ERIC Identifier: ED425049
Publication Date: 1999-01-00
Author: Raywid, Mary Anne
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Current Literature on Small Schools. ERIC Digest.
This Digest presents a brief overview of research literature on the
effectiveness of small schools. It then describes current topics researchers
have begun to explore, including discussion of associated policy issues,
individual successes and failures, and essential elements and other
implementation considerations. The Digest also overviews a substantial amount of
school reform literature that interweaves smallness with other school
proposals--sometimes simply presupposing it. In exploring and categorizing
various reports, this summary is both broader and narrower than some other
research Digests. First, because it attempts coverage of recent discussion of
small schools, it cites contemporary news analysis as well as more formal
research. Second, due to space limitations, it trades depth for breadth and does
not undertake to weigh conflicting reports and conclusions nor to resolve
questions still under dispute.
OVERVIEW OF RECENT RESEARCH ON EFFECTIVENESS OF SMALL
The small schools literature began with the large-scale quantitative
studies of the late 1980s and early 1990s that firmly established small schools
as more productive and effective than large ones. These studies, involving large
numbers of students, schools, and districts, confirmed that students learn more
and better in small schools (Lee & Smith, 1995). Students make more rapid
progress toward graduation (McMullan, Sipe, & Wolf, 1994). They are more
satisfied with small schools, and fewer of them drop out than from larger
schools (Pittman & Haughwout, 1987). Students behave better in smaller
schools, which thus experience fewer instances of both minor and serious
infractions (Stockard & Mayberry, 1992). All of this is particularly true
for disadvantaged students, who perform far differently in small schools and
appear more dependent upon them for success than do more fortunate youngsters
(Lee & Smith, 1995).
All of these things we have confirmed with a clarity and at a level of
confidence rare in the annals of education research. As one researcher summed it
up, "a large body of research in the affective and social realms overwhelmingly
affirms the superiority of small schools" (Cotton, 1996b). Another researcher
noted that size exerts a "unique influence" on students' academic
accomplishment, with a strong negative relationship linking the two: the larger
the school, the lower the students' achievement levels (Howley,1994).
Such quantitative studies have built an impressive case for smallness. And a
number of literature syntheses and reviews have now displayed the findings of
such extensive studies and the advantages of small schools (e.g., Cotton, 1996a;
Gladden, 1998). As these studies-of-studies show, it is rare indeed to find
empirical support or justification for the large high school. Even those few
studies citing positive benefits of large schools for some students (e.g.,
Friedkin & Necochea, 1988; Howley, 1995) find such benefits to be of far
less magnitude than are the disadvantages of such schools for many others
NEW DIRECTIONS IN SMALL SCHOOLS RESEARCH
Having now built a
strong quantitative case for the benefits of small schools, more recent
literature has moved on to other things. One of the policy questions still being
debated is, "How big is small?" The recent Cross City Campaign for Urban School
Reform set the limits at 350 students for elementary schools and 500 for high
schools (Fine & Somerville, 1998). A 1990 study of school size research
recommended up to 800 students for high schools (Williams, 1990). The National
Association of Secondary School Principals recommended a limit of 600 for
secondary schools (1996), yet two researchers who correlated size and test score
performance came up with 600-900 as the size that works best (Lee & Smith,
1997). In general, those who emphasize the importance of the school as a
community tend to set enrollment limits lower than do those who emphasize
academic effectiveness, at least as measured by test scores.
Other policy issues discussed in the small schools literature include
governance and costs. Small diversified schools and schools-within-schools
require a different sort of accountability than that in a governance system
designed to control and coordinate large uniform units (Hallett, 1995). Tensions
appear both at the system level with middle management (Darling-Hammond, Ancess,
McGregor, & Zuckerman, 1995; Meier, 1998) and at the school level with
building administrators (Hendrie, 1998a; Hendrie, 1998b; Raywid, 1996a).
Realizing the promise small schools offer requires more than controlling the
size, it is also a matter of adopting a focus for the school (Gladden, 1998) and
of restructuring practices and arrangements in the school and at the system
level (Hallett, 1995; Lee, Smith & Croninger, 1997).
Another policy issue pertains to equity, both among schools and among
students. This involves considering whether the small schools enjoy advantages
others do not--more selectivity, more motivated students, more cooperative
families, more and better resources. A recent study of New York's famed District
4 credited the small schools there with having raised achievement levels
throughout, not just in the small schools. Thus, the researchers concluded,
critics' fears of creating a system of haves and have nots had not been realized
(Teske, Schneider, Marschall, & Roch, 1997). A study of neighboring District
3 found that its small diversified middle schools were drawing students from
across neighborhoods and decreasing the number of racially isolated schools
within the district (Raywid & Kottkamp, 1996).
The issue of relative costs is receiving attention, and a first cost-benefit
analysis of New York's small schools found them to be a good value, with "the
quite small additional budgets...well worth the improved outputs." (Stiefel,
Latarola, Fruchter, & Berne, 1998, p. 18). When viewed on a
cost-per-student-enrolled basis, they are somewhat more expensive. But when
examined on the basis of the number of students they graduate, they are "less"
expensive than either medium-sized or large high schools. (These findings hold
true for the small academic and alternative schools, but not for the more costly
"last chance" alternatives or vocational schools.)
Other policy questions surfacing in the literature, as well as in public
discourse, include the role of unions in relation to small schools and their
needs (e.g., whether teacher selection is to be by colleagues instead of by
seniority). And we are seeing demands that small schools research findings be
honored in political decisions (Carnes, 1996).
Analyses (e.g., Ancess, 1998; Anderson, 1998; Fine & Somerville, 1998;
Raywid, 1994, 1996a) are beginning to appear of the essential elements of small
schools and the traits associated with success. Lists differ, though common
themes are clearly discernible. Advocates of Chicago's Small Schools list
self-selection of the faculty, some degree of autonomy, a cohesive pedagogical
approach, and an inclusive admissions policy (Anderson, 1998). The Cross City
Campaign for Urban School Reform urges small schools to have a full curriculum,
a cohesive learning environment, a staff selected at the site, a culture
supportive of teachers, accountability focused on student achievement, control
over educational and budgetary decisions, and a nontracked program equipping all
students for the option of college or work (Fine & Somerville, 1998). There
is also advice on planning and launching a new small school (Ancess, 1998;
A number of case studies of particular small schools have been undertaken;
many bear out the large-scale quantitative studies cited earlier. Other in-depth
studies of individual small schools are being published to display specific
features and attributes. For instance, a work on authentic assessment contains
studies of four of New York's small schools--Central Park East Secondary School,
International High School, P.S. 261, and the Bronx New School--and of
Wilmington, Delaware's Hodgson Vocational Technical High School
(Darling-Hammond, Ancess & Falk, 1995). A work on neoinstitutional theory
includes a detailed study of an unsuccessful school-within-a-school effort as an
illustrative case (Raywid, 1996b).
Small schools increasingly turn up in school reform literature, such as the
National Association of Secondary School Principals' "Breaking Ranks: Changing
An American Institution" (1996), which makes smallness an essential element. The
Carnegie Corporation of New York's "Turning Points" also recommends "small
communities for learning" (1989, p. 9). And Tom Sergiovanni, who has argued that
schools must change their self-image and governing metaphor from organization to
community, makes size a pivotal condition (1996). Similarly, much of the
discussion of themed schools and focus schools presumes a small school, as does
much of the literature on teacher empowerment (see, e.g., Raywid, 1994).
Many find instructional reform of virtually any sort to be contingent upon
small school size (e.g., Vulliamy & Webb, 1995; Roellke, 1996). In some
cities, small schools have also come to be associated with a powerful form of
accountability, as large failing schools are phased out and replaced by several
separate and independent small schools. As this sampling attests, smallness has
been interwoven with many of today's reform themes, and with other features and
conditions currently recommended for schools. Interest in and examination of
small schools appear to be thriving.
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