What Research Has Found About Small Schools

For both elementary and secondary students of all ability levels and in all kinds of settings, research has repeatedly found small schools to be superior to large schools on most measures and equal to them on the rest. The Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Oregon recently made available Kathleen Cotton’s digest of 103 studies of the relationship of school size to various aspects of schooling. The studies Cotton reviewed focused on issues of achievement (31), attitudes toward school or particular school subjects (19); social behavior problems (14); levels of extracurricular participation (17); students. Feelings of belongingness versus alienation (6); interpersonal relations with other students and school staff (14); attendance (16); dropout rate (10); academic and general self-concept (9); college acceptance, success, and completion (6); teachers. attitudes and collaboration (12); the quality of the curriculum (10); and schooling costs (11). Their chief points:

Academic achievement in small schools is at least equal-and often superior-to that of large schools. Achievement measures used in the research include school grades, test scores, honor roll membership, subject-area achievement and assessment of higher-order thinking skills, and greater achievement and years of attained education after high school. In reporting these conclusions, researchers are careful to point out that they apply even when variables other than size-student attributes, staff characteristics, time-on-task, and the like-are held constant; and smaller schools showed long-range effects independent of rural school advantages. The effects of small schools on the achievement of ethnic minority students and students of low socioeconomic status (SES) are the most positive of all.

Student attitudes toward school in general and toward particular school subjects are more positive in small schools. The attitudes of low-SES and minority students are especially sensitive to school size and improve greatly in small schools.

Student social behavior-as measured by truancy, discipline problems, violence, theft, substance abuse, and gang participation-is more positive in small schools.

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. The single best-supported finding in the school size research, this holds true regardless of setting and is most applicable to minority and low-SES students. Because research has identified important relationships between extracurricular participation and other desirable outcomes, such as positive attitudes and social behavior, this finding is especially significant.

Student attendance is better in small schools than in large ones, especially with minority or low-SES students. Not only do students in smaller schools have higher attendance rates than those in large schools, but students who change from large schools to small, alternative secondary schools generally exhibit improvements in attendance. ?? A smaller percentage of students drops out of small schools than large ones.

Students have a greater sense of belonging in small schools than in large ones. Feeling alienated from one’s school environment is both a negative in itself and is often found in connection with other undesirable outcomes, like low participation in extracurricular activities.

Student academic and general self-regard is higher in small schools than in large ones.

Interpersonal relations between and among students, teachers, and administrators are more positive in small schools than in large ones.

Students from small and large high schools perform comparably on college-related variables such as entrance examination scores, acceptance rates, attendance, grade point average, and completion.

Teacher attitudes toward their work and their administrators are more positive in small schools than in large ones.

Poor students and those of racial and ethnic minorities, who continue to be concentrated in large schools, are more adversely affected-academically, attitudinally, and behaviorally-by attending large schools than are other students.

Despite the common belief that larger schools have higher quality curricula than small schools, no reliable relationship exists between school size and curriculum quality. Even a small school can offer a curriculum that compares favorably in breadth and depth to that offered in larger settings.

Larger schools are not necessarily less expensive to operate than small schools. Small high schools cost more money only if one tries to maintain the big-school infrastructure. Average per-pupil costs do decline as enrollment increases, but then reach a minimum and begin to rise with further school growth.

From Kathleen Cotton, “School Size, School Climate, and Student Performance,” Close-Up Number 20, 1996. Portland, Oregon: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Tel:    503-275-9618   503-275-9618 ; Web site http://www.nwrel.org/scpd/sirs/10/c020.html