Dumbing Down By Sizing Up

Why smaller schools make more sense if you want to affect student outcomes by Craig Howley

Afew years ago, some colleagues and I at the Appalachia Education Laboratory agreed to help a rural board of education confronting a dilemma: whether to keep operating or to close some of its 20 small schools, each enrolling about 200 or fewer students.

The county school board had made periodic promises in the past not to shutter the small schools that remained in its district, particularly those in more remote sections, but board members now were feeling intense pressure to act differently.

As employees of a disinterested, nonprofit corporation, we conducted surveys, interviews and focus groups and prepared a comprehensive report for the board. Our findings made clear there was not much support among the citizenry for closing schools, even while the school district’s professional leadership and staff supported the closures.

This difference in opinion contributed to a painful divide between educators and community. In a rural school district, where people serve simultaneously as neighbors, friends, relatives and co-workers, such a division is not only unfortunate but unhealthy. Effective schooling in rural and urban environments requires that professionals and community members work together with mutual respect.

Whose Literature?

Surprisingly, the school board members and community residents with whom we talked had a better grasp of the small-schools literature than the professionals. Sadly, we have found this to be the case elsewhere. Once the professionals decide that schools must close and the governing board acts on that recommendation, backtracking is uncommon and unlikely. Such action frequently provokes parents into a defensive posture. And the tide of bad feelings that results may disable the rural school district for years to come.

What struck us most starkly from our experiences was how professional educators seemed to be behind the times in their thinking. This is understandable: Many of us who serve in educational leadership roles were trained at a time when big schools were regarded unquestionably as superior to small ones. After all, the thinking went, larger schools offered an economy of scale and a wider array of academic and extracurricular opportunities for students.

Even in current graduate-level training, educational administrators have not been firmly convinced of the value of research, claiming it’s too theoretical and too difficult to access. Practical implications are obscure or unlikely to be acted upon, and sufficient time to review the literature doesn’t seem to exist. All these factors make professional educators reluctant to pursue current research findings, and remarkably few of us do so—even in the fields in which we work.

Professional development is a major concern for just these reasons. Granted, managing schools is tough work that leaves little energy at the end of a day to dig into the details of scholarly studies. On the other hand, ordinary citizens readily can get hold of current information about schooling, and they will do so when they have a motive. The threat of a school closing provides especially powerful motivation that energizes entire communities.

In a real sense, the research literature is no longer just the domain of professionals. In some respects, it is more accessible to people outside the profession, who will find the time to learn about an issue that concerns them in depth.

For whatever reasons, many educational leaders have clung, unfortunately, to the notions that large schools (1) provide better learning environments, (2) do so at less cost, and (3) cultivate learning better than small schools. Recent research, however, suggests that, on average, none of these claims has much merit.

Limited Documentation

When it looks like it may be time to close a school, you had better seek second and third opinions. School board members, superintendents and policymakers need to understand a few principles in clear relief.

* First, very few before-and-after studies of consolidation exist.

This is truly surprising given the history of consolidation. In the 60 years between 1929 and 1989, consolidation reduced the number of school districts across the United States by 90 percent and the number of schools by 70 percent, yet during those years the number of students increased by 60 percent!

The lack of pre- and post-consolidation studies means that we have no solid information about the accrual of benefits alleged to depend on school closures and consolidation.

* Second, consolidation does not seem to save money.

The few before-and-after studies of consolidation that were done do not find significant differences in school district budgets after school closures.

However, Herbert Walberg and Bill Fowler, in an article about efficiencies of public school districts in the October 1987 issue of Educational Researcher, claim their research shows big schools and districts to be less effective (per dollar) in producing student achievement. Their conclusions might suggest consolidation actually squanders money.

* Third, small schools seem to be especially productive for poor kids.

A growing number of studies suggest that equally poor kids attending large and small schools learn more in the latter. My own work in West Virginia, which replicates work done in California, suggests that bigger schools may be productive for affluent kids, but they are counterproductive for impoverished kids. In practical terms, this means that when a big school is created, affluent kids are the likely beneficiaries and poor kids the likely victims.

What I found confirmed a differential effect of size based on socioeconomic status. In schools and districts serving populations with high socioeconomic status, size was positively related to achievement: The higher the SES, the stronger the relationship became. But the opposite was true for schools serving low-SES student populations. There, the relationship was negative and the lower the SES, the more negative the relationship.

If a school district is serving a large proportion of poor youngsters, it would be well advised to do everything possible to keep small schools open and to improve the quality of those schools. (This is not to suggest small schools are of poor quality, just that they serve poor children better than big schools on average). If a district only operates large schools, it ought to consider creating smaller units. If student achievement is the goal, bigger schools are counterproductive to impoverished children.

* Fourth, increasing school size doesn’t reliably produce better curriculum.

Some huge schools offer a limited or even a distorted curriculum. Professor David Monk and his colleagues at Cornell University have concluded that high schools with 400 kids can offer a fully adequate curriculum. Curriculum breadth and adequacy are a challenge in smaller high schools, but the challenges can be met. Professor Chris Roellke at the University of Virginia gives some tips in a recent ERIC digest titled "Curriculum Adequacy and Quality in High Schools Enrolling Fewer Than 400 Pupils (9-12)."

* Fifth, you can house small schools in big buildings.

This is not ideal for many reasons, and it’s more an urban and suburban option than a rural one. Deborah Meier, in her 1995 book The Power of Their Ideas, provides some excellent suggestions to accomplish this goal.

Meier, by the way, is not a supporter of the "schools-within-schools" idea. She likes separate schools—with unique leadership, culture and curriculum and a high degree of fiscal autonomy. Experience suggests that such schools tend to seek their own facilities eventually. The point is, however, that creating small schools is not an immediate bricks-and-mortar issue. It has more to do with culture, purpose and power.

What Economies?

The older literature on school size gives the impression that economies of scale will accrue naturally as the size of schools increases. In general, the observation has merit. Smaller schools tend to have smaller classes and less division of labor, and they may be disadvantaged when procuring goods and services. But consider the human toll: When the school district or state doesn’t fund smaller units, students pay in terms of lower academic achievement and reduced life options.

Economies of scale do exist, but as schools increase in size beyond what is friendly to students and teachers, non-monetary diseconomies start to appear. (Some research suggests monetary diseconomies also appear. In general, the cost-per-unit curve is U-shaped, with diseconomies at the ends—the smallest and largest schools and districts.)

The cost is also non-monetary: the quality of teaching and learning declines. That is the ultimate diseconomy because a fiscally efficient district that inadvertently degrades teaching and learning purchases those efficiencies at the cost of undermining its mission.

Just how and when these diseconomies appear depends on local circumstance, but they are often predictable. The likely strong predictors are impoverishment (local wealth disparities) and size (district, school, classroom). Weaker predictors might include state policy context, social capital, and quality of district and school leadership. In general, however, the more impoverished a local community, the smaller schools need to be—if the achievement of impoverished kids is valued.

The myth running throughout the older literature is that bigger schools save money. This was an easier point to make in 1922 when Ellwood Cubberley wrote his classic book, Rural Life and Education. But even Cubberley, a tireless proponent of consolidation early in the century, was careful to note that consolidation didn’t save money. Consolidation, he believed, was an opportunity for improvement, and improvement wasn’t cheap in his view.

Defining Sizes

What’s "large" and what’s "small?"

I get asked these questions all the time, and a single answer for everyone just won’t work. My response is based less on research findings and more on my instincts and long consideration of the issues and the literature. The real answer is, "it depends." But these rules of thumb should prove helpful—so long as you really are convinced that schools can be too big.

* High schools: For schools serving grades 9-12, 300 to 500 students is plenty. Size alone doesn’t warrant closing three 200-student schools to produce one 600-student school. There’s ready proof.

Recall my previous remarks about large schools serving youngsters from well-to-do backgrounds. Elite private academies such as Andover and Phillips Exeter enroll only about 1,000 students in grades 9-12. That should be the upper limit for big schools for the most affluent communities anywhere! High schools for economically disadvantaged youngsters have to be much smaller. The big urban schools with thousands of students drawn from impoverished neighborhoods do real damage, inevitably.

* Middle schools: I’m not convinced that students in grades 5 through 8 need a separate institution, but in rural areas I am certain that proposals to construct middle schools facilitate closures and lead to increases in school size.

That aside, however, middle schools ought logically to be smaller than high schools; maybe 60 percent the size—based on my view that K-8 elementary schools should be half as large as high schools. That would put the upper limit at about 600 for advantaged youngsters and much smaller for poor kids. A middle school serving 150 students in grades 5-8 or 6-8 would not be too small in my view.

* Elementary schools: A K-8 school with 500 kids is fine for an affluent neighborhood. Otherwise, smaller is better and necessary. Impoverished communities would be served best by K-8 schools with 100 students or less. Existing elementary schools that are smaller than that should be sustained, rather than closed, especially when they serve the poor.

* Rural and urban twists: In rural areas, every time a small school is closed, parental and community involvement suffers. Many rural areas, particularly in the South, have county-sized districts. Rural closures in many of these districts leave just a single high school to serve students from hundreds of square miles. Typically, such school districts run no activity buses for students, while parents are hard pressed to get to these school because of the distances.

In urban areas, too many schools are too large. Cities like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia are on the right track in creating smaller schools. But the experiments need to be supported and sustained for the long term, according to Mary Anne Raywid, author of the 1996 work Taking Stock: The Movement to Create Mini-Schools. Patience is required, even decades of patience, before achievement scores rise.

Future Warnings

Interest in the benefits of small schools and small districts has grown stronger over the past decade. Some proponents contend all schools need to be small. This seems to me to be an overstatement. Some large schools (up to 1,000 or so students) probably can exist in very affluent communities without harming children.

What’s clear is that extremely large schools serve no one particularly well, but that small schools provide extra support for students who come from "threatening backgrounds," where it’s harder for them to master the basics and where crime and violence routinely disrupt lives.

The biggest threat though, is not poverty, but impoverishment—those forces that decide the nature and extent of poverty, who has to be poor and how miserable a life they have to lead as a result. Schools that are too large contribute to the processes of impoverishment. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, partly as the result of their schooling.

Professor David Berliner of Arizona State University reminds us the United States has one of the most unequal distributions of income among developed nations. This, he insists, is our major educational challenge. Creating and sustaining small schools can help educators meet the challenge. Our nation needs more schools and those schools need to be smaller than they are in most communities.

Craig Howley is director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools, P.O. Box 1348, Charleston, W.Va. 25325-1348. E-mail: howleyc@ael.org