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.


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 (Gladden, 1998).


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; Raywid, 1996b).

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.


Ancess, J. (1998). Urban dreamcatchers: Planning and launching new small schools. In M. Fine & J. I. Somerville (Eds.), Small schools, big imaginations: A creative look at urban public schools (pp. 22-35). Chicago: Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform.

Anderson, V. (1998, May). Smaller is better. Catalyst, Special Series #6, 1-7.

Carnegie Corporation of New York. (1989). Turning points: Preparing American youth for the 21st century. The report of the task force on education of young adolescents. New York: Author. (ED 312 322).

Carnes, M. C. (1996). The big high school that wasn't built. Education Week, 16(1), 48, 51.

Cotton, K. (1996a). School size, school climate, and student performance. Close-up #20. Portland OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.

Cotton, K. (1996b). Affective and social benefits of small-scale schooling. ERIC Digest. Charleston, WV: Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. (ED 401 088)

Darling-Hammond, L., Ancess, J., & Falk, B. (1995). Authentic assessment in action: Studies of schools and students at work. The series on school reform. New York: Teachers College Press.

Darling-Hammond, L., Ancess, J., McGregor, K., & Zuckerman, D. (1995). The coalition campus schools project: Inching toward systemic change in New York City. New York: National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Fine, M., & Somerville, J. I., (Eds.). (1998). Small schools, big imaginations: A creative look at urban public schools. Chicago: Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform.

Friedkin, N. E., & Necochea, J. (1988). School system size and performance: A contingency perspective. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 10(3), 237-249.

Gladden, R. (1998). The small school movement: A review of the literature. In M. Fine & J. I. Somerville, (Eds.), Small schools, big imaginations: A creative look at urban public schools (pp. 113-137). Chicago: Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform.

Hallett, A. C. (1995). Reinventing central office: A primer for successful schools. Chicago: Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform.

Hendrie, C. (1998a). For small schools, an identity crisis. Education Week, 17(34), 1, 18-19.

Hendrie, C. (1998b). From charters to pilots, Boston offers a variety of small-school options. Education Week, 17(34), 19.

Howley, C. (1994). The academic effectiveness of small-scale schooling (an update). ERIC Digest. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. (ED 372 897)

Howley, C. B. (1995). The Matthew principle: A West Virginia replication? Education Policy Analysis Archives, 3(18), 1-25. (ED 389 503)

Lee, V. E., & Smith, J. B. (1995). Effects of high school restructuring and size on early gains in achievement and engagement. Sociology of Education, 68(4), 241-270.

Lee, V. E., & Smith, J. B. (1997). High school size: Which works best, and for whom? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 19(3), 205-227.

Lee, V. E., Smith, J. B., & Croninger, R. G. (1997). How high school organization influences the equitable distribution of learning in mathematics and science. Sociology of Education, 70(2), 128-150.

McMullan, B. J., Sipe, C. L., & Wolf, W. C. (1994). Charters and student achievement: Early evidence from school restructuring in Philadelphia. Bala Cynwyd, PA: Center for Assessment and Policy Development.

Maine State Planning Council on Developmental Disabilities & National Association of Secondary School Principals. (1996). Breaking ranks: Changing an American institution. Reston, VA: Author. (ED 393 205)

Meier, D. (1998). Can the odds be changed? Phi Delta Kappan, 79(5), 358-362.

Pittman, R. B., & Haughwout, P. (1987). Influence of high school size on dropout rate. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 9(4), 337-343.

Raywid, M. A. (1996a). Taking stock: The movement to create mini-schools, schools-within-schools, and separate small schools. Urban Diversity Series No 108. New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, Teachers College, Columbia University. (ED 396 045)

Raywid, M. A. (1996b). The Wadleigh Complex: A dream that soured. In B. Boyd, B. Crowson, & H. Mawhinney, (Eds.), The politics of education and the New Institutionalism: Reinventing the American school (pp. 101-114). Philadelphia: Falmer.

Raywid, M. A. (1994). Focus schools: A genre to consider. Urban Diversity Series No. 106. New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education. (ED 377 293)

Raywid, M. A., & Kottkamp, R. B. (1996). The choice system of community district 3: A report. New York: Center for Educational Innovation, Manhattan Institute.

Roellke, C. (1996). Curriculum adequacy and quality in high schools enrolling fewer than 400 pupils (9-12). ERIC Digest. Charleston, WV: Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. (ED 401 090)

Sergiovanni, T. J. (1996). Leadership for the schoolhouse: How is it different? Why is it important? (pp. 98-118) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Stiefel, L., Latarola, P., Fruchter, N., & Berne, R. (1998). The effects of size of student body on school costs and performance in New York City high schools. New York: Institute for Education and Social Policy, New York University.

Stockard, J., & Mayberry, M. (1992). Effective educational environments. Newbury Park, CA: Corwin. (ED 350 674)

Teske, P., Schneider, M., Marschall, M., & Roch, C. (1997). Evaluating the effects of public school choice in District 4. New York: Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

Vulliamy, G., & Webb, R. (1995). The implementation of the national curriculum in small primary schools. Educational Review, 47(1), 25-41.

Williams, D. T. (1990). The dimensions of education: Recent research on school size. Working paper series. Clemson, SC: Clemson University, Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and Public Affairs. (ED 347 006)

Library Reference Search

Please note that this site is privately owned and is in no way related to any Federal agency or ERIC unit.  Further, this site is using a privately owned and located server. This is NOT a government sponsored or government sanctioned site. ERIC is a Service Mark of the U.S. Government. This site exists to provide the text of the public domain ERIC Documents previously produced by ERIC.  No new content will ever appear here that would in any way challenge the ERIC Service Mark of the U.S. Government.

Popular Pages

More Info