Category Archives: Research

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.