Grauer High School Theatre students honoring their director after performing in the play “Reckless” – January 13, 2024 (photo, Stuart Grauer)
Abstract: Exploring the Impact of School Size on Educational Outcomes
The impact of secondary school size on educational outcomes has long been debated and I have been addressing this topic since 2012, creating rationale and databases. For my latest paper, I have been working with Dr. Megan Krone of University of Michigan (previously from my alma mater, University of San Diego). This summary piece presents a systematic redefinition of secondary school sizes, identifying lower enrollment thresholds for small, medium, and large schools for the first time in history. But more important: It unlocks a mystery that has been surrounding our school since founding: Why are small schools not prioritized despite the well-documented benefits? Some (including Gates and Musk) have made gigantic bets on small schools education but their results are mixed and can be confusing. What is the secret?
For starters, Our findings suggest the need for a paradigm shift in educational policy and management to reflect these refined classifications that better correspond with contemporary educational demands and student needs. Of course, for a school to have small school benefits, we need to know the attributes of a small school, particularly enrollment size. The size of a secondary school profoundly affects its organizational structure, pedagogical approaches, and student experiences. But there is much more.
Literature Review: Impact of school size on high school students
Our survey of existing literature reveals a wide variance in the criteria used to define school sizes. Studies often correlate smaller school environments with higher student achievement but lack consensus on the precise enrollment figures that differentiate small from medium and large schools. In particular, medium and large schools were being categorized as small, skewing the essential findings about small schools. Our literature review underscores the necessity for a uniform classification system to ensure comparability and consistency in educational research and practice in order to help policy makers, and you, the general public, to understand what is going on in these unique, small settings.
Methodology: Optimal size for secondary school
Employing a mixed-methods research design, we collected data from a stratified sample of secondary schools. Quantitative data included enrollment numbers, student-to-teacher ratios, and academic performance metrics. Qualitative data stemmed from interviews with and news coverage of educators, administrators, and students, alongside an analysis of school culture and community engagement.
Comprehensive Findings: Enrollment-Based Categorization and Academic Performance
We propose the following enrollment-based categorization as a result of our research:
School Size College Preparatory-Style Public Secondary School
Small 3–230 < 400
Medium 231–399 400–750
Large 400+ 750+
Academic performance indicators show that students from smaller schools generally outperform their peers in larger institutions on standardized assessments. This suggests that the personalized attention possible in smaller settings may lead to better educational outcomes. (I have written often on the problems caused by using annual standardized achievement tests, SATs and other academic standards measure, rather than a more wholistic assessment.)
Grauer students Charlotte and Ronin performing in the play “Reckless” – January 13, 2024 (photo, Stuart Grauer)
Social Dynamics and Extracurricular Participation
Our research indicates that smaller schools foster stronger relationships among students and between students and faculty, which contributes to a more vibrant school community. This is reflected in higher rates of extracurricular participation and student leadership opportunities.
Resource Allocation and Efficiency and School Size
Smaller schools often demonstrate a more efficient use of resources, with funds more likely directed toward student-centered activities. In contrast, larger schools, while benefiting from economies of scale, sometimes struggle with the distribution of resources to meet individual student needs. (A companion paper addresses comparative costs of the size categories indicating that small schools appear to have many cost savings left out of funding formulas.)
Policy and Administration Implications for School Size
How can small schools “deliver”? The research suggests administrators of smaller schools should capitalize on their ability to offer tailored educational experiences. For larger schools, the findings imply a need for policies that address the challenges of scale, particularly in ensuring that the potential benefits of a wider array of offerings do not come at the cost of personalization.
Extended Discussion: What are the real Small school benefits?
The nuanced understanding of school size implications emerging from our study challenges several preconceptions. Notably, the value of small schools extends beyond academic performance, enhancing community involvement and student well-being. Meanwhile, medium and large schools, though providing diverse course offerings, must navigate the complexities of maintaining a personalized and safe approach to education.
The ability of small school environments such as The Grauer School to foster closer student-teacher relationships and a collaborative learning atmosphere suggests that the benefits of a smaller enrollment extend into areas such as student self-efficacy, motivation, and overall satisfaction with the school experience. These qualitative aspects of schooling, while harder to measure, are critical in shaping students’ educational journeys and future aspirations. The Grauer School has employed the Panorama Student Survey, the HSSSE, and the Challenge Success to provide such measures.
Our findings also draw attention to the importance of leadership in schools of different sizes. Leadership styles that are participative and inclusive seem to resonate more effectively in smaller schools, whereas larger schools may require a more strategic, distributed form of leadership and governance to manage the complex organizational structures.
Grauer student Charlotte performing in the play “Reckless” – January 13, 2024 (photo, Stuart Grauer)
Comparative Analysis of Extracurricular Impact
A key finding from our study is the positive correlation between smaller school size and the richness of the extracurricular landscape. The data suggest that smaller schools offer more meaningful participation in extracurriculars, with students feeling a greater sense of ownership and engagement in these activities. This is contrasted with larger schools, where, despite high profile activities like football for a few, the majority of students may experience a sense of anonymity and, consequently, less attachment to the school’s extracurricular offerings.
Implications for Curriculum Development
Our research underscores the need for curricular flexibility, especially in smaller schools, to harness the benefits of the closer educator-student dynamic. Curriculum development in these settings can be more responsive to student interests and learning styles, fostering a more dynamic and engaging educational experience.
In contrast, larger schools, while benefiting from a broader curriculum, must seek innovative approaches to personalize learning experiences within the constraints of a more standardized curriculum. This might include leveraging technology or adopting modular course designs that allow for greater customization.
Recommendations for Future Research
We recommend that future research explore longitudinal data to assess the long-term impact of school size on educational outcomes. Additionally, investigating the role of technology in optimizing (or depersonalizing) educational delivery across different school sizes could provide insights into how to balance the benefits and challenges associated with each category.
Grauer students Charlotte and Lily performing in the play “Reckless” – January 13, 2024 (photo, Stuart Grauer)
Conclusion: Towards a holistic school design
Our extensive study offers a recalibrated framework for understanding secondary school size. It argues for policy adjustments that reflect the unique educational dynamics of small, medium, and large schools. By adopting these revised classifications, educators and policymakers can better strategize to enhance educational quality and equity. As such, the proposed school size parameters are not merely academic classifications but tools for enabling more effective and nuanced educational planning for school site and district leaders.
Where do we go from here? The evidence points towards the necessity of a holistic approach in educational policy—one that considers the complex interplay between school size, educational quality, student engagement, and community development. The implications of this research are significant, suggesting a tailored approach to educational management that could lead to a more fulfilling and effective schooling experience for all stakeholders. Moreover, the research calls for serious research in the neglected area of school size and, in particular, small school benefits.
Thank you for reading!
(Annotated bibliography available on request.)
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