• from the Florida Times-Union - School Size Makes a Big Difference

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School Size Makes a Big Difference

August 12, 2006

By William L. Bainbridge

Numerous problems at some local high schools have been highlighted in the Times-Union in recent months. Not surprisingly, most of the schools with documented behavioral and academic issues are also large schools.

A few years ago, the world's wealthiest man and his wife formed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The $ 29 Billion enterprise, the largest philanthropic effort in history by a single family, focused largely on improving American schools and world health.

This summer Bill Gates announced he would give up his major responsibilities at Microsoft, the company he co-founded 31 years ago, to concentrate his efforts on the charitable activities of the foundation. Shortly thereafter, the world's second richest man Warren E. Buffett, with a reported net worth of $44 billion, committed to donating 85% of his wealth mostly through the Gates Foundation

From the outset, Bill Gates said he believed our public school systems are "…keeping millions of our nation's young people from reaching their potential." He noted each year at about this time 4 million children in the country start the 9th grade and within four years, one-third of those children will have dropped out of high school. He reported another third of them will graduate unprepared to do college-level work or hold a job that can support a family.

Melinda and Bill Gates both directed the education program goals of the foundation to "significantly increase the number of students, particularly low-income African and Hispanic Americans, who graduate from high school ready for work, college and to participate in our democracy."

No sooner had the Gates Foundation staffed their offices and begun their work when they identified "large high schools" as contributing to disturbing trends of:

  • Making students too anonymous
  • Failing to provide students with personal attention
  • In failing to create an atmosphere where students acquire intellectual skills
  • Fostering low expectations
  • Having little academic value add.

The Gates' claim students in large high schools have too few relationships with adults and "smaller high schools" would mean big gains for students.

Never before has an education policy issue like school size had this type of attention from such a powerful and influential force. Foundation leaders began partnering with school systems around the country to start new schools and "transform large, impersonal high schools into ones where students get personal attention and a rigorous curriculum that is relevant to their lives."

Many education policy wonks, like this writer, are delighted. Intuitively, we believe the Gates are right on. In many cases, large schools have grown out of control for the sake of administrative and financial efficiency or to support large-scale athletic and/or performing arts programs.

A gap still remains, however, between instincts and recent research regarding school size. While most educational experts strongly support the notion of small school effectiveness, their opinions are seldom research based.

Ten years ago, the late Kathleen Cotton, of the Northwest Regional Laboratory, conducted the most comprehensive review of the empirical research on school size to date entitled "School Size, School Climate and Student Performance." She synthesized research findings into many points including:

  1. Academic achievement in small schools is at least equal-and often superior-to that of large schools and student attitudes toward school in general are more positive in small schools. Student academic and general self-concepts are higher in small schools than in large ones.
  2. Student social behavior-as measured by truancy, discipline problems, violence, theft, substance abuse, and gang participation-is more positive in small schools.
  3. School consolidation has been carried out through much of this century, resulting in fewer, but much larger schools and school districts.
  4. The research base is huge and quite consistent on the relative effects of large and small schools.
  5. Many researchers indicate an appropriate and effective size for an elementary school is 300-400 students and 400-800 students for a secondary school.
  6. Much school consolidation has been based on the unsupported belief that larger schools are less expensive to operate and have higher-quality curricula than small schools.
  7. Levels of extracurricular participation are much higher and more varied in small schools than large ones, and students in small schools derive greater satisfaction from their extracurricular participation.
  8. Student attendance is better in small schools than in large ones.
  9. A smaller percentage of students drop out of small schools than large ones.
  10. Students have a greater sense of belonging in small schools than in large ones.
  11. Interpersonal relations between and among students, teachers, and administrators are more positive in small schools than in large ones.
  12. Teacher attitudes toward their work and their administrators are more positive in small schools than in large ones.

While this entire subject of school size needs continued empirical study, the efforts of the Gates and others are headed in the right direction. Policy leaders must continue to focus on the school size issue and make efforts to keep schools at a reasonable enrollment to ensure success for as many students as possible.

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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