big schools.

Simply reducing school size would not be enough to solve all the problems besieging public education. Smaller classes, new roles for teachers and students, more effective use of technology, more parental involvement—these and other interventions also are needed. But we know small schools work better than big schools, and if we really want better education, we should act on that knowledge.

—Ronald A. Wolk

Vol. 13, Issue 4, Page 3

Published in Print: January 1, 2002, as Less Is More
Web Resources
  • Read an overview of the Smaller Learning Communities Program, a U.S. Department of Education initiative designed to "plan, implement or expand smaller learning communities in large high schools."
  • The Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois maintains an information center that provides reports and articles on small school research.
  • "Current Literature on Small Schools," a January 1999 ERIC Digest, reports that "the large-scale quantitative studies of the late 1980s and early 1990s ... firmly established small schools as more productive and effective than large ones."
  • Public Agenda posts a summary of findings from a recent public opinion survey it conducted on the subject of small schools, Sept. 26, 2001. The survey found strong support for small schools among parents and teachers, but noted that " ... many teachers and parents currently see other reforms as more pressing. Seventy percent of teachers, for example, say small class size is more important to student achievement than small school size."
  • Read the executive summary of "Small Schools: Great Strides," June 2000, a report from Bank Street College. The report finds that reconfiguring large urban schools into smaller ones has a positive impact on a number of educational factors. The full report is also available. (Requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader.)
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