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School Size
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The potential and problems of large high schools--and the related question of optimal school size--have been debated over the last 40 years and are of growing interest today. Approximately 70% of American high school students attend schools enrolling 1,000 or more students; nearly 50% of high school students attend schools enrolling more than 1,500 students. Some students attend schools enrolling as many as 4,000-5,000 students.

At the heart of the debate are three questions:

  • Are large or smaller schools are more effective in increasing student achievement and producing other important school outcomes?

  • How much of the benefits of smaller schools is related to size versus other factors such as smaller communities, supportive educational environments, instructional quality or parental involvement?

  • Can any benefits to smaller schools be produced by restructuring larger schools into smaller learning environments?

Although the research to date is largely non-experimental and hence must be interpreted with some caution, there is a large body of other evidence to suggest that smaller schools may have advantages over large schools. And while less is known about smaller learning environments within large high schools (so-called "schools-within-schools"), they presumably simulate the effects of small schools while retaining some of the advantages of large schools.

Among current research findings:

  • Large high schools, particularly those serving low-income students, have disproportionately lower achievement and higher incidences of violence than smaller schools serving similar student populations.

  • In small schools, students tend to be more satisfied, more academically productive, more likely to participate in school activities, better behaved, and less likely to drop out than students in large schools.

  • The size of high schools may have an indirect effect on student learning. Essentially, more moderately sized schools-those with 900 or fewer students-likely improve the climate and conditions for student success, especially teacher sense of self-efficacy and appropriate sense of responsibility for student learning, when accompanied by high expectations, standards and supporting strategies. (Report available for a fee.)

  • Smaller schools also may be safer because students feel less alienated, more nurtured and more connected to caring adults, and teachers feel that they have more opportunity to get to know and support their students.

  • While small schools have a higher cost per pupil than large schools, they have a lower cost per graduate[downloadable files] PDF (290K) since they tend to have lower dropout rates. Also, the higher percentage of dropouts from large schools carries additional societal costs.

  • At the same time, some high schools may theoretically be too small to provide adequate resources, and the effects of school size may be more important for some groups of students than others. (Reports available for a fee.)

Given these and other research findings, the Department of Education has taken steps to address the issue of high school size by offering schools resources to simulate the effects of small high schools within large high school campuses, which the majority of American students attend. Among federal efforts:

  • The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 provides funds for the Smaller Learning Communities Program which helps local education agencies plan, implement, or expand small learning communities in large high schools. Through this program, the Department is also conducting new research to determine whether the effects of small schools can be replicated within large high schools; the ideal size of such communities; and the impact of breaking down large high schools on important outcomes such as achievement and equity.

  • No Child Left Behind also authorizes the Comprehensive School Reform Program which provides funding for states to implement several high school reform models, many of which are organized around smaller learning communities.

  • No Child Left Behind also provides funds for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program to prevent violence in and around schools, and foster a safe and drug-free learning environment that supports student academic achievement.

Research and Evaluation

  • Class Size Reduction: Lessons Learned from Experience. Issue brief on the policy and financial questions surrounding reductions in class size. The authors discuss how and under what circumstances smaller classes make a difference, whether benefits outweigh costs, and the types of policy tradeoffs made to reduce class size.

  • The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools [downloadable files]PDF (290K). Report that outlines research showing the desirable educational and community outcomes of small schools, and analyzes their cost-effectiveness. Extensive list of references included.

  • From Large to Small: Strategies for Personalizing the High School. Profiles examples of effective small schools, and synthesizes the key lessons about why they are effective. Also looks at the experiences of large high schools that broke into smaller learning communities but only reproduced inequities and ineffective practices, and discusses why those efforts foundered. (Requires free registration to view.)

  • The Future of School Facilities: Getting Ahead of the Curve (Center on Reinventing Public Education, 2002). Paper on how five trends will change the way schools look and operate, leading to a more flexible approach where school facilities may be shared among K-12, college, community and business sites.

  • Improving Student Achievement: What State NAEP Test Scores Tell Us. RAND researchers compared NAEP results in 44 states to determine if there were measurable differences in student achievement among states, and if these differences could be tied to specific reform policies. They found that reforms aimed at reducing class size, increasing access to pre-school, reducing teacher turnover, and providing adequate resources for teachers at the classroom level seemed to be the most effective. (Report available for a fee.)

  • Monitoring School Quality: An Indicators Report
    [downloadable files] PDF(965K). Explores why some schools may be better than others at helping students learn. The report reviews 13 characteristics of schools, classrooms, and teachers that are most likely related to school quality and student learning. For each indicator, the report identifies where national data are currently available and reliable.

  • Report on American Education, 2001. Examines the achievement levels of American students to determine: (1) if there have been any significant changes over the last several decades; (2) if the American public is getting accurate information about student achievement; (3) how students are faring with regard to mathematics, in particular; and (4) how particular policies affect achievement.

Noteworthy Practices

  • Alternative School Calendars: Smart Idea or Senseless Experiment? Article that explores alternative school schedules (starting later to accommodate adolescent sleep needs, moving to a year-round schedule, setting up a four-day week, etc.) and their effects on student achievement. Includes links to additional resources on the subject.

  • Around the Block: The Benefits and Challenges of Block Scheduling. Article that explains block scheduling, gives some examples of its use, and discusses the research so far on whether or not block scheduling improves student achievement.

  • Assessing the Progress of New American Schools: A Status Report. Describes baseline conditions at a sample of schools implementing NAS reform designs, most of which are in high-poverty, urban areas.

  • At Rhodes, Work Prep Puts Academics First. A Cleveland High School restructures to integrate basic employment skills and business awareness into its academic courses, and sees positive results.

  • Better by Design? A Consumer's Guide to Schoolwide Reform. The Fordham Foundation describes the philosophy, environment and effect on student achievement of 10 widely-used school reform models. This is a well-written report aimed at education "consumers" - parents, teachers, community members and administrators trying to improve student achievement in their school or district.

  • Block Scheduling Revisited. Review of the benefits and problems of block scheduling as it has been implemented in the US over the last few years. Includes recommendations to administrators and teachers for getting the most out of block scheduling.

  • How to Fix America's Schools. Seven recommendations on how to bring US schools to a standard where "no child is left behind," synthesized from interviews and discussions with a broad range of experts.

  • Overview of Smaller Learning Communities in High Schools
    [downloadable files] MS WORD(153K). The paper describes the federal initiative, highlights small school structures and strategies that may be implemented with grant funds, reviews the context of the growing consensus around smaller schools, and summarizes the research that under girds the new grant program.

  • Taking Stock: The Movement to Create Mini-Schools, Schools-Within-Schools, and Separate Small Schools. This paper examines the several forms which school downsizing efforts are taking, along with the somewhat diverse purposes for which smaller schools are being established.

  • Talent Development High School . Developed by Johns Hopkins University, this high school reform model divides large, urban high schools into smaller units ("academies"), including a Ninth Grade Success Academy and academies based on career themes for students in the upper grades.

Additional Links

  • Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Develops and shares information and resources to improve the conditions and outcomes of schooling in the United States, especially in urban communities and in schools serving disadvantaged children.

  • Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Offers grants to help large, troubled high schools transform themselves into smaller, more personalized learning environments. Site provides a foundation profile and funding guidelines.

  • Catalog of School Reform Models. Designed to help educators find an external model that meets the needs of their school. It provides descriptions of 27 entire-school models plus additional entries on reading/language arts, mathematics, science, and "other" models.

  • Comprehensive Regional Assistance Centers. The U.S. Department of Education established these fifteen centers to provide technical assistance services focused on the implementation of reform programs.

  • Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration (CSRD) Program. Designed to increase student achievement by assisting public schools across the country with implementing comprehensive reforms that are grounded in scientifically based research and effective practices.

  • Equity Assistance Centers. These ten centers are funded by the U.S. Department of Education and provide assistance in the areas of race, gender, and national origin equity to public school districts to promote equal educational opportunities.

  • National Academy Foundation. This foundation operates academies in three career themes: finance, travel and tourism, and information technology. Each academy operates as a "school within a school" in high schools across the country.

  • National Association of Secondary School Principals. Information, resources, and professional development opportunities for principals, assistant principals, and aspiring principals.

  • National Research and Development Centers. The U.S. Department of Education funds five university-based, national, educational research and development centers which address topics such as early childhood development and learning, student learning and achievement, postsecondary improvement, adult learning, and education policy.

  • New American Schools. Focuses on increasing student achievement through comprehensive school improvement strategies.

  • (Re)Designing Learning Environments. Website on constructing and renovating schools so that the physical environment reflects the learning environment, and complements the developmental needs of students. Case studies, individual perspectives, studies of community engagement in school building projects, and links to additional resources.

  • Regional Educational Laboratories. These ten laboratories work to help educators and policy makers solve education problems in their states and districts. The labs research education issues, print publications, and provide training programs to teachers and administrators.

  • Small Schools Workshop. A group of educators, organizers, and researchers who collaborate with teachers, principals, and parents to create new, small, innovative learning communities in public schools.

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Last Modified: 11/02/2009