In Praise of Smaller Schools

We are in the midst of a nationwide search for a single magic bullet in education. But the more evidence that is gathered, the more obvious it becomes that no such single magic bullet exists.

That said, a new study (abstract; PDF) on school size — not class size, but school size — is worth a look. Here’s the abstract; I have bolded the most relevant conclusions:

One of the most wide-ranging reforms in public education in the last decade has been the reorganization of large comprehensive high schools into small schools with roughly 100 students per grade.  We use assignment lotteries embedded in New York City’s high school match to estimate the effects of attendance at a new small high school on student achievement. More than 150 unselective small high schools created between 2002 and 2008 have enhanced autonomy, but operate within-district with traditional public school teachers, principals, and collectively-bargained work rules.  Lottery estimates show positive score gains in Mathematics, English, Science, and History, more credit accumulation, and higher graduation rates.  Small school attendance causes a substantial increase in college enrollment, with a marked shift to CUNY institutions.  Students are also less likely to require remediation in reading and writing when at college.  Detailed school surveys indicate that students at small schools are more engaged and closely monitored, despite fewer course offerings and activities.  Teachers report greater feedback, increased safety, and improved collaboration.  The results show that school size is an important factor in education production and highlight the potential for within-district reform strategies to substantially improve student achievement.

The authors are Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Weiwei Hu, and Parag A. Pathak; their paper joins a fast-growing literature on school size and student outcomes.


In populations where students might suffer from a lack of parental support, it comes as a no-brainer that smaller schools trump larger schools; it's harder to get lost in the shuffle. Malcolm Gladwell discussed this point in his book "The Tipping Point" where he describes the ideal size for most organizations to be around 150 persons. Having smaller schools allows for greater cohesion among staff groups that support the student population. The students perceive this as being in a more close and caring environment.

Kudos to the research for confirming my suspicions!


I agree with you on the size of an organization. I have worked at a several different sized hospitals. The nurses and physicians seemed to care more and get along better at the smaller hospitals. At larger academic hospitals staff were cynical, apathetic and constantly complained about each other.


Test scores can change as tests are made easier or test prep becomes more popular. Graduation rates can change with changing graduation standards. The need for reading and writing remediation in college can depend on the stringency of freshman English courses (which in my experience are easy to a fault--and don't seem to be getting any tougher).

I know it's asking a lot--and may even be impossible--but I'll be convinced when I see the studies showing that students from one type of school or another go on to earn better incomes and function better in society.


I came late to the profession of teaching, having first spent a number of years in the corporate world. Just like the corporate world with its Total Quality Management, Lean Processing, Six Sigma, etc. fads, so, too, do school do the same thing.

The simple explanation is: 1) money and 2) bureaucracy. If schools will get more federal or state dollars by upping their graduation rates, then the school system will "dumb down" the requirements, or offer a number of additional chances, all in hopes of upping their score, and thus, their dollars.

Also, bureaucracy plays a role. A well-intentioned person, hired to help schools do better, well, they have to do SOMETHING. So they come up with forms to sign, methods to try, etc. And all it does is break down the morale of teachers. It's just one more thing to do, one more hoop to jump through.

Lastly, I'm afraid that some of these so-called "studies" are based on demographics and conditions that aren't realistic for most schools. If a teacher has a highly-motivated class of students who are well-behaved, etc., then OF COURSE they are going to see decent results with virtually ANY method they try. But bring it to a real school, where kids aren't so motivated, aren't so well-behaved, and it doesn't work nearly so well. Oh, but we will do it anyway--after all, "a recent study indicates...."

I don't know what will fully fix the problem, but if we are right to think there is no silver bullet...THEN WHY DO WE KEEP LOOKING FOR ONE, KEEP MANDATING FADS, ETC.?



This doesn't surprise me at all. I have always found smaller companies work better, and everybody has a sense about how thier work contributes to the goals of the company. There is also no place to "hide" if you perform poorly. ( Can you imagine a rural county school system having anything like the "rubber rooms" that NYC has where they put problem teachers who are still on the payroll but not actually allowed to teach? it would NEVER happen, but in NYC, the school system just shrugs).

For schools I also think there is a different effect of the "Socio-Academic Bell curve". By this I mean that any population of Students is going to have a "bell curve" of student ability, with say 10% of students Very Socio-academically gifted, and a 10% students very Socio-Academically Challenged.

Please note that I am NOT using the prefix "Socio" here as any kind of code for "race". I am using as a term to reflect BEHAVIOR or Social relationships. There are some kids who have BEHAVIOR problems that become manifest when that child is in a large group.

Once these groups gets to be about about 25-30 students (Class size 250-300), the schools More strictly Segregate the Groups by Socio-Academic ability. 25-30 Soci0-Academically Challenged kids together in all thier classes all day long are going to pull each other DOWN, and create more of an issue with gangs within the school and other problems that need to be dealt with only when you get a large population.

Similarly, when you remove the 10% of Socio-academically gifted students from the general population of the class, the AVERAGE of that class goes DOWN. The majority of Kids "in the middle" no longer need to compete with, (or be positively influenced by) the high achievers, because they are NOT part of thier classrooms.

While I think SOME the Socia-Academic stratification would occur at any school, I think the effect becomes more of a NEGATIVE EFFECT with increasing school size. In a smaller school, the Classroom is more likely to contain a broader cross section of the school's population. There may be one or two kids in each classroom who is at either end of the curve, but these are numbers and situations that the Teacher can effectively deal with, and overall, the class performs better.



On The Big Rock Candy Mountain, funds are unlimited....

First off, the ideal 150 person organization refers to employees, not customers. Might apply to combined faculty and staff. It is a team/relationship thang, not for kids rotating through. the advice would be if you had a run of the mill 1200 kid high school, go buy two more parcels of land big enough for all the parking, ball fields etc. Make sure the traffic is safe -- buy a bunch more buses and hire a bunch more drivers. Two more nurses, two more principals, four more vice principals, technology guy or two, 4-5 janitors and maintenance, adminstrators, cafeteria staff....whoops, I forgot, have to BUILD the two things. Remember to explain to the field hockey and fencing and astronomy club and junior varsity sports and their parents that there will be no way to have the critical mass for all those extracurriculars.

So, say your annual budget for that large school is $20 million. You are going to build two new schools that will go at LEAST $40 million to build per. Hire at least 30 new employes per school, figure, all in with bennies, $6 million more a year.

I hope the voters at least get a crack at this crackpot idea.

Most large schools in my state have already figured this out. They have "houses", smaller groups within each grade that have the same teacher base.

Oh, by the way, if you are building these in suburbia, watch out, because the birth rate among Yuppies is PLUNGING. We built a school eight years ago and are going to have to close one down due to evaporating enrollmnet, down 40 percent in 8 years.



But you're assuming that every school needs to be like that. They don't. In fact, for much of American, they are not. Take rural communities across the midwest. Even with the large number of consolidated schools (i.e. three very small school districts combining into one), you still have schools with classes of 100 or less (mine was 53). Because of the smaller schools, you don't need the same number of administrators. Nor, frankly, will you need that many more facilities, since you can combine more grades into one building and build the facilities smaller.

As for extra-curricular activities, sure you'll lose fencing (at least at every school), but you'll enable many, many more students to play the main sports (football, basketball, baseball). In fact, this would help deter parents from putting so much emphasis on sports. Having now moved to the city, I know that if my kids want to play high-school sports like I did, then they need to focus on and get extremely good at one sport. Just to play in high school. But if we went to smaller schools, I'd know they could play multiple sports without off-season camps, and a year-round focus.

I think the idea of shooting for classes at around 100-150 is an excellent idea. Even if there are some additional costs, I think it's well worth it.


Shane L

The rural primary school (ages 4-12) I attended as a child was very small, perhaps 70 people. One consequence was that children of different age groups were always playing together. It was perfectly normal for the 6-year-olds to play with the 9-year-olds, or the 8-year-olds to play with the 12-year-olds. I imagine there could have been some learning going on in these relationships. Mainly, though, it was just nice to have a warm sense of community in the school, where teachers and pupils knew each other.


I wonder what the excuse for going to larger schools was in the first place. More levels for administrators to aspire to? They can't have thought it would be more efficient. Wait, we're talking about politicians so maybe they could.


Consolidation means less administrative jobs, not more.

Enter your name...

Not necessarily. You end up with more *levels* (principal, assistant principal, associate principal, and specialized positions like director of special education...) and usually about the same number of actual jobs. You save a bit of money when your consolidation turns a 400-student school into a 450-student school. You don't save money when your consolidation turns a 400-student school into a 2,000-student school. What you save on the salary for the "principal", you end up spending on the salary for your four "assistant principals", plus security staff, a director of maintenance (it was previously just one or two guys in the small school, and 400-student schools do not normally have, or need, specialized security employees).

Tmeier, I suspect that the answer is that taxpayers did not choose to pay for the extra buildings. If they're anything like my neighbors, they'd much rather prefer that your neighborhood had an overflowing 2,000-student-large high school, and that their neighborhood had none, instead of having two 1,000-student schools in town.

Also, the sports nuts prefer big schools, because bigger schools win more games, and they always believe that their own child will be the star of the big program, rather than one of the many benchwarmers. Smaller schools have a more equitable percentage of interested students getting time in the game, even though they tend not to win as many games as the larger schools in their class. If America were sensible, and made sports be a community program instead of a school program, then we wouldn't have this problem.


Alice Stevenson

You need to check out my school, J. Graham Brown School in Louisville, Ky. I've taught here for almost 17 years and what you say really pertains to us.

Feel free to ask questions.


The Brown school model looks interesting, but do children need to "test into" this school to be admitted? If so, there would naturally be a base of highly advanced Socio-Acrademic students. This may make it a great school, but a model that is hard to implement for students outside the top 10%.

If there is NO test for admittance, and selection to attend Brown School is a pure lottery of the students of Jefferson county, then that is much more interesting to consider as a model.


What this says is that when the principal hangs out in the hall and says, "Joe, I heard you did well on your math test. Good going" and "Jim, I hear you have a science project due. How are you getting on with it?" (this is what happens in my kids' school) you get better results than if the school management/faculty can barely put a name to a quarter of the students.

Alexandra Petean-Nicola

I have always found that when I was part of a small school I connected better not just with my classmates but with my teachers and collages older and younger than me. In the experience I had as a trainer, I realised that beside the fact that I work better with a small group of people, they performed better at local and regional competitions. This were smaller competitions were they got to engage with all the teams and that cave them an overall better motivation.

Enter your name...

I don't think we're going to see this replicated locally: the biggest public high schools feel threatened by a small but successful charter school (admission is purely by lottery). So the big schools are claiming that sending your child to a smaller school is automatically and always bad for the child's social development, solely because it's small.

What they'd really like to say is that sending your child to a school whose parents are all motivated enough to put their names and phone numbers on a piece of paper for the lottery is bad for the *other* child's social development, but they've decided that this doesn't sound plausible: it's better PR to say your child should be exposed to "diversity" than to say your child needs to stay in the public school so that the many teenagers whose parents are mentally ill/emotionally absent/drug addicted/overworked/uninterested in school/incarcerated/abusive/etc. that they aren't even capable of managing that much, can see more students who are probably going to attend college.

From seeing parents' responses and talking to the few I know, most of them would be happy to stay in the regular public school—if only they could send their child to a campus with a few hundred students, rather than to a campus with a few thousand. From the parents' perspective, it appears to be the number of teenagers in physical proximity that matters, so "pretend" small schools (several thousand students on the same campus and in the same buildings, but divided up into small groups) isn't what they're after.



You are saying that turning one 2,000 student school into five 400 student schools won't raise administrative overhead??? Uh....yes it will. That is the only reply necessary.


I would agree. I bet smaller schools lead to more inclusiveness, better attendance and thus better grades.


Someone should invest millions of dollars over several years to create small schools. Oh wait, someone did. From 2001 to 2008, the Bill and Melinda Gates funded the creation of small schools across the country. But in 2008, they realized that making schools smaller does not make them better, and they abandoned that reform idea and moved on to see what else might work.