“Smaller, more intimate learning communities consistently deliver better results in academics and discipline when compared to their larger counterparts. Big schools offer few opportunities to participate.”
A Comprehensive Study on the Benefits of Small Schools
Amidst a steady hundred-year American trend towards larger secondary schools, we set out to study the benefits of small schools. We were aware of various myths distorting our collective viewpoints about what a school should be, and our research turned up more. We were equally aware of an historic gap of knowledge on the benefits of small schools, and this was borne out; but the big surprise that turned up in our research was the dearth of information on the relative benefits of the nation’s larger schools, the consolidated, comprehensive school model which predominates in our nation.
In this essay we review literature in an effort to provide research and reflections on the benefits of small (or smaller) secondary schools when compared to large-or middle-sized schools in six key areas that are of national concern as well as of concern to every parent. Here, we focus specifically on the first three of those six areas of concern. All three are areas where there is fairly little disagreement that small schools do better than large: (A) safety, (B) teaching conditions, (C) academic performance. The cases for these are overwhelming and surprisingly straightforward.
Assumed Benefits of Large-Scale Consolidation in Schools
The historical rationale for consolidated, comprehensive schools — economies of scale, social equality, and increased program offerings — were widely known (Nguyen). The alarming part was that these assumed benefits of consolidation in schools had virtually never been verified and, as we weighed these benefits of large-scale consolidation in schools in the balance against those of small schools we found them — all three of them, as well as several more which emerged — to be either questionable or outright false.
The prevalent, large school model had evolved very gradually and was not the result of a comprehensive plan, and so no one could state a single place or point in time where a threshold had been crossed and the old ways were not working. But, of course, we never see a tree growing either. Tried and true presumptions about the American schoolhouse were running on hyperbole, myths mistaken for reality. No one was to blame, but our schools had grown too big for most of our kids and teachers to benefit from.
The Definition of a Small School
Our research on small schools began as a simple numbers game. However, we soon learned that there was no one standard definition of a small school because there was little agreement on what small meant. We found “small” to be used variously as an absolute enrollment number and a relative number. Extensive research eventually led us to the definition of a small school as a school with an absolute number of less than 400 students (Grauer, 2012c); however, because the field is lacking in consensus about such matters, we often had to draw conclusions about small schools based upon their substantially “smaller” size, i.e., their size relative to the schools to which they are compared. This paper is intended to provide a comprehensive study of small schools information, thus taking the guesswork out of future research.
Typically, in our research, we found that smaller referred to schools at least 500 students less than comparison schools. Importantly, many medium sized schools, typically of sizes of between 500 and 900 were not useful in helping us draw comparisons — those schools are neither small nor large. By removing this middle ground, we were able to see clearer distinctions between clearly large and small schools.
For example, a 1999 U.S. Department of Education study found that schools with more than 1000 students had far higher rates of violent student behavior than schools with fewer than 300 students, and teachers and students in small schools were far less likely to be victims of crime. Hence, the entire range of schools from between 300 to 1000 students was cut out of that study so a robust comparison could be made (Lawrence et al., 2002). Since we had already reviewed many schools at up to 400 in size, we allowed that small schools could go up to that number. 1000 students became the defined, minimum size of large schools.
Accounting for Different Types of Schools
Another issue, which has hampered decisive research in past years, is taking the many different types of schools into account. After all, small schools are not always easy to identify operationally or with respect to governance. They include private college preparatory schools, parochial schools, charter schools, schools within schools (SWASs), “smaller learning communities” (SLCs), rural schools, magnet schools, home schools, and any number of other such configurations other than “comprehensive.”
In the end we found that, for better or for worse, if its goal is to provide full services for every kind of learner, it is not likely to be a small school. In this way, we identified our second identifying hypothesis, which enabled us to account for different types of schools labeled “small,” while at the same time separating small and large schools: A small school is not a comprehensive school. Armed with two simple, defining criteria, something that had never before been attempted, we were ready to begin parsing out the quality differences between small and large schools.
The ABC’S of Small School Benefits: A Brief Review of the Literature
Emerging research on small school benefits has thickened over the past three decades. Our review covered hundreds of small schools, including various site visits. We reviewed both research studies and studies of research studies, quite a few of them meta-studies which reviewed many earlier studies; so our sample size grew large–too big to know–and our conclusions were drawn based upon this rich description.
For instance, we considered the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory’s well-known review of more than 100 studies and evaluations, wherein small schools author Cotton noted “small schools to be superior to large schools on most measures and equal to them on the rest. This holds true for both elementary and secondary students of all ability levels and in all kinds of settings” (1996).
Bearing out Cotton’s work, Wasley and Lear’s 2001 study of students in 90 small schools showed significant improvements in behavior and achievement, greater teacher connection with parents, more teacher opportunities to collaborate with other teachers.
Haller’s “High School and Beyond” included data for 175 rural high schools suggest that creating larger institutions will increase student misbehavior. New York City created and generated findings on 105 small high schools, showing student mainly in Brooklyn and in the Bronx from 2005 to 2008 had substantially higher graduation rates than their large school peers (Bloom & Unterman, 2012). What follows is a sampler of research findings that detail small school benefits….
Safety in Schools: A Moral Imperative
“Compared to larger schools, students in smaller schools fight less, feel safer, come to school more frequently, and report being more attached to their school. ” -Nathan and Thao
However positive and efficacious our research was showing small schools to be for student learning and opportunity, our findings on school safety are impossible to disregard and we feel a moral imperative to disseminate them.
Safety in schools favors a small learning community: Urban, suburban, rural, and across the country, rich or poor, they are safer places for our children. Even the earliest research showed a stunning difference with respect to vandalism, violence and overall safety in schools labeled “small.” The National Center on Education Statistics reported marked reductions in teacher and principal reports of incidents of fights, weapons, and other forms of violence in schools of 350 or fewer as compared with 750 students or more. Small schools report fewer fights and no incidents of serious violence (U.S. Department of Education, 1996–97). Through years of surveying, we found one common denominator: Smaller school size has consistently related to stronger and safer school communities (Franklin & Crone, 1992; Oxley, 2004; Oxley, 2007; Nguyen, 2004; U.S. Department of Education, 1996–97; Zane, 1994).
Greater safety in small versus large schools has been illustrated in a wide variety of types of incidents including robbery, vandalism, possession of weapons, verbal abuse of teachers, use of illegal drugs and alcohol, and widespread disorder in classrooms (Nathan & Thao, 2001). We note, safety is not confined to physical security, it is also psychological. The greatest reason for student enthusiasm in small schools appears to be the sense of support, belongingness and safety they provide (U.S. Department of Education, 1996–97).
The Rise in Violence at Comprehensive Schools
There has been a significant rise in violence at large, comprehensive schools over the past several decades. The push for smaller schools took on a greater sense of urgency after the horrific 1999 shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School (and subsequent shootings) (Raywid & Oshiyama, 2000). Many observers were and still are convinced that Columbine’s large size — almost 2,000 students in a rather enclosed campus compound — helped create an atmosphere of isolation and anonymity for some students, particularly outcasts like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the murderers.
After the Columbine incident, Colorado Governor Bill Owens formed a commission to assess how law enforcement, school officials, and others responded to the shooting and to identify the key factors that may have contributed to it. The 174-page report acknowledges that “the task of coping with school rage” is difficult at large schools, where students “tend to feel marginalized and less a part of a school community” than students at small schools. The commission concluded “it is difficult for administrators in large schools to create a supportive atmosphere for students” (Hill, 2001).
Of course, things would only get worse. The agonizing events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a school of 450 students–twenty students and six educators gunned down in 2012–led local school officials to advise that students never again return to the site. Will those same officials consider a different school design? One possibility is of course a larger school with better fencing, security systems, metal detection, and guards. Another possibility is a school of less than 230. Statistically, the latter would be far safer.
Violence at comprehensive schools in many forms, ranging from passive and emotional to physically dangerous, is no longer difficult to find on America’s medium- and large-sized campuses. For instance, among girls who responded to a 2011 survey, 56 percent reported being harassed over the preceding school year, as did 40 percent of boys did (Anderson, 2011).
Another well known example is the high drug use in large, inner city schools of “underserved” populations, but there is a “swept under the table: parallel: In the San Diego and many well to do suburbs, the runaway recreational drug of choice for teens is heroin, which is in abundance.
Comparatively speaking, safety issues and risks do not substantially present themselves on small campuses. Once again, the above few references are a small sampler among a good many more, unanimous research findings. It is impossible to dismiss school size as a powerful and fundamental indicator of emotional and physical safety for our America’s children, and unconscionable to disregard the “costs” of this loss of safety, however difficult they are to grasp and affix.
Small Learning Community: Better Relationships
Large school proponents cite greater social choice and diversity as plusses for the large school model. They add that big teams and many clubs promote spirit and opportunity for more students. Are these presumptions borne out in research?
This is a complex issue containing political, social, and emotional components, among others. Research consistently reveals that in a small learning community, students of all “types” feel they can connect with one another much more readily and openly, and also with caring adults whom they know quite personally. If well led, a school develops its own, unique culture of belonging and achievement. The true small learning community offers a greater sense of relationship connectedness and opportunity among virtually all stakeholders, such as are implicit in small organizations and communities (Cotton, 2006). Among complex organizations, developing a unique, shared culture is more likely where the organization is small.
Wasley et al. (2001), Nathan and Thao (2001), and many other researchers over the past generation have found that small schools create communities where students are “known, encouraged, and supported” and have increased teacher-student connection. Small schools of less than 400 “demonstrate great achievement equity” (Fouts, Abbor, & Baker, 2002). “Students at large schools are more prone to be alienated from their peers or engage in risky behavior” (Nathan & Thao, 2001).
Smaller, more “communal” learning environments reduce both student and teacher alienation commonly identified in larger school systems, and enhance student engagement in learning. Students report feeling more comfortable and safe in a small learning community, which is easily understandable given the increased safety of the small environment (Jimerson, 2006; Nathan & Thao, 2001). In sum, unlike in large schools, the culture of small schools typically revolves around hard work, high aspirations, respectful relationships with others, and the expectation that all students will succeed.
Smaller Learning Communities: Equality in Educational Opportunity
We have long looked to our schools to foster equality in educational opportunity across groups. Progressives of the early 1900s started the push for school consolidation so that underserved populations could partake of the benefits available in more affluent schools and districts. They did this without considering whether enlarging the school might cause it to lose the very benefits it sought to have shared across ethnic and socio-economic borders. Movements towards consolidation recurred in the late 1900s, from the 1970s through the 90s, and schools again surged ahead in size — while complaints of a lack of equality in educational opportunity hardly subsided. These complaints are still prevalent after a century of school size increases. And while gains in social justice have been made in the nation, few researchers credit those gains to our schools.
With runaway school consolidations, might equal opportunity proponents have unwittingly thrown the baby out with the bathwater? A literature review of the sense of connectivity and safety at school lead us to probably the most profound findings in all our research: Learning is more equitably distributed in smaller schools (Lee & Smith, 1997 as cited in Husbands and Beese, 2004; Cotton, 1996).
Small schools create more participatory equality in educational opportunity per capita; a larger percentage of students participate and they participate in more kinds of activities (Black, 2002). Because small schools need a large percentage of students to fill each activity, they engage a broader cross-section of students, helping reduce social and racial isolation (Clotfelter, 2002). These are striking findings, given longstanding and almost universal large school claims to offer more diverse learning and socialization opportunities.
We wondered if “striking” was an alarmist word? For over a century, few local communities across the land were untouched if not radically reshaped in their composition and functioning as a consequence of school consolidation (Grauer, 2012b). And yet, a primary rationale for the school consolidation movement was to provide equality in educational opportunity. Based upon the above and much other research, it is reasonable to surmise that we may have done well to organize our schools differently; for instance, keeping smaller, unconsolidated schools (or schools within schools) but mixing their demographics may have created the equitable access that policy makers and interest groups have sought all along.
Students who participate in activities and feel connected at school have higher achievement, are less likely to drop out; they have higher self-esteem, attend school more regularly, and have fewer behavior problems (Howley & Bickel, 2000). If these are gains our consolidated school movement has sought, we simply must consider whether a century of consolidations creating larger and larger campuses has been a grave miscalculation. The creation of large, consolidated schools appears to have created or perpetuated the problems it was meant to solve.
Benefits for Small Secondary School Teachers
“I spent years where I did not have a meaningful conversation with a teacher.”
-Sal Khan, Founder, Khan Academy
The sense of connectedness in small schools is not only felt and shared among students, it is shared by virtually all stakeholders and, in particular, with small secondary school teachers. Here are four examples. First, research shows that in small schools, relationships between students and adults are strong, trusting, and ongoing. There is much more advising going on, either formally or informally. Almost any small school student or alumni can tell you that, although this is not always easy to measure. This leads to a clearer, safer, more enriched path to graduation and postgraduate plans, which are easier to measure — and the bonds continue on longer after graduation.
Secondly, relationships with parents are strong and ongoing. Likewise, small school parents are closer to teachers and administration and have higher levels of parental involvement, and parental involvement is a critical factor in student success (Thorkildsen & Stein, 1998).
Thirdly, small schools have a leaner administrative structure, and the consequence of this is that the whole faculty shares in decision-making; decision-making is less institutionalized and more flexible. This fact explains why teachers and students in small schools report feeling a greater sense of efficacy — they really have a say.
Fourth, smaller schools more readily engage community-members in educating students. Internships are much more common, as are classroom and assembly visitors (per student). Small schools with their more open campuses and simpler travel and security restrictions tend to more frequently engage community members in evaluating curricular exhibits such as portfolios, attending student visual or performing arts showings, and many other forms of school-community interaction.
Small School Participation Rates
As is true in small organizations in general, small schools have higher participation rates than large. Research on group size and sense of belongingness comes not only from the field of education; we reviewed parallel studies from anthropology and sociology, plus breaking research on social networking, leadership, and organizational behavior.
In small groups we sense our allies and rivals readily. Though all compassionate people strive to sense the connectedness of all humanity and all creation, we have practical and cognitive limits on how many people we can support, trust, and feel supported by in our daily lives so that we can live with a sense of high trust and low threat . The advantages for leaders developing trusting, influence relationships in small groups are manifest. In sum, it would be extremely difficult to dispute this finding: Small schools offer students, teachers, and school leaders a substantially greater sense of connectedness, belonging and safety than large schools.
Small schools make space for uniqueness and the emergence of individual student voices. There is no known study that has found large-school achievement or safety superior to small, yet we hang on, strapping schools even tighter with funding contingencies that invite mediocrity (McRobbie, 2001).
If we wanted schools to compete in things that matter to families and things that will most directly lead us towards a happier, more productive country, let schools of all sizes compete with one another on three-dimensional data:
- Student safety (physical and emotional, real and perceived)
- Teacher, student and parent ratings of trust and liking for the school
- Student and teacher feelings of belongingness and morale in the organization
- College admissions and completion rates
- Student and teacher happiness
Settling the Debate Between Small Schools vs. Large Schools
The debate between small schools vs. large schools is rooted in the assumed role of large government in controlling the lives of citizens. For example, the Chinese government, as coded into law in 2010, has institutionalized the management of human reincarnation. In China, you may only pursue reincarnation within state regulations. And as preposterous as Chinese regulation might sound to Americans, today’s nationalization, standardization, and bureaucratic regulation of education would take our parents in the 50s and 60s equally by surprise, almost certainly registering as fearfully socialistic or Orwellian on their radars.
Perhaps it is any large government’s inclination to institutionalize. And yet it is the citizen’s role to remain free. Charters, private schools, and parochial schools, SWASs: these are all fundamental acts of freedom and entrepreneurship. People naturally seek relationships first, and large institutions have a way of adding limits, lines and hard edges to those relationships; here is the heart of the matter: teaching and learning depend upon, first, deepening personal relationships. In fact, despite many years of calling our nation’s comprehensive schools “great equalizers,” underserved families do not generally select our comprehensive schools: more charter schools locate where populations are diverse in terms of race and adult education levels. (Glomm, Harris & Lo, 2005). It remains to be seen what percentage of our populace would choose mega-schools.
As standards mavens, government funders, and policy makers, and all the other people who rarely spend a day with students conjure up funding formulas and demands for metrics and standards, we recommend they consider some more dimensions of measurement, such as how safe the kids feel. Or average daily joyfulness. Why not measure how close the students feel to their teachers? How efficacious they feel? Or how strong their aspirations are? Let us measure how connected teachers feel to other teachers and to their students. Or how many alumni visit every year? All of these will be improved predictors of a prosperous American future.
Once our district and our Department of Education officials start measuring more of the things that matter the most, they are going to find a very different kind of school organization measuring up. At that point, the debate between small schools vs. large schools will finally be seen as no real debate at all. Indeed, in aggregate, our nation’s small schools already measure up. Right now, peeling away the bureaucratic veneers of our DOE would reveal that our true aim is to develop a third rate imitation of education, and not to foster the kind of quality learning experiences education can only provide in a smaller learning environment.
We wish for America a preference for accountable individuality. It is not at all abnormal to find home-schooled students, who have remained outside of our public system, to be more sophisticated, calmer, and more articulate than students coming from medium and large sized schools. Strangely, they tend to test higher on standardized tests than students coming in from large systems that directly prep for such tests. We have learned to bank on this. In fact, the data is so overwhelming in favor of small schools vs. large schools that one small school director of admissions had this to write in, unsolicited:
“Students deserve to be free from worry about personal safety (physical and emotional) and to be confident that their teachers and administrators know them well and can guide their development of skills and knowledge. The United States, in its communities, has a long and rich history in trying various educational methods; only fairly recently have we begun to stand up against prevailing forces for system institutionalization, which we believe to run counter to that heritage. We need not let this be a long-range trend into the future.”
If you would like to learn more about the benefits of small schools, or request free membership in the Small Schools Coalition, we welcome you to contact us….
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