Smaller Schools Are Better Schools

As we consider how we build and manage schools in DeKalb, I think it’s a good idea to examine what research tells us about how the physical school environment translates into achievement, satisfaction, cost, participation, social behavior, and mental and occupational health.

There are many factors that translate into the success of schooling and we should seek to understand how the buildings and size of our schools affect these factors. Designing and building DeKalb facilities to optimize education for our children may be as simple as creating smaller schools.

Small schools can reduce the negative effects of poverty, reduce violence, and increase parent involvement and student accountability. It turns out there is a good amount of research on this topic and it coalesces around the idea that smaller is better in both quantitative and qualitative measures.

School Size, School Climate, and Student Performance

School Size, School Climate, and Student Performance is a research paper that summarizes and aggregates over 100 research papers which identify a relationship between school size and various aspects of schooling. This is a synopsis of their findings.

Quality of the Curriculum
Research shows that the quality of the curriculum is not related to the size of the school. Many educators argue that larger schools can offer more numerous and more varied curricular offerings than small schools can. However, researchers have found that larger schools don’t tend to have higher-level courses in math or science, but rather have additional introductory courses in non-core areas. Furthermore, very few students (5%-10%) generally avail themselves of these courses.

There is the argument that large schools are more cost-effective. That is true up to a certain point. Research shows a mathematical depiction of that relationship, which is U-shaped; that is, average per-pupil costs do decline up to a point as enrollment increases, reach a minimum, and then rise with further school growth. The bottom of the cost curve, where per students expenses are efficient is only a few hundred students. There are no economies of scale to be had in large format schools.

Academic Achievement
Half the research shows that there is no difference between large and small schools. The other half finds student achievement in small schools to be superior. Furthermore, the effects of small schools on the achievement of ethnic minority students and students of low
socioeconomic status are the most positive of all.

Student Attitudes
The research on student attitudes overwhelmingly favors small schools over large ones.

Social Behavior
The research linking school size to social behavior has investigated everything from truancy and classroom disruption to vandalism, aggressive behavior, theft, substance abuse, and gang participation. This research shows, as you would expect, that small schools have lower incidences of negative social behavior, however measured, than do large schools.

Extracurricular Participation
Levels of extracurricular participation are significantly higher in small schools than in large ones. While a large school might provide a wider variety of opportunities, a larger percentage of the students participate in extracurricular activities at smaller schools.

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.

Dropout/Graduation Rate
Measured either as dropout rate or graduation rate, the holding power of small schools is considerably greater than that of large schools.

Summary and Conclusion

There is no clear agreement among researchers and educators about what constitutes a “small” school or a “large” school. Many researchers, however, indicate that an appropriate and effective size is 300- 400 students for an elementary school and 400-800 students for a secondary school.

Much school consolidation has been based on the beliefs that larger schools are less expensive to operate and have higher-quality curricula than small schools. Research has demonstrated, however, that neither of these assertions is generally true.

Academic achievement in small schools is at least equal—and often superior—to that of large schools.

Student attitudes toward school in general and toward particular school subjects are more positive 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.

Student attendance is better in small schools than in large ones.

A smaller percentage of student drop out of small schools than large ones.

15 responses to “Smaller Schools Are Better Schools

  1. A few years ago, either the BOE or the admin adopted their target goals for school size. Anyone remember what they were? Seems like 600-700 elem, 1200 middle and 1600 high. Has the BOE or admin revisited this policy in the past 4-5 years? It seems they are operating on building size rather than what is in best interests of the whole student. If the admin or BOE feels these new sizes (900 for elem, 2000+ for high) are what is best, they should take a stand and own these. Otherwise, they should revisit their building plans. (And think about the plan…can’t have vertical feeders with 900 seat elem. schools – 2 schools would make 1800 seat middle schools – are we ok with this plan? How much more new buildings/additions will that require?? Split feeders will become inevitable. DCSD continues to prove they can’t plan for long term.)

  2. Check your math… 900 students average to 150/ grade/school. 3 grade levels (6,7,8) from 2 feeder schools = 6×150, which is 900.

  3. AB,
    School Size – A few years back, the administration decided on the optimum size for schools. Like you said, it’s 900 for elementary schools and 2,200 for high schools. The board was not given any input. From what I can tell, the size calculation is strictly maximizing space and students.

  4. I’ll say this much… we have about 1,200 students at my school, and we’re really having a hard time getting advanced classes to make.

  5. @witsend. Which school is that? There are alternatives. You can take advanced classes at the local college. You can offer the advanced class every other year. Otherwise, there are trade-offs. If none of the alternatives work, then I don’t think it’s a wise to trade Academic Achievement, Student Attitudes, Social Behavior, Extracurricular Participation, Attendance, Dropout/Graduation Rate, etc … so that we can make a class.

  6. I saw this on Educate Dunwoody:

    My son has 4th block lunch at DHS. One day this week there was no food left by the time he got in line. Yesterday he told me he got two chicken wings with marinara sauce. This is his lunch today.

    I told him he needs to start packing his lunch rather than coming home hungry every day, but this is ridiculous.

  7. Last year I saw a picture of the Chamblee Charter High School girls lacrosse (I think) practicing in the space between the buildings because there isn’t enough field space.

    Two years ago the DHS grid iron club had to buy$4K worth of helmets because the school district didn’t provide enough.

    Let’s not even start with the lack of textbooks.

  8. Stan,
    A full sized football practice field is about 95,000 square feet. Every other Dekalb high school has a space this big.

    Chamblee’s practice field is not quite 70,000 square feet. Yet it must serve boys and girls soccer and boys and girls lacrosse teams during the spring season.

    Unlike the great Game On campaign at Dunwoody, at Chamblee there’s no space to add seats and no reason to add lights.

    Hardly any student who hopes to play these sports would want to be redistricted to Chamblee. How would that be fair?

    But wait, there’s more.

    The E-SPLOST-V plan is to elevate this miniature practice field over a parking lot. What could possibly go wrong?

  9. @Stan
    When will you list all the new Principals and APs in the district?

  10. List of all new principals and APs in district. Good Question. I’ll find out

  11. One would think Dr. Green would include that in his Start of School Year report to BOE at meeting today, no?

  12. AB, I believe historically the Principal and Assistant Principal report was in there because I asked for it. I didn’t press them for it this year. I’ll ask Dr. Woodard in a few minutes during the HR presentation.

  13. Veteran Teacher

    Stan – This may be another category, but in keeping with smaller schools, what are the current waivers for DeKalb and Class sizes? I can only find something up to the 2015-16 school year. Our class sizes in Elementary were a lot smaller last year, supposedly because we were still “on the list”. This year, because we have made gains (our students are largely ESOL), we have been “rewarded” with much larger class sizes. I realize it is still within the ten day count period, but teachers are concerned that they have an additional ten students or more than they had last year and the numbers admin are quoting are supporting these huge class sizes for elementary. Can you access the current DeKalb waiver for this school year and post?

    Thank you – you are much appreciated!

  14. Veteran Teacher,

    If you were only teaching 20 elementary students last year and now have 30, please let the entire BOE know. Also, please contact the NAACP. They are pushing for smaller class sizes.

  15. I forgot to add, contact Lance Hammonds. He is the education committee chair for the DeKalb County NAACP.

    I will send Stan his contact information so you can get it from him. It doesn’t feel right to post Lance’s info. publicly.