In Praise of Small Schools
Ten years ago WestEd published a policy brief called, “Are Small Schools Better?” based on studies of outcomes from small schools during the 1990s. Noting that the national trend had been towards larger and larger schools, the brief noted that over the years “policymakers paid scant attention to red flags raised by school size research” like incidents of violence and lack of student achievement. A similar analysis in 1996 of 103 research documents found that achievement in small schools was at least equal and often superior to that in large schools – especially for poor and minority students. No study found that students in large schools had higher achievement.
The policy brief cited the advantages that small schools offered their students, especially noting that in small schools students and teachers know one another, students feel more engaged and committed, and an “internal community of accountability” develops among teachers, students and parents. Still, even ten years ago, lawmakers continued to push for what were purported to be economies of scale in large schools even though academic success was questionable and the cost of poorly educated kids came later.
Now a new study shows that New York City students attending small public high schools are more likely to graduate than students in larger schools. In addition, students in small schools received more regents diplomas (41.5% to 34.9%) and performed better on the English Regents.
The study tracked the academic performance of more than 21,000 students who applied for admission to 105 small high schools from 2005-2008. Students were selected by lottery. The study indicates that advances were made across the board regardless of race, gender,family income, or scores on the eighth grade math and reading tests.
The small high school initiative has been an effort of the Bloomberg administration, which shut down 30 large schools and created 300 small schools, about 100 of which were the focus of the study. The small high schools are limited to 100 students per class; some of the large high schools that were closed enrolled 3000 or more students. Of course, enrollment and attendance are not the same thing. The fact that the population of the small schools was newly constituted by lottery rather than just sectioned off from the old large school allowed the small schools to begin fresh and establish a new culture.
Having spent a good part of my professional life in small schools, I am not surprised that the new report shows that kids do better. It’s hard to get lost in a small school; it’s hard to fall between the cracks. People notice if a student doesn’t show up. Teachers know parents; administrators know teachers. Students know administrators. Students know one another. It’s not rocket science. If you know kids, you know that they actually do not long for anonymity.
Let’s hope that the small schools initiative continues in big city districts that are currently failing at educating their students. Let’s hope that officials who make the decisions this time pay attention to the research. I should add that Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, questioned the results of the survey, calling it "disingenuous." Perhaps he is without experience in small schools.