ERIC Identifier: ED401088
Publication Date: 1996-12-00
Author: Cotton, Kathleen
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Affective and Social Benefits of Small-Scale Schooling. ERIC
The school consolidation trend that began early in this century continues
into the present, with both schools and districts becoming fewer in number and
larger in size (Howley, 1994; Walberg, 1992). Today, high school enrollments of
2,000 and 3,000 are commonplace, and New York City has many schools with
enrollments approaching 5,000.
Meanwhile, decades of research show that student achievement in small schools
is at least equal--and often superior--to achievement in large schools (Fowler,
1995; Howley, 1994). Moreover, although it is often assumed that large schools
are cheaper to operate and provide richer curricula than small schools, studies
show that neither of these things is necessarily true (Gregory, 1992). In
addition, a large body of research in the affective and social realms
overwhelmingly affirms the superiority of small schools. This Digest describes
While there is no universal agreement about
the numerical limits of small and large schools, "on average, the research
indicates that an effective size for an elementary school is in the range of
300-400 students and that 400-800 students is appropriate for a secondary
school" (Williams 1990, pp. 7-8). These figures should be regarded as pushing
the upper limits, since many investigators conclude that no school should have
more than 400 or 500 students.
Cotton (1996) noted several other characteristics of the research on school
Research on the affective and social effects of school size is extensive and
highly consistent in its findings. Thus, assertions about these effects are
offered with a high degree of confidence.
The research base on the outcomes of school-within-a-school arrangements is
smaller and less conclusive. Assertions about them must therefore be regarded as
Since many small schools are in rural areas, some researchers have designed
studies to find out whether it is the smallness or the ruralness of these
schools that accounts for their positive effects. These studies reveal that it
is the smallness of schools, regardless of setting, that is beneficial to
RESEARCH ON FEELINGS AND ATTITUDES
Considerable effort has gone into studying the relative effects of large and
small schools on student attitudes toward school in general and toward
particular school subjects. This research overwhelmingly favors small schools
(Fowler, 1995; Howley, 1994; Rutter, 1988). In addition, compared to students in
large schools, both the personal and the academic self-concepts of students in
small schools are more positive (Rutter, 1988; Stockard & Mayberry, 1992).
Sense of belonging. Research reveals that, compared to students in large
schools, those in small schools experience a much greater sense of
belonging--sometimes expressed as a lower level of alienation (Fowler &
Walberg, 1991; Gregory, 1992; Stockard & Mayberry, 1992). Closely related to
this finding is the higher quality of interpersonal relations found in small
schools (Fowler & Walberg, 1991; Rutter, 1988). Rutter is representative in
citing "evidence of increases in social bonding to teachers and school,
self-esteem, academic self-concept, locus of control, and sociocentric
reasoning" (p. 31).
Administrator and teacher attitudes. While less school size research has
concentrated on teachers and administrators than on students, what findings
there are favor small schools (Gottfredson, 1985; Gregory, 1992; Stockard &
Mayberry, 1992). These studies focused on administrator attitudes toward work;
teacher attitudes toward work, administration, and one another; and incidences
of cooperation and collaboration among colleagues. Gottfredson (1985) notes that
"large schools appear to promote negative teacher perceptions of school
administration and low staff morale" (p. 39).
RESEARCH ON SOCIAL BEHAVIOR
Students participate in extracurricular activities at significantly higher
levels in small schools than in large ones (Cotton, 1996; Fowler, 1995; Stockard & Mayberry, 1992). Students in small schools are also more likely to
participate in a greater variety of activities and to hold important positions
in the activities in which they are involved. Researchers point out that, in
small schools, everyone is needed to populate teams, offices, and clubs; thus,
even shy and less able students are encouraged to participate and made to feel
they belong. As schools grow larger, opportunities for participation also
grow--but not proportionately: a twentyfold increase in population produces only
a fivefold increase in participation opportunities. Thus, in large schools, a
greater proportion of students do not participate in extracurricular activities,
because they are not needed to fill the available participation slots.
Attendance and dropouts. Not only do students in small schools have higher
attendance rates than those in large schools, but students who move from large
schools to small, alternative secondary schools generally exhibit improvements
in attendance (Fowler, 1995; Fowler & Walberg, 1991; Rutter, 1988).
Regarding dropouts, the holding power of small schools is considerably greater
than that of large schools.
Social disruption. "Behavior problems are so much greater in larger schools,"
report Stockard & Mayberry (1992, p. 47), "that any possible virtue of
larger size is canceled out by the difficulties of maintaining an orderly
learning environment." Studies on social disruption have investigated everything
from truancy and classroom disorder to vandalism, aggressive behavior, theft,
substance abuse, and gang participation. This social research all points to the
same conclusion: Small schools have far fewer behavior problems than large
schools (Gottfredson, 1985; Gregory, 1992; Rutter, 1988).
WHY SMALLER IS BETTER
Educators, researchers, and survey
responses received from teachers, students, and parents suggest several reasons
for the superior performance of small schools. Cotton's 1996 synthesis of 103
studies and reviews describes a number of these underlying conditions. For
example, the need, in small schools, for everyone's involvement in school
activities appears to be related to other social and affective areas. People in
small schools come to know and care about one another to a greater degree than
is possible in large schools, and rates of parent involvement are higher. Staff
and students are found to have a stronger sense of personal efficacy.
Small-school students tend to take more of the responsibility for their own
learning, learning activities are more likely to be individualized, classes are
typically smaller, and scheduling is much more flexible.
Many practices common in small schools are in operation largely because they
are much easier to implement and manage in small environments than in large
ones. Looking at instructional practices in small schools, researchers find that
teachers are more likely to form teaching teams, integrate their subject-matter
content, employ multiage grouping and cooperative learning, and use performance
assessments. Finally, small schools tend to exhibit greater emphasis on learning
that is experiential and relevant to the world outside of school.
SCHOOL SIZE AND EDUCATIONAL EQUITY
We know that the states
with the largest schools and school districts have the worst achievement,
affective, and social outcomes (Jewel, 1989; Walberg, 1992). We also know that
the students who stand to benefit most from small schools are economically
disadvantaged and minority students. To put it another way, these students
experience the greatest amount of harm from attending large schools (Cotton,
1996; Fowler, 1995; Howley, 1994; Lee & Smith, 1996). Yet, these are the
very students who are primarily concentrated in large schools within large
school districts (Jewell, 1989; Lee & Smith, 1996). Jewell writes,
If minority students must struggle more to achieve a solid public
education and if large districts and large schools find it increasingly
difficult to achieve solid educational results for their students, we
may be acting contrary to the interests of all concerned by organizing
our public education system in a manner which assigns high proportions
of minority youngsters to large schools within very large school
districts. (p. 152)
In an attempt to reap at least
some of the benefits of small schools, some educators and parent groups have
launched school-within-a-school arrangements, in which large schools are divided
into two or more subunits. In vertical house plans, students in grades 9-12 or
10-12 are assigned to groups of a few hundred each within a large high school.
In ninth grade house plans, the ninth graders in large high schools have their
own "house" with various support services to ease the transition into high
school. In special curriculum schools, students are organized into houses based
on special interests or needs. In charter schools, groups of parents and/or
teachers spearhead efforts to provide a special curriculum focus for which they
have recognized a need. And there are other school-within-a-school variations.
A growing body of research suggests that school-within-a-school plans have
potential for producing results like those associated with small schools
provided they are distinct administrative entities within the buildings that
house them. "The major challenge to schools within schools," writes Mary Ann
Raywid, "has been obtaining sufficient separateness and autonomy to permit staff
members to generate a distinctive environment and to carry out their own vision
of schooling" (1985, p. 455).
Although the professional literature supports
educating children in small schools, the consolidation trend continues to create
large schools. This is because factors other than student results--political,
economic, social, and demographic factors--typically drive decisions about
school size. While such a trend would be difficult to reverse, the research
indicates that it would be well worth the effort.
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and student performance. Close-up #20. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional
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Fowler, W. J., Jr., & Walberg, H. J. (1991). School size,
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Rutter, R. A. (1988). Effects of school as a community. Madison, WI: National
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Stockard, J., & Mayberry, M. (1992). Effective educational environments.
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