ERIC Identifier: ED265988
Publication Date: 1986-02-00
Author: Barker, Bruce O.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Rural Education and Small Schools Las Cruces NM.
The Advantages of Small Schools. ERIC Digests.
Americans are rediscovering the small school. Education has proclaimed
that "bigger is better" for so long that many have become believers in a
doctrine which they have not truly examined. Indeed, the largeness of many of
our schools may be one factor contributing to declines in test scores and
increases in violence among students (Wynne, 1978). The restructuring of schools
to smaller entities may ameliorate some of the problems facing today's
WHAT IS A SMALL SCHOOL?
School enrollment size has been the major criterion used to identify small
schools. Although disagreement exists over what enrollment figure should be used
to determine "small," the figure most commonly accepted is 300 or less. In the
26,000 of these schools, over one half million students are enrolled and 50,000
teachers employed (Swift, 1984).
Where are America's small schools? Although small public schools do exist in
large cities, the vast majority are located in rural areas (Sher, 1977).
WHAT CONTRIBUTIONS HAVE SMALL SCHOOLS MADE IN THE PAST?
Well into this century, America's public education system was dominated by
small schools. In an age before calculators, microcomputers, television, and
rapid transit, hundreds of thousands of children learned their arithmetic,
civics, geography, and other lessons in the small--often one-room--school of the
past. In most cases, students learned independently and progressed at their own
rate. While older pupils helped the younger ones, the teacher was able to take
time to individualize lessons and provide personal contact with each student on
a daily basis. Younger pupils became fully aware of what was expected of them in
the next grade because they could see and hear older children working on
It would be interesting, perhaps astounding, to be able to identify the
number of successful professionals in business, education, science, and other
disciplines who received their public education in a small school. The small
country school of yesteryear was the impetus from which many of today's better
known educational "innovations" originated. Notions such as non-graded
classrooms, individualized instruction, low student/teacher ratios, cross-age
grouping, peer tutoring, using the community as a resource, "mainstreaming"
mildly handicapped pupils, and emphasizing the basics--to name just a few--all
have their roots in the small school of the past.
WHAT STRENGTHS ARE INHERENT IN SMALL SCHOOLS?
There exists in the small school a sense of pride, and an attitude and sense
of personal possession and involvement on the part of students, parents,
teachers, administrators, and community residents. To a great degree, the school
is the community center in many small towns and rural areas.
Over 20 years ago, Barker and Gump (1964) proposed the "inside-outside
perceptual paradox" which stated that even though larger schools were more
impressive on the outside, upon closer scrutiny the small school provided a
better quality of education. The small school can offer benefits in several
areas: (1) personal relationships, (2) students, (3) teachers, (4)
administration, and (5) curriculum and instruction (Beckner, 1983; Dunne, 1977).
The size of the school does not inhibit personal interaction; it encourages
it. Small schools typically serve a community nucleus. This invites strong
support from parents and community members as well as closer working
relationships among the school staff. In a small school it is not unusual for
teachers, administrators, and school board members to know each other well. This
can lead to easy acceptance of new ideas among friends as well as a strong sense
of identification and belonging.
Morale among students tends to be higher in small schools. There are fewer
students to be leaders in clubs and organizations and to participate in
athletics and plays. Hence, students are generally exposed to more opportunity
to develop leadership skills in a greater diversity of situations. Often,
literally everyone must participate in order to make a project a success. This
promotes among students a sense of belonging, of pride in their community, their
school, and themselves. As a result, students are likely to have better
attitudes toward school and less likely to create discipline problems.
Teachers are more apt to know their students as individuals and to be
familiar with the family backgrounds from which they come. This enables teachers
to more knowledgeably make special provisions for individual needs and talents
and to receive better cooperation from parents in resolving problems that may
arise. Students in small schools also interact more frequently and informally
with the teacher and with each other.
Because relationships between teachers and administrators tend to be more
personal and informal, there is a greater tendency for cooperation among the
staff. Also, teachers who live and work in small communities are more likely to
be viewed as respected and valued citizens by other community members.
Small schools are manageable. There is usually less red tape and fewer
regulations. Scheduling is much more flexible than in a large school, and
schedules can be easily altered to accommodate instructional activities. Record
keeping and reporting activities are less complicated and time consuming.
Bureaucratic layering is at a minimum, allowing relatively easy access among
students, teachers and administrators. Individual problems of both students and
faculty can be addressed more readily by administrators. School administrators
are more likely to spend time out of their office to be with students and
teachers on a regular basis and routinely visit classrooms and observe
CURRICULUM AND INSTRUCTION
Due to low pupil/teacher ratios, the school is more likely to be
learner-centered with strong emphasis placed on individualized and small group
instruction. By contrast, large schools with large class sizes have
traditionally led to reliance on lecture and objective tests that stress recall.
The potential for student self identity, participation, and expression is
thereby enhanced in small schools.
Multi-grade teaching is common practice in many small schools. Cross-age
mixing of students allows younger students exposure to lessons and expectations
of older students as well as opportunities to receive personalized tutoring from
Smallness also permits changes in curricula and organization of instructional
materials with relative ease. It is easier to arrange schedules in order to
participate in field trips, assembly programs, parent-teacher conferences, etc.
The advantages of smallness can be summarized as follows:
--Students are at the center of the school. --Discipline is usually not a
serious problem, thereby resulting in an increase in time spent learning.
--Teachers still have a sense of control over what and how they teach. --A
minimum of bureaucracy allows for more flexibility in decision making. --Low
pupil-teacher ratios allow for more individualized instruction and more
attention given to students. --Relationships between students, teachers,
administrators, and school board members tend to be closer. --Parental and
community involvement tends to be stronger than in larger schools.
WHAT DOES RESEARCH SAY ABOUT OPTIMUM SCHOOL SIZE?
Research has not yet revealed an "optimum" school or district size. The
studies which have been conducted show a broad range enrollment for the "best
size" school. The Education Research Service (Research Action Brief, 1982)
summarized 119 publications printed between 1924 and 1974 regarding school size.
The differences for optimum size varied by as much as 370 students for
elementary schools, 50 students for middle schools, 679 students for junior high
schools, and over 1700 students for senior high schools. Due to differences in
the design and methodology of the many studies summarized, it is difficult to
compare them and thus impossible to draw hard and fast conclusions.
Although research on optimum school size has provided mixed results, most
teachers and parents clearly feel that class size radically affects the quality
of instruction and achievement of students. A summary of research on class size
suggests that (Glass, 1982):
--Class size is strongly related to pupil achievement. --Smaller classes are
more conducive to improved pupil performance than larger classes. --Smaller
classes provide more opportunities to adapt learning programs to individual
needs. --Pupils in small classes have more interest in learning. --Teacher
morale is higher in smaller classes.
HOW DO CHARACTERISTICS AND PRACTICES OF "EFFECTIVE SCHOOLS" RESEARCH RELATE
TO SMALL SCHOOLS?
Recent research has identified numerous practices and characteristics
associated with effective schools. Among characteristics commonly noted are
--A school climate that is orderly, serious, safe, and attractive. --A clear
school mission where there is consensus on goals for the school, consensus on
teacher objectives and priorities assigned to those objectives. --Strong
leadership by the principal which focuses on instruction. --High expectations
for student achievement which are clearly communicated to students.
--Instructional activities absorb most of the day. --There is an evaluation
system which includes student progress, the staff, and the school itself.
--Supportive home/school relations.
Small schools need not apologize for their size. The strengths inherent in
small schools clearly support characteristics and practices associated with
findings emanating from "effective schools" research. The challenge facing
administrators, teachers, parents, and students attending small schools is to
capitalize on many advantages of smallness in order to provide the most
meaningful education possible.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Barker, Roger, and Paul Gump. BIG SCHOOL, SMALL SCHOOL: HIGH SCHOOL SIZE AND
STUDENT BEHAVIOR. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1964.
Beckner, Weldon. THE CASE FOR THE SMALLER SCHOOL. Bloomington, Indiana: Phi
Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1983. ED 228 002.
Dunn, Faith. "Choosing Smallness." In Jonathan Sher, ed., EDUCATION IN RURAL
AMERICA: A REASSESSMENT OF CONVENTIONAL WISDOM. Boulder, Colorado: Westview
Fried, Robby, ed. EFFECTIVE SCHOOLING IN A RURAL CONTEXT: A NEW HAMPSHIRE
VIEW. Northeast Regional Exchange, Chelmsford, MA., 1982. ED 243 628.
Glass, Gene, ed. SCHOOL CLASS SIZE: RESEARCH AND POLICY. Beverly Hills,
California: Sage Publications, 1982. ED 217 111.
National Center for Education Statistics. DIGEST OF EDUCATIONAL STATISTICS,
1983-84. Washington, D.C: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983.
Research Action Brief. SCHOOL SIZE: A REASSESSMENT OF THE SMALL SCHOOL.
Eugene, OR: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, February, 1982.
Sher, Jonathan, ed. EDUCATION IN RURAL AMERICA: A REASSESSMENT OF
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1977.
Swift, Doug. FINDING AND KEEPING TEACHERS: STRATEGIES FOR SMALL SCHOOLS. Las
Cruces, NM: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools, 1984.
Wynne, Edward. "Behind the Discipline Problem: Youth Suicide as a Measure of
Alienation." PHI DELTA KAPPAN 59 (1978): 307-315.