Can the current public education system reform to serve all students, even children it now "leaves behind?"
Higher graduation rates, less violence, a sense of belonging instead of alienation: the case for small schools is supported by mountains of evidence and a growing number of innovative models. But many state and local governments persist in consolidation efforts, fueled by a misguided belief in the effectiveness of giant schools.
Since the late 1950s, state and local governments have aggressively closed small schools, herding kids into larger facilities. Between 1940 and 1990, the number of elementary and secondary schools decreased from 200,000 to 62,000, despite a 70 percent rise in U.S. population. Average enrollments skyrocketed from 127 to 653.
The trend toward giantism continues. The number of high schools with more than 1,500 students doubled in the last decade. Two-fifths of the nation's secondary schools now enroll more than 1,000 students. Some schools have as many as 5,000 students and enrollments of 2,000 or 3,000 are common.
Yet, today, riding on a wave of real-world success and a mountain of empirical evidence, a full-fledged small-schools movement has emerged. It's transforming public education in several big cities and, in rural areas, reinvigorating a long-standing fight to wrest local schools from the jaws of consolidation.
Many teachers and researchers believe that school size is second only to financial resources in the success of public schools. In her 1999 review of school size studies, Mary Anne Raywid of Hofstra University [New York] writes that the relationship between size and positive educational outcomes has been "confirmed with a clarity and at a level of confidence rare in the annals of education research."
According to the U.S. Department of Education's report, Violence and Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools: 1996-97, more than half of small-school principals report either no discipline or minor discipline problems, compared to only 14 percent of big-school principals. Schools of 1,000 or more students experience 825 percent more violent crime, 270 percent more vandalism and 1,000 percent more weapons incidents, compared to those with fewer than 300 students.
Students in small schools have higher attendance and graduation rates, participate more in extracurricular activities, and perform at or above the academic level of students at large schools.
In 1996, Kathleen Cotton, a research specialist with the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, in Portland, Oregon reviewed the results of over 100 studies on school size and concluded, "Student achievement in small schools is at least equal and often superior to achievement in large schools." Academic measures included grades, test scores, honor roll enrollment, subject-area achievement, and higher-order thinking skills.
Small school students are also more likely to go on to college. A Nebraska study found that 73 percent of students in districts with fewer than 70 high school students enrolled in a post-secondary institution, compared to 64 percent of those in districts of 600 to 999 high school students. These findings hold even when other variables, such as student attributes or staff characteristics, are taken into account.
Perhaps most important of all, small schools narrow the achievement gap between poor children and their more affluent classmates. According to a four-state study released in 2000, small schools substantially reduce the damaging impact poverty has on student learning. Researchers Craig Howley of Ohio University and Robert Bickel of Marshall University found that poor children who attend small schools have significantly higher test scores than those who attend large schools.
New small schools have been launched or are in the works in cities across the nation. In Boston, the teachers' union and school district have worked together to launch several successful small schools. Chicago's Board of Education has contracted with the nonprofit Small Schools Workshop to decentralize its large schools. In Oakland, [California] the Board of Education will soon adopt a policy creating 10 small schools, and wants to create more in the future.
The movement is beginning to catch the attention of national and state policymakers. The federal government now provides small grants to districts seeking to restructure large high schools by breaking them into smaller learning communities or autonomous schools housed within the same building. More importantly, some states are moving to rewrite school funding and facilities policies that currently favor and even mandate large schools.
As work continues to improve urban schools, mountains of evidence and real-world success suggest that reversing the trend toward bigger schools ought to be our top priority.
Stacy Mitchell is author of The Home Town Advantage and a researcher with the New Rules Project ( www.newrules.org) of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This article originally appeared in The New Rules journal and may be viewed at www.newrules.org/journal/nrsum00schools.htm.