ERIC Identifier: ED372897
Publication Date: 1994-06-00
Author: Howley, Craig
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
The Academic Effectiveness of Small-Scale Schooling (An
Update). ERIC Digest.
THE POSITIVE EFFECTS of small school size on attitudes and satisfaction,
extracurricular participation, attachment to school, and attendance have been
confirmed by decades of research findings (Fowler, 1992). But researchers
continue to investigate the unique influence of school and district size on
student achievement. The results have generally pointed to a negative
relationship between size and academic achievement. All else held equal, small
schools have evident advantages for achievement, at least among disadvantaged
students (Friedkin & Necochea, 1988; Huang & Howley, 1993).
EMPIRICAL STUDIES OF ACHIEVEMENT AND SIZE
During the past
decade researchers have continued to pursue several lines of inquiry about the
possible effects of school and district size on the cognitive outcomes of
schooling. When all else is held equal (particularly community or individual
socioeconomic status), comparisons of schools and districts based on differences
in enrollment generally favor smaller units.
Early studies that examined school size tried to determine an "optimum" size
for both elementary and secondary schools. The most interesting feature of this
research was the difference in recommendations based on studies of "input" (for
example, costs and teachers' credentials) versus studies of "output" (for
example, achievement and attainment). Input studies determined that schools
needed to be about twice the size as did output studies. That is, even the early
studies did not recommend dramatic increases in school size as a means of
improving student achievement (Howley, 1989).
Recent studies uncover a negative relationship between school (or district)
size and student achievement (Fetler, 1989; Friedkin & Necochea, 1988; Huang
& Howley, 1993; Plecki, 1991; Walberg, 1989). The advantage might come from
the effect of small size on the achievement of disadvantaged students. Huang and
Howley (1993), studying individual student achievement, found that small
elementary schools benefited disadvantaged students most (by weakening the
negative influence of background characteristics). Friedkin and Necochea (1988),
studying both schools (elementary and secondary) and school districts in
California, found that community socioeconomic status (SES) exerted a consistent
mediating effect on school-level and district-level aggregate achievement.
Students in low-SES communities performed much better in small schools, whereas
students in high-SES communities performed somewhat better in large schools.
Most studies have relied on standardized achievement tests, which are reputed
to focus on basic skills. But perhaps large schools do a better job teaching
higher-order thinking skills than small schools, a hypothesis that Haller, Monk,
and Tien (1993) examined in a recent study. With higher-order performance items
as the measure of achievement, the researchers found no significant difference
in the performance of students in small rural high schools and larger high
schools in more urbanized areas.
THE ISSUE OF ATTAINMENT
In the 19th century, learning to
read and cipher constituted literacy (Brown, 1993). Whether through schooling or
informal efforts, instruction commonly ended with the acquisition of functional
reading, writing, and mathematics skills--what Brown calls "shopkeeper skills."
But expectations changed as the urban, industrial economic base grew. In the
20th century, to become educated increasingly meant attending school for a
longer and longer time. Apprenticeships and other informal provisions declined
as common routes to an education.
Indeed, proportional increases in school enrollment since 1900 can be
attributed solely to the growing creation and use of high schools (data based on
National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 1993, Table 8). In 1900,
American high schools graduated 2.8 students per 1,000 children aged 5-17, as
compared to 51.2 in 1990. The change constitutes an 18-fold increase, whereas
the increase in enrollment (grades 9-12, on the same population basis) was just
10-fold. That is, truly astounding improvements in completion rates outstripped
dramatic improvements in enrollment rates.
Today, completing high school has almost become an incumbency of citizenship,
and an incomplete high school experience has become a mark of personal and
institutional failure. Seldom do we consider what a profound shift this change
in attitude represents for civilization--and in the lives of children and youth.
HIGH SCHOOL MATTERS
Small school size is associated with
lower high school dropout rates (e.g., Kleinfeld, McDiarmid, & Hagstrom,
1989; Toenjes,1989). Pittman and Haughwout (1987) attribute much of this effect
to high school social climate, especially as reflected in the level of student
participation in school activities. High rates of student participation long
have been recognized as one of the strengths of smaller high schools (e.g.,
Barker & Gump, 1964).
In this light, it is not surprising that the "dropout problem" should so
often figure as a challenge for urban (especially inner-city) educators. Of the
nearly 4,100 regular public high schools that enroll 1,000 students or more,
only 20 percent are located in rural areas and small towns (NCES, 1992). Rural
dropout rates are substantially lower than those in urban areas--nearly the
same, in fact, as those in the much more affluent suburban areas (see NCES,
1993, Indicator 6, Table 1).
Interestingly, even with socioeconomic status controlled, high dropout rates
are also related to lower student achievement among students who do not drop out
(Fetler, 1989). Thus, at the high school level, achievement (among students
retained) and attainment (or dropping out) seem to influence one another and may
be related to student participation. Dropping out can be understood as the
ultimate refusal to participate in anything, academic or social, offered by a
In spite of the apparent benefits of small school size for adolescents,
policymakers still employ a powerful rationale to justify the continued creation
of larger high schools. The charge is made that small high schools cannot
provide a curriculum with adequate breadth and depth to meet students' diverse
needs. Available evidence suggests that this criticism is often exaggerated
(Haller, Monk, Spotted Bear, Griffith, & Moss, 1990). In general, Monk and
colleagues have suggested that a total enrollment of 400 students is actually
sufficient to allow a high school to provide an adequate curriculum (e.g., Monk,
They note, moreover, that this size threshold merely presents a good
opportunity to provide an adequate curriculum. It does not ensure actual
provision. In other words, whether or not a high school actually provides an
adequately broad and deep curriculum depends on leadership. Whatever the size of
the school, school personnel can ensure that appropriate courses are provided to
meet evident "needs" (depending on the characteristics of communities and
students)--or, as is not uncommon, they can fail to do so. The 400-student
threshold merely makes it easier for good leadership to fulfill its
responsibilities with respect to depth and breadth of course offerings.
But the nature of an "adequate" curriculum is also at issue. The national
studies suggest one standard: the presence of a range of specialized academic
and vocational courses from remedial to advanced levels (Haller et al., 1993).
For communities operating very small high schools (i.e., those with fewer than
400 students), the shopping-mall high school may not, however, be at all
responsive to local circumstances. For instance, a much more narrowly focused
academic curriculum can produce high levels of achievement even when enrollments
are quite small (Brown, 1993). This model may account for the success of
Catholic high schools, which, especially in urban areas, are much smaller than
their public counterparts.
Grade-span configuration (which grades a school includes) may also influence
achievement, according to Wihry, Coladarci, and Meadow (1992). Controlling for
SES, these researchers compared the performance of eighth-grade students in
various configurations and concluded that an elementary K-8 setting was the most
favorable to achievement, whereas a secondary setting (junior-senior high) was
the least favorable. Unfortunately, DeYoung, Howley, and Theobald (forthcoming)
suggest that, at least in rural areas, small K-8 schools are disappearing as a
result of the construction of consolidated middle schools.
PROSPECTS FOR COMMUNITY
If restructuring truly is an aim of
school reform, then the scale of schooling is a major structural issue. Thus, it
is not too surprising that mention should be made of the role of small size by
astute critics. John Goodlad, Theodore Sizer, Henry Levin, Fred Newmann, Torsten
Husen, and Terrel Bell have all pointed to smaller school and district size as a
way to help the institution of schooling become more responsive to students.
In a recent address to the American Educational Research Association,
however, Sergiovanni (1993) called on educators to "change the metaphor" used to
describe schooling. Sergiovanni called on administrators to stop regarding the
school as an organization and start regarding it as a community. Community
emphasizes naturalistic over mechanistic relationships among the people involved
in schooling. Under the terms of this metaphor, learning is "nurtured" or
"cultivated"; it is not a "product" or an "output." Most interestingly, and
perhaps most radically, Sergiovanni proclaimed a school enrollment of 300 as the
largest that could sustain a true educational community.
The features of bureaucracy (for example, impersonality, rules and
regulation, technical specialization, and formal hierarchies) have come to
characterize many realms of life, including schooling, in the wake of the
industrial revolution. According to Brown (1993), however, the techniques,
language, and ways of thinking associated with bureaucracy exert a powerful
influence on behavior--to the detriment of a true education.
Alternatives to large, impersonal, bureaucratic organizations do exist, as
Brown notes. Nonetheless, the prospects for widely developing a sense of
community in restructured, more personally-scaled schools are not clear. Brown
insists that it depends on realizing educational experiences different from
those that have prevailed for most of this century.
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