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Big vs. Small: Size of Schools Plays Role in Quality Debate

August 2, 2004

By William L. Bainbridge

When parents are selecting schools for their children, many see the size of the enrollment as a critical factor. Likewise, boards of education are increasingly faced with adding or consolidating schools.

Frequently, there is disagreement on which is best. Publication in 1958 of "The American High School Today," by former Harvard President James B. Conant, buttressed the argument that schools should have at least 100 students per graduating class. He suggested that competitive high-level courses, particularly in math and science, could be offered economically only in larger schools. Since then, thousands of small schools and school districts have been consolidated across the country, reducing the number of schools in the past 70 years from more than 260,000 to about 90,000.

But population growth over the past decade has led parents and policymakers to begin to ask, "How big is too big?" In the Columbus area, many parents with financial resources are selecting historically small districts, such as New Albany and Granville and, ironically, turning them into schools that are not quite so small. School boards in Westerville, Worthington, Dublin, Hilliard and Pickerington have made decisions to keep schools at a "reasonable" enrollment by building additional campuses. Conversely, the Springfield city schools board of education voted a few weeks ago to consolidate its North and South High Schools into one massive campus, funded partially with state dollars. Focusing on high schools, arguments for large enrollments include beliefs that:

  • Bigger is better.
  • A broader range of elective offerings, including options in advancedplacement courses, foreign languages, journalism, photography, dance, drama, business, etc., is usually available.
  • Athletics, music, drama, forensic and academic teams can be more competitive in regional and state contests.
  • Teachers can become more specialized and not be required to teach as many subjects.
  • A single administration and maximum utilization of teaching staffs is an economic benefit.
  • Competitions among "sister" schools in the same community are reduced.
  • Socioeconomic and racial diversity more easily are promoted.

Meantime, Microsoft founder Bill Gates has been focusing a great deal of attention and money on efforts to promote small schools throughout the country. The Cincinnati-based KnowledgeWorks Foundation also has been a leader in promoting the effectiveness of small schools. Its arguments and those of other proponents of small schools include beliefs that:

  • Opportunities increase for students to participate in athletic and extracurricular activities by reducing competition.
  • Possibilities decrease of students being "lost" in a less-personalized, large environment.
  • Students are better served in terms of evidence of academic performance.
  • Research has determined a measurable, positive relationship between smaller schools and reduced discipline problems, crime, truancy, dropout rates, security issues and safety concerns.
  • Small schools equate to improved student attitudes, heightened student self-perception and a generally superior school climate.

So, which is best?

After surveying many thousands of parents, my company concluded that few parents who have a choice want their children in schools with more than 2,000 students.

The KnowledgeWorks Foundation, in its publication "Dollars & SENSE ó The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools," recommended enrollment targets, such as "high schools with 300 total enrollment." That is considerably smaller than the vast majority of schools in Ohio, and possibly is extreme in terms of financial capacity and economies of scale.

While there is no universal agreement on the ideal size for a school, it is important that parents and policymakers think of consequences when choosing schools or designing school policy with student population sizes in mind. There would appear to be no best answer that will solve all of a schoolís problems or raise test scores, attendance and financial support.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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