ERIC Identifier: ED414615
Publication Date: 1997-07-00
Author: Irmsher, Karen
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
School Size. ERIC Digest, Number 113.
There is a natural predilection in American education toward enormity," said
William Fowler (1992), "and it does not serve schools well."
During the last forty years, schools with thousands of students have become
common. Among these are countless consolidations of small rural schools.
Many researchers trace the large-school trend back to a book written in 1967
by James Bryant Conant, then president of Harvard. In it, he concluded that
larger schools (over 750 students) can offer more comprehensive instructional
programs of greater quality at lower costs than smaller schools.
At that time, Craig Howley (1994) notes, middle-class students predominated
in large urban schools. Since then, residential patterns have changed,
overburdening large innercity schools with impoverished students and all the
dysfunction they bring.
For decades few educators questioned these notions, but now the tide is
turning. This Digest summarizes some recent research findings related to school
HAVE LARGER SCHOOLS PRODUCED GREATER ACADEMIC SUCCESS AT LOWER COSTS?
In short, the answer is no, but with one qualification:
Howley (1994) reports evidence that students in high socioeconomic status
communities perform better in larger schools. Small size seems to benefit
minority and low-income students more than middle- and upper-class students, say
Valerie E. Lee and Julia B. Smith 1996. Many of the nation's largest high
schools are in urban areas having high concentrations of disadvantaged students,
who are ill served by large school size.
Michael Klonsky (1995), Mary Anne Raywid (1995), and others report that large
school size hurts attendance and dampens enthusiasm for involvement in school
activities. Large schools have lower grade averages and standardized-test scores
coupled with higher dropout rates and more problems with violence, security, and
Lee and Smith (1996) found that savings projected by proponents of school
consolidation have not materialized. Instead of long-assumed economies of scale,
they discovered diseconomies, or penalties of scale. Large schools need more
layers of support and administrative staff to handle the increased bureaucratic
It is also important to consider how costs-per-student are calculated.
Standard operating costs are usually computed by dividing the total amount spent
by the number of students enrolled. But when cost-effectiveness judgments are
based instead on the figure derived by dividing dollars spent by number of
students graduating, the results are entirely different. Fowler and others found
that although large schools offer greater curricular variety, only a small
percentage of students take advantage of advanced and alternative classes.
Large schools offer more specialized programs for disadvantaged and disabled
youth, but students in these programs are more likely to feel cut off from the
school culture. In fact, in large schools social stratification is the norm.
Athletic and academic stars reap the benefits of daily close contact with
adults. However, the other 70 to 80 percent of students belong to social groups
that include no adults (Deborah Meier 1995). Large schools function more like
bureaucracies, small schools more like communities. Klonsky concludes that large
schools generally "correlate with inefficiency, institutional bureaucracy, and
IN WHAT RESPECTS ARE SMALL SCHOOLS MORE BENEFICIAL?
higher percentage of students, across all socioeconomic levels, are successful
when they are part of smaller, more intimate learning communities. Females,
nonwhites, and special-needs students, whether at risk, gifted, exceptional, or
disadvantaged, are all better served by small schools. Security improves and
violence decreases, as does student alcohol and drug abuse.
Small school size encourages teachers to innovate and students to
participate, resulting in greater commitment for both groups. More positive
attitudes and greater satisfaction are reflected in higher grades and test
scores, improved attendance rates, and lowered dropout rates.
Deborah Meier (1996) cites seven reasons why schools of 300 to 400 students
1. GOVERNANCE. Communication is easier when the whole staff can meet around
one common table.
2. RESPECT. Students and teachers get to know each other well.
3. SIMPLICITY. Less bureaucracy makes it easier to individualize.
4. SAFETY. Strangers are easily spotted and teachers can respond quickly to
rudeness or frustration.
5. PARENT INVOLVEMENT. Parents are more likely to form alliances with
teachers who know their child and care about his or her progress.
6. ACCOUNTABILITY. No one needs bureaucratic data to find out how a student,
a teacher, or the school is doing. Everyone knows.
7. BELONGING. Every student, not just the academic and athletic stars, is
part of a community that contains adults.
"Relationships are cross-disciplinary, cross-generational, and cross
everything else," notes Meier (1996). "Kids don't just know the adults they
naturally like, or the ones who naturally like them. They may hate some
grown-ups and love others, but they recognize everyone as members of the same
DOES SIZE ALONE MAKE A MAJOR DIFFERENCE?
cannot, by itself, guarantee that school transformation will unfold or that
marvelous teacher and student performance will occur. Change is always
difficult, especially when top-down mandates force teachers to make changes for
which they are not adequately prepared. Or when teachers are asked to work
double time, operating within their old system while creating a new one.
Meier, Raywid, and others agree that small schools have the best chance at
success when they are permitted to become separate, autonomous, distinctive
entities with a well-defined culture. Other factors influencing success included
curricula developed around a theme or focus; tendency toward collaborative
governance; voluntary participation of teachers and students; and collaboration
with organizations and agencies outside the school.
"The benefits sought by downsizing efforts," states Raywid (1995), "appear
contingent upon the ability of the subunits or subschools to establish a
collective identity, projecting clear, identifiable boundaries and displaying
perceptible differences-palpable to students-from whatever lies beyond those
IS THERE AN OPTIMAL SCHOOL SIZE?
agreement that the scale of most schools is too large, prescriptions for ideal
size vary. Fowler, Howley, and others consider the potential for curricular
adequacy to be reached at 400 students. Meier defines small schools as enrolling
300 to 400 students. Lee and Smith conclude that high school students learn best
when enrollment is between 600 and 900. A joint policy statement issued by the
Carnegie Foundation and the National Association of Secondary School Principals
recommended that high schools break into units of no more than 600 students.
None recommend fewer than 300 or more than 900 students. Howley (1996)
suggests that "the most suitable size is likely to vary from place to place,"
with a community's relative poverty or affluence being a major factor. Small
schools clearly provide an achievement advantage for impoverished students,
while affluent students may fare better in larger schools.
HOW CAN DISTRICTS BETTER UTILIZE THEIR EXISTING LARGE SCHOOL BUILDINGS?
Putting several small schools into an existing large school
building can rejuvenate the school and enhance educational possibilities. Raywid
and Meier both reported that doing so has typically resulted in great benefits
for students, teachers, parents, and the entire school community. Chicago, New
York City, Philadelphia, and many other cities have already instituted major
restructuring efforts aimed at housing small schools in existing large
Many see schools-within-schools as a crucial first step in restructuring,
states Raywid. But, she notes, when creating new schools it is important to
resist grouping students by ability or achievement. Divisiveness and conflicts
are also minimized if all the schools in the building are small schools, rather
than one small school sharing space with a mainstream large school. Schools that
transitioned most successfully have been based on the principles of cohesion,
autonomy, focus or theme, and a constituency assembled on the basis of shared
interests. While the reasons for downsizing failures are still sketchy, reports
usually cite one of three shortcomings: insufficient faithfulness to the
small-school concept, insufficient autonomy and separateness, or failure to
couple changes in the school culture with the structural changes.
Fowler, William J., Jr. "What Do We Know About
School Size? What Should We Know?" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the
American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, April 22, 1992. 21
pages. ED 347 675.
Howley, Craig. The Academic Effectiveness of Small-Scale Schooling (An
Update). ERIC DIGEST. Charleston, West Virginia: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools, June 1994. ED 372 897.
___________. Ongoing Dilemmas of School Size: A Short Story. Charleston, West
Virginia: ERIC DIGEST. ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools,
December 1996. ED 401 089.
Klonsky, Michael. Small Schools: The Numbers Tell a Story. A Review of the
Research and Current Experiences. Chicago: University of Illinois, College of
Education, 1995. 24 pages. ED 386 517.
Lee, Valerie E., and Julie B. Smith. "High School Size: Which Works Best, and
for Whom?" Draft. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American
Educational Research Association, New York, April 1996. 51 pages. ED 396 888.
Meier, Deborah W. "Small Schools, Big Results." THE AMERICAN SCHOOL BOARD
JOURNAL 182, 7 (July 1995): 37-40. EJ 506 543.
__________. "The Big Benefits of Smallness." EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP 54, 1
(September 1996): 12-15.
Raywid, Mary Anne. Taking Stock: The Movement to Create Mini-Schools,
Schools-Within-Schools, and Separate Small Schools. Madison, Wisconsin: Center
on Organization and Restructuring of Schools, and New York: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Urban Education, April 1996. 72 pages. ED 393 958.
__________. "The Subschools/Small Schools Movement- Taking Stock." Paper
commissioned by the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools.