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School Size -- Bigger is Not Better

Susan Notes:

School Size - Bigger Is Not Better
Thursday, December 25, 2003
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us
David W. Kirkpatrick Senior Education Fellow

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. In 2001, a study by Public Agenda found that "Essentially all of the research on high school size conducted in the past 30 years suggests that we need to move to much smaller schools."

Douglas Heath has said an enrollment of 400 to 500 students is almost too large. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner suggested 250 students and Ted Sizer has said no school --elementary, middle, or secondary -- should have more than 200 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. Larger schools average 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 600. The highly publicized instances of killings in public schools in recent years occurred in large centralized schools.

Of necessity, a smaller percentage of students in large high schools take part in extracurricular activities such as athletics, the school paper, and class offices. Only so many students may play football, or basketball, etc., regardless of the school's enrollment. The percentage of student participation has been shown to peak in high schools with 61 to 150 students.

The average public school has more than 600 students. And that includes rural areas with few students. Forty years ago Santa Monica High School in California had an enrollment of 8,000. Dewitt Clinton High School in New York City was once said to have 16,000. Currently, Charles W. Flanagan High School, Florida's biggest, has more than 5,300 students although it was designed for only 2,835.

Admittedly those monstrosities are the extremes. But, nationally, 70% of America's high school students attend a high school with more than 1,000 students.

By contrast, the nation's 25,000 nonpublic schools average about 200. New charter schools across the nation have only about 200, and many have fewer than 100. Yet all of these seem to do just fine. .

A small school movement is finally underway.

Norway, in 1978, passed a law establishing the maximum size of its high schools at 450 students. More recently, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) adopted a resolution that no high school should have more than 600 students

Since the mid 1970s the 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 to 300 pupils, and permitting students to choose which of the schools they will attend. Realizing that a building is not a school, East Harlem has individual buildings with more than one school each.

Since the mid-1980s, the Kansas City School District and the state of Missouri, under the orders of a federal district court judge, have spent some $2 billion extra dollars to build huge new schools. Yet dropout rates and other problems remain high while achievement rates stay low. The U.S. Supreme Court finally ordered the district judge to relinquish his control. The judge had consulted educational "experts" who assured him that their recommendations would turn the district around within five years.

The Philadelphia School District received more than $25 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts to assist in reducing the operational size of the district's high schools. Walter Annenberg provided a grant of more than $49 million to the Chicago School District to do the same. The September 29, 2003 issue of TIME Magazine reported that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave more than $50 million to New York City public schools to help create nearly 70 small theme-based high schools with a maximum of 500 students each.

Smaller schools cost much less to build, may be located in more convenient places because they don't need large amounts of land, save on transportation costs, encourage neighborhood schools, and have many other advantages in addition to those of student achievement, behavior and participation.

Many reasons have been given for the decline of the educational system in recent decades, such as the growth of teacher unions and the weakening of family structures. Perhaps each of these factors plays a role. But so, too, may be the building of larger schools, which also has coincided with the growing problems.

If the question is whether a new school should be a large centralized one, the overwhelming evidence says no.
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"I would not want to face the challenge of justifying a senior, yet alone junior, high of more than 500 to 600 studentsl." John I. Goodlad, p. 309, A Place Called School, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1984 (This report was the product of one of the largest studies of public schools ever done in the United States.)
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Information on small schools/small learning communities strategies may be found on the Internet at www.jff.org, or www.lab.brown.edu.
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— David W Kirkpatrick



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