ERIC Identifier: ED459049
Publication Date: 2001-12-00
Author: Gregory, Tom
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Breaking Up Large High Schools: Five Common (and
Understandable) Errors of Execution. ERIC Digest.
Essentially all of the research on high school size conducted in the past 30
years suggests that we need to move to much smaller schools (Gregory, 2000). In
response to these findings, school administrators have attempted to subdivide
big high schools into smaller entities. This Digest reviews recent research on
the movement to break up large schools and discusses five types of error common
among such attempts--errors of autonomy, of size, of continuity, of time, and of
CONSENSUS FAVORING SMALL HIGH SCHOOLS GROWS, WHILE SCHOOLS GET
Research on school size has changed over time. Studies conducted 30
or more years ago tended to favor larger schools. More recently, research has
favored smaller schools (or called into question the interpretations of earlier
research). The research is complicated by semantics; "small" to some means under
200 students; many see a realistic goal to be 400-500 students; and a few see
high schools of 800 as small enough. And size, of course, has little direct
effect on how schools function. It is a set of mediating variables that has the
more direct impact to which we should direct our attention.
Space does not allow an adequate summary of the research on school size, but
several good reviews are available (Cotton, 1996; Williams, 1990; Raywid, 1999;
and Gregory, 2000). Even the popular literature of the past few years has been
sprinkled with articles extolling the virtues and successes of small schools.
This public dialogue is reflected in a recent national poll of high school
parents and teachers; 66 percent of the parents and 79 percent of the teachers
favored smaller high schools (Public Agenda, 2001). Heeding the message, large
high schools are now attempting to remake themselves into smaller, more personal
Cotton (in press) reviews a newer body of research and commentary on the
widespread efforts to create small learning communities in large schools. The
Learning First Alliance (2001) has provided an extensive treatment of efforts to
downsize that focuses on safety issues, and Nathan and Febey (2001) describe the
reconfigured physical settings of 22 newly created small schools in 12 states.
Two recent major studies in urban contexts document the promise of recent
breakup efforts. Stiefel, Iatarola, Fruchter, and Berne (2000) analyzed cost and
achievement data for all of New York City's high schools, both large and small,
and Wasley et al. (2000) have described in detail the early successes of
Chicago's small elementary, middle, and high schools.
Despite growing support for smaller schools, high schools have continued to
grow in size. This disparity exists for several reasons. The high school plays a
complex role in its community. Reformer Ted Sizer calls it a "diabolically
complicated system" (1996, p. xi). The high school is often more than a place of
learning. It may be one of the few entities that unifies a community--a source
of community pride and a central gathering place.
BREAKING UP LARGE HIGH SCHOOLS
As mentioned earlier, one
response to calls for smaller schools is to break up big high schools into
smaller entities, each typically serving 200 to 500 students. "Breaking Ranks"
(National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1996), a widely-used
manual for breaking up a big school to create schools within a school (SWAS),
suggests a maximum of 600 students. Rather than changing the form of schooling,
proposals favoring schools of this size seem to be modest efforts--what Wasley
and Lear (2001) term shallow implementations--to personalize a familiar model
that is fundamentally impersonal in nature. The idea is not new, dating back at
least to the "house" structures of the '60s.
There is little evidence that this strategy is successful, even though
hundreds of high schools currently are pursuing it.1 If the central intent of
such breakup efforts is simply to create more personal forms of the familiar
comprehensive high school, many recent attempts may have achieved a certain
success. But the goals of these efforts suggest more; they seem to seek a
cultural renaissance, not a remodeling (National Association of Secondary School
A pervasive problem is that characteristics built into the basic design of
most breakup efforts make it impossible for them to cross over into the world of
successful new small schools which do have very different cultures (Meier, 1995;
Gregory, 1993). Five common errors--of autonomy, size, continuity, time, and
control--bar many schools from crossing the big/small cultural divide.
ERRORS OF AUTONOMY
An oft-stated goal of breakup efforts is
that the former, big school with all its traditions--interscholastic sports,
clubs, music groups--will remain. These entities are the very--arguably the
only--cultural glue that still binds together all the disparate pieces of big,
anonymous schools. Mixed allegiances are difficult to maintain. The long
established big school culture tends to kill off the nascent small school
cultures. Some services--counseling, discipline, food service--may also remain
centralized, either to nurture the big-school identity, comply with its notions
of specialization, or achieve economies of scale in the big building's
infrastructure. Because these services remain the tasks of specialists, each
tends to become depersonalized and remote from the more local lives of the SWAS.
These factors undermine SWAS efforts to build their own identities.
ERRORS OF SIZE
In breakup efforts, SWAS are often designed
as administrative units that are big enough--400 to 600 students--to justify a
principal. Then the faculties of each SWAS are so large--25 to 40 teachers--that
they have almost as much trouble talking to each other as large high school
faculties do. Socially constructing the vision of the new, small school becomes
more difficult. Consequently, faculties revert to big-school strategies: either
the vision is created by the principal and teachers are expected to go along
with it, or some sort of representative governance council is created. Under
either of these circumstances, the vision has to be very persuasive or very
familiar to gain the faculty's endorsement. The latter is frequently the case,
which tends to preserve the big-school culture.
ERRORS OF CONTINUITY
Every high school contains three kinds
of students: beginners who need orientation and acclimation, those who are
completing their requirements for graduation, and those who are somewhere in
between. A natural response to these stages is to create specialized programs
for each of these groups. (The majority of the proposals received thus far by
the U.S. Office of Education Small Learning Communities grant program entailed
the creation of transition programs for freshmen.) Similarly, some schools seek
to develop senior institutes. But each of these smaller experiences creates more
transitions to be accomplished and segregate older students from younger ones.
They are predicated on the age-old idea that only the older generation can teach
the young what they must know to succeed (Mead, 1970). As a result, just as
students establish themselves in a new setting, they are asked to move on. Just
at the time when they become valuable teachers and leaders of younger students,
they are removed to a new setting where they are once again off-balance
ERRORS OF TIME
Continuing to offer esoteric electives
across all SWAS is an attractive option in these subschool configurations. It is
seen as a way to maintain the best of both worlds: the rich curriculum of a
large, comprehensive high school and the more personalized environment of a
small school. To accommodate movement between SWAS, they often adopt a common
bell schedule. But the bell schedule makes it difficult to do much
programmatically that's different from what the big school was able to do. It
may, for example, make it difficult for an individual student or a group of
students to leave the campus for one day, let alone for a week or longer, to
pursue learning in the community and beyond. Responding spontaneously to an
unexpected learning opportunity--whether it's a visiting author or a full solar
eclipse that will be visible in a nearby state--is almost as remote a
possibility for the SWAS as it is for a large high school. Traditional schedules
also promote traditional notions of faculty load. For example, powerful advising
programs that go hand-in-hand with high levels of independent learning become
difficult to justify.
ERRORS OF CONTROL
That so little independent learning
occurs in big schools is not accidental; such independence is antithetical to
the levels of control that must take primacy in them. Confining so many students
in one place creates a situation that is uncomfortable for the adult community
(Sizer, 1984), one that quickly becomes scary if not kept under tight control.
Freedom of movement is a necessary prerequisite to many powerful forms of
learning. Students must be well-known and trusted for such freedom to be
possible. Even much smaller SWAS still have the problem of their students being
strangers when they move elsewhere in the building. Because many control
problems of big schools remain in a big building, many of the control issues
that constrain more informal teaching and learning also remain. GETTING REFORM
Reform is devilishly difficult to pull off, even under the most favorable of
circumstances. Many schools of our future, even some spawned by breaking up big
high schools, will have quite different cultures than the archetypical American
comprehensive high school. Large high schools can find help in avoiding the
errors described here by taking advantage of the extensive technical assistance
now available. Two regional sources of assistance are rapidly gaining national
status. They are the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at
Chicago (http://www.smallschoolsworkshop.org), and the Small Schools Project of
the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington
(http://www.smallschoolsproject.org). Both run conferences and workshops and
maintain Web sites rich in resources. Several brief but helpful advice papers
are available from the Small Schools Project (Center on Reinventing Public
Education, n.d.-a,b,c) and Kathleen Cotton's recent review (in press) is a
must-read for those contemplating breaking up large high schools.
Can we expect large high schools to reculture themselves so completely? Can
they do it? Half the responding teachers in large high schools in the
aforementioned Public Agenda survey (2001) anticipated widespread opposition
from their communities if a breakup effort were attempted. In the next 10 years
we should know whether creating truly new small schools out of existing large
high schools is even possible.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding the breakup of about 50 high
schools in Washington state alone.
Center on Reinventing Public Education.
(n.d.-a). Organizing and designing small schools through conversions of large
comprehensive schools. Seattle: The Small Schools Project, Center on Reinventing
Public Education, University of Washington. Retrieved December 7, 2001, from
Center on Reinventing Public Education. (n.d.-b). Questions to consider about
conversions of large high schools. Seattle: The Small Schools Project, Center on
Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington. Retrieved December 7,
2001, from http://www.smallschoolsproject.org/tools/toolstouse/conversionquesti%20
Center on Reinventing Public Education. (n.d.-c). Thinking about conversions.
Seattle: The Small Schools Project, Center on Reinventing Public Education,
University of Washington. Retrieved December 7, 2001, from
Cotton, K. (1996). School size, school climate, and student performance.
Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 397 476)
Cotton, K. (in press). New small learning communities: Findings from recent
literature. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.
Gregory, T. (1993). Making high school work: Lessons from the Open School.
New York: Teachers College Press. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 401
Gregory, T. (2000). School reform and the no-man's-land of high school size.
Retrieved December 7, 2001, from
Reproduction Service No. ED 451 981)
Learning First Alliance. (2001). Every child learning: Safe and supportive
schools. Washington, DC: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Retrieved December 7, 2001, from
Mead, M. (1970). Culture and commitment: A study of the generation gap.
Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.
Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas: Lessons for America from a small
school in Harlem. Boston: Beacon Press. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No.
ED 388 481)
Nathan, J., & Febey, K. (2001). Smaller, safer, saner, successful
schools. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities.
Retrieved December 7, 2001, from
National Association of Secondary School Principals (1996). Breaking ranks:
Changing an American institution. A Report of the National Association of
Secondary School Principals in partnership with the Carnegie Foundation for the
Advancement of Teaching on the high school of the 21st century. Reston, VA:
Public Agenda. (2001). Teachers, parents find smaller schools appealing, but
see other education reforms as more pressing. Press release, September 26, 2001
in advance of the full report to be published in December 2001 or January 2002.
Retrieved December 7, 2001, from
Raywid, M. A. (1999). Current literature on small schools. Eric Digest.
Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. (ERIC
Document Reproduction Service No. ED 425 049)
Sizer, T. R. (1984). Horace's compromise. The dilemma of the American high
school. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 264
Sizer, T. R. (1996). Horace's hope: What works for the American high school.
Stiefel, L., Berne, R., Iatarola, P., & Fruchter, N. (2000). High school
size: Effects on budgets and performance in New York City. Educational
Evaluation and Policy Analysis. 22(1), 27-39. Available online under the title,
The Effects of Size of Student Body on School Costs and Performance in New York
City High Schools. Retrieved December 7, 2001, from
Wasley, P. A., Fine, M., Gladden, M., Holland, N. E., King, S. P., Mosak, E.,
& Powell, L. C. (2000). Small schools: Great strides--A study of new small
schools in Chicago. New York: Bank Street College of Education. Retrieved
December 7, 2001, from http://www.bankstreet.edu/html/news/SmallSchools.pdf%20
Wasley, P. A., & Lear, R. J. (2001). Small schools, real gains.
Educational Leadership. 58(6), 22-27.
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. (ERIC Document Reproduction
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