One widely recognized challenge facing small schools is their ability to maintain a broad curriculum with a diversity of course offerings. By contrast, one of the alleged benefits of "bigness" is breadth of the core curriculum, vocational offerings, special services, and extracurricular opportunities. Evidence presented in this Digest will illustrate that many small high schools maintain programs in these areas that are comparable in quality to curricula of larger schools. In cases where deficiencies have existed, many small schools have achieved curricular adequacy through various restructuring efforts, including integration of curricula, innovative scheduling, higher education cooperatives, interdistrict sharing, and use of instructional technologies.
What do we mean by "small"? While there is no accepted definition of the "small" high school, institutions enrolling fewer than 400 pupils in grades 9-12 (100 students per graduating class) are generally considered small. In 1993-94, approximately one out of every three public high schools in the United States fell into this size category (NCES, 1995, see table at end of Digest).
Researchers have found, however, that core curricular offerings in small high school settings overall are well aligned with national goals (Barker, 1985). Moreover, Haller, Monk, Spotted Bear, Griffith, and Moss (1990) found that high schools enrolling as few as 100 to 200 students offer base courses in core curricular areas such as mathematics and science at rates comparable to high schools enrolling between 1,200 and 1,600 students.
Another common concern regarding the core curriculum in small high schools is the availability of advanced courses, such as calculus and advanced placement English. While researchers have found that there is less incidence of advanced courses in the smallest high schools (Haller et al., 1990), large size is no guarantee that such courses will be offered or that student enrollments in these courses will be high (Monk, 1986).
Extracurricular opportunities in small high schools are less extensive than in large high schools. Small high schools have fewer clubs and athletic teams and may not support full orchestras or marching bands. Nevertheless, student participation rates are greater in smaller high schools than in larger high schools and individual students in smaller settings are involved in a greater diversity of activities (Schoggen & Schoggen, 1988).
Although difficult to develop and maintain, interdistrict pooling of instructional resources and the use of distance education and other technologies can serve to broaden educational opportunities for students in small schools. Collaboration and sharing among schools and school districts is particularly common in efforts to expand vocational and special services curricula. Advances in computer and video technologies have permitted many rural school districts to electronically import courses otherwise unavailable in the school system at a cost of one third to one half of a resident teacher's salary (Smith, 1990). Computerized learning programs, interactive television, and Internet access are additional resources that can enhance the curriculum of small high schools. Success has been reported in using these technologies to provide advanced placement and college credit courses as well as instructional services for students with special needs (Regional Laboratory for Educational Improvement of the Northeast and Islands, 1994).
1. A common academic curriculum. Student achievement gains were found in schools with a common academic curriculum, where course offerings are narrow and academic content is strong.
2. High levels of academic press. This curriculum expectation centers on the notion that all students will meet high academic standards and devote considerable effort to academic endeavors.
3. Authentic instruction. Students are engaged in sustained, disciplined, and critical thought through a variety of instructional approaches, such as independent study, project-based learning, and real-world problem solving.
Small high school size does not, in and of itself, guarantee a high quality curriculum; it does appear to facilitate its development. Proponents of reducing the size and scope of schooling operations are careful to point out that structural change (e.g., creating smaller schools, schools-within-schools, house plans, etc.) will not succeed in improving curricular opportunities for students without a committed group of teachers, a supportive (and perhaps independent) administration, a more flexible central authority, and adequate resources (Lee et al., 1995; Meier, 1995; Raywid, 1996).
Practitioners, researchers, and policy makers continue to struggle with the question, "How big does a high school have to be to offer a comprehensive curriculum?" A seemingly more relevant question may be, "What are the conditions that facilitate curricular adequacy and quality within all high schools?" It seems clear that as the educational community attempts to answer this question, the structural feature of school size will be central to the discussion.
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