Small Versus Large Schools: The Truth About Equity, Cost, and Diversity of Programming

By STUART R. GRAUER, Ed.D.

Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, Founder of The Small Schools Coalition, and a contributing editor for Community Works Journal.

drstuartgrauer_800Powerful and often compelling myths about “real” schooling tend to govern our collective assumptions about normalcy, and these myths have silently, steadfastly advanced the move to larger, more consolidated schools and hampered any real proliferation of the small schools model in our country. Concerned about this difference between myth and reality, now a century in the making, we formed the Small Schools Coalition in 2011 and commenced with an extensive comparison of large and small school attributes. Twelve months of research and school visitations turned up some surprises that we share, herein.

We had been aware of various myths distorting our collective viewpoints about what a school should be, and our research turned up still more. We were equally aware of an historic gap of knowledge on the benefits of small schools — real community schools — and this gap was born out; but the big surprise that turned up in our research was the dearth of information on the comparative benefits of the nation’s large, comprehensive school model, which predominates in our nation.

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 teachers.

Like many of our cities, the large school model had evolved very gradually and was not the result of a set 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. It had been more like watching a beautiful tree grow; we could discern nothing but the seasons until it came to pass that our tree was not at all what it had been, buckling the sidewalk and over-shadowing the once-sunny garden, spreading limbs that could hardy support themselves, or couldn’t. But, of course, we never see a tree growing. Tried and true presumptions about the American schoolhouse were running on hyperbole, myths mistaken for reality. No one was to blame, but our schools, designed on the outside, had grown too big for most of the people on the inside.

In the literature, we found little disagreement that small schools do better than large in the areas of safety, teaching conditions, and academic performance. The cases for these are overwhelming, not difficult to make. Indeed, the historical rationale for consolidated, comprehensive schools were based on other factors: (1) economies of scale, (2) social equality, and (3) increased program offerings — these presumed benefits had outweighed the other educational attributes. The alarming part of our research was that these large school benefits had virtually never been verified and, as we weighed large schools in the balance against small schools we found them — all three of them — to be either questionable or outright false.

Three Givens: Safety, Teaching Conditions, and Academic Performance
Before moving on to the myth busters, we considered extensive research on our givens. Thirty or more years of research bore out the finding that small schools are safer, offer better teaching, and result in higher academic performance.

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. It is impossible to dismiss school size as a powerful and fundamental indicator of 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.

For teachers, small schools have consistently been shown to have the conditions necessary for improvements in professional climates. Small school teachers feel more committed and connected in their work, and they report higher job satisfaction and a greater sense of responsibility for ongoing student learning.

We understood there was some prejudice against or skepticism about small schools by large school proponents who claimed that large schools, by virtue of having more homogeneously tracked and Advanced Placement courses, would be more rigorous academically. We found an absence of any research showing this prejudice to be justified. Researchers overwhelmingly were reporting that students learned more in smaller schools. For standardization mavens, students in small schools were reported to outperform students in large schools on standardized achievement tests, and significantly so (Bryk & Driscoll, 1988; Gladden, 2000; Howley & Bickel, 2000; Husbands and Beese, 2004; Lee & Smith, 1997; Raywid, 1980). Students in small schools also were getting more units before graduating high school.

It was not, however, any of the above factors that was driving the century-long trend towards larger, more consolidated, comprehensive schools. Reasons given for those had much more to do with age-old myths about the power of large schools to provide optimal conditions for equal opportunity, cost, and diverse and varied program offerings.

Myth # 1: Large Schools Are America’s “Great Equalizers”
Myth Buster: Learning is more equitably distributed in smaller schools.
Large school proponents cite greater social choice and diversity as plusses for the large school model. Are these presumptions borne out in research?

This is a complex issue containing political, social, and emotional components, among others. Among complex organizations, developing a unique, shared culture is where the small organization most excels. Research consistently reveals that in small schools, 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. The true small school offers a greater sense of relationship connectedness and opportunity among virtually all stakeholders, such as are both implicit and proven in small organizations and communities.

Small schools demonstrate great achievement equity. Smaller, more “communal” learning environments reduce both student and teacher alienation commonly identified in larger school systems, and enhance student engagement in learning. For instance, Nathan & Thao’s 2001 study showed that “Students at large schools are more prone to be alienated from their peers…” In small schools, respectful relationships prevail, as do high expectations for behavior and achievement.

We have long looked to our schools to be places of equal 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 for still more comprehensive schools recurred in the late 1900s, from the 1970s through the 90s, and schools again surged ahead in size — while drop out rates increased and complaints of inequality in school did not subside. Indeed, as comprehensive school students all study for the same degree they are on completely different “tracks,” a phenomenon that has been called “the faux equality of diversity” (Mirel, 2006). While some gains in social justice have been made nationwide, few researchers would 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 (Clotfelter, 2002). Small schools create more opportunities for participation per capita; a larger percentage of students participate and they participate in more kinds of activities. Small schools need a large percentage of students to fill each activity, and they engage a broader cross-section of students, helping reduce social and racial isolation (Fouts, Abbor, & Baker, 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. And yet, a primary rationale for the move to consolidated and comprehensive campuses was to provide equitable access to schooling. 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. If these are gains our comprehensive 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 schools appears to have created or perpetuated the problems it was meant to solve.

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 teachers. Research shows that in small schools, relationships between students and adults are strong, trusting, and ongoing. This leads to a clearer, safer, more enriched path to graduation and postgraduate plans, and the bonds continue on longer after graduation. Secondly, small school parents are closer and have higher levels of involvement, and parental involvement is a critical factor in student success. 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 tend to more frequently engage community members in evaluating curricular exhibits such as portfolios or attending student visual or performing arts showings.

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 difficult to definitively dispute the verity of this comparison: Small schools offer students, teachers, and school leaders a substantially greater sense of connectedness, opportunity, efficacy, and safety than large schools.

Myth # 2: Large Schools Offer More Learning Choices and Curriculum.
Myth Buster: “Increasing school size, especially beyond 400 students, does not typically result in a large increase in curricular offerings.” — Slate & Jones
It is often claimed that a big school offers more program choices and opportunities. After our review of the literature, we came to view this as a flawed and reductionist way to view what “choice” really means to today’s student. A powerful but little known outcome of small schools is that, in vital respects, they provide students with more choices in their learning.

How can small schools students have a full range of curricular and extra-curricular choices? Large school proponents have routinely argued that large schools have more clubs, specialized classes, and sports. Indeed, big team sports are an American icon, which has been difficult to attack. So, before we considered the verity of these arguments, we first noted an irony, that the expanded slate of programs are only marginally a part any high school’s own quality metrics — they are virtually never held in greater esteem than safety or academic achievement, for instance. Deborah Meier, often credited as being a founder of the small schools movement, put it candidly: “When we talk with school officials and local politicians about restructuring large high schools, the first thing they worry about is what will happen to the basketball or baseball teams, the after-school program, and other sideshows; that the heart of the school, its capacity to educate, is missing, seems almost beside the point.” (Mitchell, 2000)

The percentage of high school students engaged in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities is higher in small schools, possibly far higher. For illustration, at small schools there may not be as many teams or honors courses to pick from, but a greater percentage of students are on a team or in an honors course; also, a greater percentage of students are in multiples of such activities. Small size also makes it easier for teachers to organize hands-on learning opportunities that engage students in rigorous academic work that has meaningful consequences in the local community.

We took a look at course offerings. After an extensive review of the literature, we noted that increasing school size, especially beyond 400 students, was not typically resulting in a large increase in curricular choices. By offering a smaller, more focused curriculum, small schools maintain quality control that cannot be replaced by more levels of management in large organization. The largest schools have five or ten times as many students as did the smaller schools but typically offered about twice as many courses. In addition, much of the material covered in specialized courses at large schools is taught within regular courses at small schools.

A student who plays year-round varsity sports, enrolls in numerous advanced courses, and manages to stay segregated from the safety issues would appear to be well suited in the large school. This, of course, does not account for the majority of America’s students.

We wondered: Will the small high school be able to offer a full curriculum in the future? One answer is that the small school, past or future, is best at responding to individual student interests and needs. The classroom of tomorrow is offering new kinds of access to learning and methodology: interactive distance learning is equalizing course selections for all school sizes. Also, new configurations of “choice” are emerging; for instance, consider several schools (or schools within a school [SWASs]) collaborating to establish an interactive television network that allows a teacher in any of those schools to teach students on the network. SWASs are experimenting with exciting, “best of both worlds” ways in creating smaller learning communities while retaining big school resources like big-team sports and high end technology which might be too expensive for an individual small school.

If we wish to abandon America’s traditional emphasis on liberal arts schooling, “schooling for a democratic society,” and to re-orient our schools more into technical and vocational training grounds, sheer numbers of courses may help and big schools offering metal shop, computer programming and Urdu language might give our kids an edge. A liberal arts education, however, is more student-centered (as opposed to content-centered) than that: it focuses on intellectual development. It is the training grounds for entrepreneurship and ethics, and it has never been dependent upon a particularly large course catalog. In this fundamental sense, liberal arts education is an effort to create a better world, while “tech-voc” education is an effort to fill the slots in the world as it has been. Schools attempting to be all things to all people may never sort this dichotomy out.

In conclusion, an exhaustive course and club catalog is not fundamental as a determinant of excellent schooling, nor it is a proven way to accommodate diverse student tastes and interests: There are too many things that can occur in small arenas that can’t in big ones.

Myth # 3: Large Schools Provide an Economy of Scale
Myth Buster: “The ‘cost savings’ of larger schools are only apparent if the results are ignored.” — The New Rules Project
If large schools were cheaper to operate in the long run, perhaps we might have some rationale for their overwhelming prevalence — we could simply say we cannot afford smaller schools; but there is great uncertainty in knowing if they really cost less. Research is still scattered and unreliable, but our own studies indicate that larger schools with enrollments in excess of 1,200 have not produced expected economies of scale that result in better lower per-pupil costs when compared to true small schools. (They do appear to compare favorably with some medium sized schools of between 400 or 500 and at least 900 students.)

The above comparison sounds counterintuitive at a gut level, but a real analysis has to go a whole lot further than the gut. Formulas that our research found for determining funding tend to disguise tremendous non-cash costs associated closely with large schools; some of those costs are difficult to affix a price tag to, and some of them are terrible.

Large school increased costs include:
Increased drop out rates
Increased violence
Decreased sense of social safety and connectedness
Lower teacher satisfaction and higher teacher turnover
Lower achievement in college
Less happiness

At present, the above costs are seldom considered to be actuarial realities. Nor are things like community development or higher future incomes. I mention the last in the list, happiness, not as a luxury item and only because so much research ties it closely to our nation’s overall productivity.

Add to these costs a greater percentage of administrative overhead and externals such as the astronomical cost of the federal education bureaucracy (currently costing about $1000 per student nationwide), and even the current, known costs of large schools starts to look close to that of smaller, more personalized schools, if not higher in some analyses. Given the stakes, the dearth of thorough, medium- and long-range research and analysis on the comparative large-small school costs/benefits is stunning.

Educational Mythbusting and the Small School Movement
Why do we keep the focus on building gigantic schools when we now have over 30 years of promising small schools data. Has our nation not reached a time when some new directions are desperately sought? Here is one big reason the data are ignored: cultural expectations about high school are deeply embedded.

Today’s iconic high schools have activities that everyone speaks of with pride, things that the general public now believes to be “the real world” — sacred cows like the marching band, the lacrosse team, the boosters. These untouchable activities represent the school’s image and focus of pride, and they arduously resist change, even though they serve a relatively small percentage of students and rarely have any connection to the most fundamental aspects of excellent schooling: a focus on student learning and happiness, and a focus on the development of shared values. In the shadows of these myths are some unforgiving social scenes, metal detectors and chain link fencing, and more kids with drug, obesity, or anorexia problems than the football or cheer teams can accommodate; these are the troubling realities that characterize a substantial amount of life in today’s comprehensive, consolidated, large school arena.

Institutionalization and Mega Schools
Small schools compete in the marketplace, on their community playing fields, with their prime stakeholders: parents and community members. Their small size promotes an openness, which makes gatekeeping difficult and minimizes separation of administrators and leaders from constituents.

Perhaps it is any large government’s inclination to institutionalize. And yet it is the citizen’s role to remain free. Charters, private schools, 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. When you read or try to teach the overstuffed, state-mandated curricula, impossible to cover in any depth, to row after row of students, you get the feeling that few of the developers of these curricula have had a great conversation with a teen in a long while. There is no time to!

Conclusions
Many of our nation’s students are fully engaged in team or large campus activities they love and in challenging course offerings and extra-curriculars that draw out their passions; students like these may never need or consider small schools — it’s just that these particular youths are a minority of all our nearly 20 million high school students.

The aspirations of many school consolidation advocates to integrate the schools and fill them with diverse opportunities is obviously commendable. But aspirations have not lined up with results. What if we found out that 100 years of consolidations has produced no clear results? What if we found out that mixing students of diverse neighborhoods into large schools only creates additional grouping and alienation? What if we even considered the notion that we may have been practicing consolidation for a full century and it has largely failed in its main goal: 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. Could it be that what we should have been doing is creating integrated small schools rather than lumping everyone into the comprehensive, edge of town model? If the answer to this question even might be “yes” and we have not researched this issue properly, it implies a full century of incalculable loss.

A smaller-scale, personal approach can make a positive difference in our children’s education. Students deserve to be free from worry about physical and emotional safety 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 see that some myths have been institutionalized and mistaken for reality.

Inquiries about this essay are welcome at: info@smallschoolscoalition.com For permission to republish please email info@communityworksinstitute.org

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Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition. He consults with schools worldwide and been awarded the University of San Diego Career Achievement Award, plus various international educational exchange fellowships including a Fulbright. Stuart is one of the nation’s top authorities on small schools education. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Discovery Channel, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” A regular essayist for Community Works Journal, new book is Fearless Teaching, “a rare book about education that is both beautiful and critically imperative,” is available at www.fearlessteaching.com/.

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