BIGGER OR BETTER?
- By Deb Moore
- May 1st, 2004
In 1940, there were 117,108 school districts in the U.S. By the 2001-02 school year, only 14,559 remained — an 88 percent decrease in the number of districts. Not only did the number of districts decline, so did the number of schools, which went from 247,289 in 1929-30 school year, to 94,112 in the 2001-02 school year. During this same time period, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the population more than doubled, from 132,164,569 in 1940, to 281,421,906 in 2000. The result was bigger schools. The question remains, is bigger better?
There were many reasons for consolidation, ranging from the desire of school administrators todemonstrate commitment to the forces of science, progress and modernization, to seeking to make school more efficient — a notion borrowed from the private sector. Others believed that large schools could offer more specialized courses, an expanded curriculum, more math and science, larger libraries and extensive extracurricular programs, all at a lower cost per student. In 1940, that may have been true, but in 2004, with the increased use of the Internet and distance learning, the idea of building big had lost its luster. In fact, most research studies that have reported on school size show smaller is better.
A review of current research shows:
Quality of the Curriculum — On average, a 100 percent increase in enrollment yields only a 17 percent increase in variety of course offerings; most large schools do not offer higher-level courses, but rather additional intro courses in noncore areas; and only five to 12 percent of students in large schools take advantage of the extras.
Academic Achievement — When looking at academic achievement as an isolated measure, the jury is split — half reporting superior results, while the other half report no significant difference.
Attitudes — Overwhelmingly in favor of small schools versus large ones.
Social Behavior — Small schools have lower incidences of negative social behavior, including truancy, classroom disruption, vandalism, aggressive behavior, theft, substance abuse and gang participation.
Extracurricular Participation — In large schools, the average student does not use the opportunities afforded him or her. Participation rates are significantly higher in small schools, even though activities are limited. In addition, the average student has a better experience.
Attendance — Smaller schools have higher attendance rates.
Dropout Rate — The holding power of smaller schools is considerably greater than that of large schools.
One roadblock for the small school movement has been the cost. For years, many have believed in the notion ofeconomy of scale — measuring the cost effectiveness of small schools on a per-pupil basis. Today, the trend is towards measuring cost effectiveness on a cost-per-graduate basis, making small schools a hands-down winner. While initial cost to the community may be greater, the benefits are long-term.
What about public opinion? Public Agenda, a nonpartisan opinion research organization founded in 1975 by social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, recently conducted a survey on the topic of small schools. In their report, Sizing Things Up, Public Agenda examined the attitudes of teachers, parents and students on whether size matters in education.
From the parents’ perspective: Parents whose children attend small high schools were more likely to say that teachers help struggling students (75 percent compared to 48 percent in large schools) and that students speak and write well (67 percent to 47 percent). Parents whose children were in large schools were more likely to report that students were alienated (40 percent to 23 percent), bullied (41 percent to 27 percent) and likely to dropout (43 percent to 21 percent).
From the teachers perspective: Teachers in large high schools are more likely to say their schools are overcrowded and more likely to say students can fall through the cracks (50 percent to 30 percent in small schools).
Unfortunately, while all agree that small schools are beneficial, many see other reforms as more pressing. For most, school size is a secondary issue. For us, as architects, administrators and planners, the issue of school size cannot be pushed aside. It is our responsibility to examine the findings and design right-sized schools that can help students in their struggle to succeed.