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Brought to you courtesy of Robert Parker for NC House.


From the editor,
David W. Kirkpatrick
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

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

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.

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