Return to the Articles page.
Brought to you courtesy of Robert Parker for NC House.
From the SchoolReformers.com editor, David W. Kirkpatrick DaveK@SchoolReformers.com http://www.schoolreformers.com/editorials/2002/schoolsize.html April 3, 2002 Few aspects of education have been more thoroughly researched than school size; few findings have been more consistent; and few have been more consistently ignored. As far back as 1964, Roger Barker and Paul Gump, in their book, "Big School, Small School," summarized hundreds of studies that concluded small schools are better, with the optimum size being about 400 to 500 students. This has been confirmed by numerous studies and reports since then. Norway demonstrated it took such ideas seriously when, in 1978, it passed a law establishing the maximum size of high schools at 450. Some education reformers, such as Douglas Heath, have said an enrollment of 400 to 500 students is almost too large. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner suggest 250 students and, in 1992, Ted Sizer said no school -- elementary, middle, or secondary -- should have more than 200 students. Sizer founded the Coalition for Essential Schools, which has numerous school reform projects around the nation, and he received millions of dollars from Walter Annenberg to assist his efforts. A survey of 12,708 elementary teachers in Chicago disclosed their belief that there is more progress in small schools than in large ones. The Milwaukee School District has even considered a series of kindergarten through fourth grade schools that would each have an enrollment of only 50 students. Herbert J. Kiesling studied high schools ranging in size from 100 to 4,000 students and found a direct, but negative, relationship between size and achievement. That is, as the schools got bigger, student achievement declined. Not only that, larger schools have higher rates of absenteeism, dropouts, discipline problems, disorder and violence. High schools with 2,000 students average a dropout rate twice as high as those with 667 students. A smaller percentage of students in high schools with an enrollment of 1,700 will take part in school events such as athletics, the school paper and class offices. The percentage of student participation has been shown to peak in high schools with 61 to 150 students. Those who say small schools are not "efficient" or effective, need to cite the evidence, not just the rhetoric. The nation's 25,000 nonpublic schools have 5,000,000 students, for an average enrollment of only 200. The nation's 86,000 public schools with 47,000,0900 students average nearly 550 students each. New charter schools average fewer than 200, and many have fewer than 100. The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), at its annual convention some years ago adopted a position that no high school should have more than 600 students. In recent years the Philadelphia School District received more than $25 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts to assist in reducing enrollments in the district's high schools by encouraging schools within a school or, more correctly, multiple schools within a single building. Walter Annenberg provided a grant of more than $49 million to the Chicago School District to do the same. Since the mid 1970s, East Harlem District 4, the poorest of New York City's 32 K-8 subdistricts and one of the poorest in the nation, has moved from last to about 15th by creating minischools, most with 200-300 pupils, and permitting students to choose which school they will attend. Many reasons have been given for the decline of SAT scores in recent decades, such as the growth of teacher unions and the weakening of family structures. Perhaps each of these factors does play a role. But so, too, may be the building of larger schools, which also has coincided with the lower SATs. Since the mid 1980s, the Kansas City School District and the state of Missouri, under the order of a federal court judge, have spent more than $1.5 billion extra dollars, much of which went to build magnificent new schools. The money was spent in a district with 40,000 students when the project started, tallying up to an extra $37,500 per pupil. Yet dropout rates remain high, attendance and achievement rates are poor and enrollment has decreased. Or consider Philadelphia, where a high school was built a few years ago at the cost of $30 million. A subsequent article in The Philadelphia Inquirer found the former problems still persist in the news structure and quoted one student as saying how much she hates the school. All of this is separate from the usual questions that arise when a new school buildings is proposed, such as is a new school needed, what type should it be, or can it be afforded. Those are significant questions. But the question as to what is the optimum size for the type of school being suggested is virtually never raised. Even when it is, it is usually answered on the basis of personal opinions, rather than knowledge based on sound research. Large schools should not be constructed just because the superintendent and school board have an "edifice complex." ----------- Copyright David W. Kirkpatrick Re-published with permission from the author.
Return to the Articles page.