ERIC Identifier: ED401089
Publication Date: 1996-12-00
Author: Howley, Craig
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Ongoing Dilemmas of School Size: A Short Story. ERIC Digest.
Recent national reports reinforce the growing perception that small schools
are good schools. Is this new appreciation the result of changing fashion? Is it
the latest fad in schooling? Does solid research suggest the superiority of
small schools, and if so, how is it possible that the truth about school size
could have been altered so dramatically in the space of a single generation?
It turns out that issues of size are not likely to be captured in universal
guidelines. An appreciation of the history of the dilemmas of school size can
help educators, citizens, and policy makers understand why.
REVOLUTION OR IRONY?
The new appreciation of small schools
must seem like a revolution to educators and policy makers who have devoted
careers to building large and modern schools throughout the United States and
Canada. Curiously, as a national phenomenon, most of this new appreciation is
based on reports from urban, rather than rural, schools (e.g., Husen, 1985;
Meier, 1995; National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1996; Newmann & Wehlage, 1995; Oxley, 1994).
From the perspective of rural citizens, however, the new appreciation must
seem more ironic than revolutionary. To this day rural communities in North
America struggle to retain their small schools. In these cases, state or
provincial education agencies continue to close small schools and create larger
ones for the sake of alleged cost-efficiency and curricular breadth (DeYoung,
1995; Howley, 1996; Mulcahy, 1996; Theobald, 1995).
TWO CONCERNS: ADMINISTRATION AND INSTRUCTION
research literature about school and district size in North America comes from a
period prior to 1925. Though research methods would be judged naive and
inadequate by contemporary standards, this literature shelters an important
lesson. Common justifications for building larger schools and closing smaller
ones were administrative and instructional. The administrative motive keeps
economy of scale in view--the idea that larger units can use staff and other
resources more efficiently. The instructional motive tends to pay greater
attention to the effectiveness of education. The two motives lead to quite
different suggestions about school size.
These two perspectives are illustrated early in the 20th century by
contemporaries Ellwood Cubberley and Joseph Kennedy. Cubberley's work is better
remembered because it was the stronger influence on subsequent 20th century
school reform. At the time they wrote, around 1915, North America was still a
mostly rural domain.
Cubberley. Cubberley was a leading professor and former urban superintendent;
he and his colleagues were engaged in an important urban project--creating
schools for swelling, diverse populations in an industrializing America.
Cubberley (1922) championed rural school consolidation on this basis.
Cubberley's idea was that pupil-teacher ratios could be increased in
consolidated schools, longer terms could be held, transportation could be
provided, and rural-appropriate curriculum could be consistently offered to farm
children (today, of course, farming is no longer synonymous with "rural").
Schools and districts could be led and supervised by professional education
administrators, whose presence would exert the influence of informed opinion and
scientific knowledge in rural communities. Cubberley's rural agenda placed a
premium on large school size. In essence, the question Cubberley always asked
was "How large a school can be created?"
Kennedy. Kennedy was dean of the school of education at North Dakota State
University, and his 1915 book, Rural Life and the Rural School, is rooted in
Kennedy's own rural experience. Kennedy's question about size differed sharply
from Cubberley's. His underlying question was something like this: "What is the
lower limit of school size?" In the rural circumstance, it made sense to ask how
small schools could be and still remain pedagogically viable. He wrote,
It might happen, as it frequently does, that a school is already
sufficiently large, active, and enthusiastic to make it inadvisable to
give up its identity and become merged in the larger consolidated
school. If there are twenty or thirty children and an efficient teacher
we have the essential factors of a good school[emphasis added].
(Kennedy, 1914, p. 64)
SCHOOLS AS RECOGNIZABLE INSTITUTIONS
The two guiding
questions about size are salient today. In fact, the two questions can be
combined: What are the upper and lower enrollment limits of an effective or
Restated in this way, we can see that the questions actually represent the
idea that schools share certain features that lead us to recognize them as
schools and not something else. An institution intended to be a school, but
which is too large, or too small, ceases thereby to be a school. The smallest
"schools" may look like (or be) families and the largest "schools" may look like
(or be) factories or prisons.
Unlike Cubberley and his contemporary readers, North Americans today
understand that schools can be too large to perform effectively or even
efficiently (e.g., NASSP, 1996). Interest in home-schooling, however,
demonstrates that many North Americans are willing to allow that families can
provide school-like experiences.
The lurking issue of upper and lower
limits has usually tended to resolve itself in the search for optimal school
size: What is the one-best size (or size range) for public elementary, junior
high, and senior high schools? Usually, this one-best size or size range was not
thought of as relative to circumstances, but was regarded as a sort of natural
The relativism of optimal size. In recent decades, however, some researchers
have dismissed the search for optimal size as naive or misdirected. In their
view, the most suitable size for a school is likely to vary from place to place
(see in particular the extensive work of David Monk and Emil Haller).
An emerging line of evidence suggests that a community's relative poverty or
affluence is a likely indicator of size-relevant variability (Friedkin &
Necochea, 1988; Howley, 1996; Plecki, 1991). In this line of research, school
sizes associated with high levels of student achievement appear to be tied to
the socioeconomic status of a community. Small schools are found to provide an
achievement advantage for impoverished students, but not for affluent students,
who may fare better in larger schools.
These findings are a challenge for school administration and educational
policy, since additional evidence suggests that expenditures (per pupil or
overall) exhibit a U-shaped association with size, with the largest and smallest
schools showing diseconomies of scale (Fox, 1980). Not only are small schools
more expensive to maintain on a per-pupil basis, but impoverished communities
confront problems unimaginable to many affluent communities, and they do so with
fewer resources. Taken together, the findings suggest that administrators and
policy makers need to find ways to sustain and improve small schools in
impoverished communities if they really expect all children to learn at high
Rural challenges. Distance and topography often compound the challenges of
large size in rural areas. Many rural schools have been closed; students
typically endure long bus rides; and parents must travel long distances if they
are to participate in school events. Widespread rural poverty also means that
increases in school size--as in urban areas--may be educationally
counterproductive in precisely the places most likely to be consolidation
targets (e.g., Howley, 1996). Sustainable Small Schools: A Handbook for Rural
Communities, edited by Craig B. Howley and Jon Eckman (1997), published by this
Clearinghouse, can help rural community members grapple with these challenges.
Urban challenges. In urban communities, however, huge schools were created
earlier in the century. In many communities changes in residential patterns have
turned large, middle-class schools into large schools attended by impoverished
students. Too many of these schools have become dysfunctional, serving society,
individuals, and the local community badly. In cities, large schools can achieve
a scale rarely found in rural areas, simply as a result of population density.
Meier's (1995) The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School
in Harlem considers the reasons for and ways of creating and nurturing small
schools in cities.
The danger of simulations. Is there anything magical about size that it
should embody these dilemmas and pose these challenges? The answer is a guarded
"yes." Size is the chief structural feature of an organization. That means we
should expect it to influence lives (cf. Meier, 1995). If size is a structural
phenomenon, however, caution is warranted in approaching the simulation of small
size through such mechanisms as "schools-within-schools" and "house plans"
(Meier, 1995; Oxley, 1994; Raywid, 1996). In general, despite substantial
popularity, research on the effectiveness of simulating small size as a way to
restructure is very limited (Raywid, 1996).
Deborah Meier (1995) suggests that such simulations are not likely to realize
the benefits of small organizational scale. Separate buildings are not a
requirement, says Meier; but separate leadership and independent authority are.
Quite likely, an essential characteristic of the institution we call "school" is
an independence similar to the sovereignty of nations (cf. Raywid, 1996).
NO SIMPLE ANSWERS
Practitioners, citizens, and policy
makers need to appreciate the complexity involved with considerations of size.
More and more it seems that small schools hold particular promise for helping
impoverished students maximize their potential to achieve academically. This
hardly means that small schools are the best choice for all students under all
Cubberley, E. (1922). Rural life and education:
A study of the rural-school problem as a phase of the rural-life problem (Rev.
ed.). New York: Houghton-Mifflin. (ED 392 559, original work published 1915)
DeYoung, A. (1995). The life and death of a rural American high school:
Farewell, Little Kanawha. New York: Garland.
Fox, W. (1980). Relationships between size of schools and school districts
and the cost of education. Washington, DC: Economics, Statistics, and
Cooperatives Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. (ED 187 029)
Friedkin, N., & Necochea, J. (1988). School system size and performance:
A contingency perspective. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 10(3),
Howley, C. (1996). Compounding disadvantage: Consolidation and the effects of
school and district size on student achievement in West Virginia. Journal of
Research in Rural Education, 12(1), 25-32.
Husen, T. (1985). The school in the achievement-oriented society: Crisis and
reform. Phi Delta Kappan, 66(6), 398-402.
Kennedy, J. (1914). Rural life and the rural school. New York: American Book
Company. (ED 392 561)
Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas: Lessons for America from a small
school in Harlem. Boston: Beacon Press.
Mulcahy, D. (1996, October). Reforming small schools out of existence: A
Canadian example. Presentation at the annual meeting of the National Rural
Education Association, San Antonio, TX. (Dennis Mulcahy, Memorial University,
St. Johns, Newfoundland, can be contacted at [email protected])
National Association of Secondary School Principals. (1996). Breaking ranks:
Changing an American institution. Reston, VA: Author. (ED 393 205)
Newmann, F., & Wehlage, G. (1995). Successful school restructuring: A
report to the public and educators by the Center on Organization and
Restructuring of Schools. Madison, WI: Center on Organization and Restructuring
of Schools. (ED 387 925)
Oxley, D. (1994). Organizing schools into small units: Alternatives to
Homogeneous grouping. Phi Delta Kappan, 75(7), 521-526.
Plecki, M. (1991, April). The relationship between elementary school size and
student achievement. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American
Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL. (ERIC/CRESS Accession No. RC 019
Raywid, M. (1996). Taking stock: The movement to create mini-schools,
schools-within-schools, and other small schools. New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Theobald, P. (1995). Call school: Rural education in the Midwest to 1918.
Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Note: This digest is part of a series on current issues related to small
schools. For broader syntheses of the literature see Fowler (1992, ED 347 675),
Stockard and Mayberry (1992, ED 350 674), and Cotton (1996, RC 020 728, ED
number forthcoming), as well as other ERIC digests on small schools, school
size, and learning environments in general. As of June 1996, the ERIC database
(1966-1996) comprises 480 resources with "school size" as a major topic,
including 130 research reports, of which approximately 65 have been published in
the journal literature.