What Americans Build and Why

Creating authentic community. 

Big School? Small School? Does School Size Matter?

Can large schools foster a small school culture?

In my community, Phase II of a $133 million dollar school renovation includes a $3.3 million dollar artificial turf to create a multi-purpose playing surface for the football field. But that's not what caught my attention. Rather, what intrigued me as an educator was the proposal to build a single middle school of 1200 students for seventh and eighth graders. This proposed school would be fed by four elementary schools for second through sixth graders. Twelve hundred is a pretty big number, and the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (NCEF) considers a middle school of that size large.

Evaluating the impact of school size on educational and personal growth outcomes is tricky, and enrollment by itself does not necessarily tell us the complete story. We have been arguing about the effects of school size in this country for at least 50 years, certainly since the 1959 publication of Conant's influential book The American High School Today. Conant's book changed the shape of education with its emphasis on large high schools, which could offer more depth in the curriculum for science and math, which he and others believed we needed in light of the successful launch of Sputnik by the Russians in 1957.

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But there was another book written about the same time that has an important message for educators. That book was Big School, Small School, Barker and Gump's seminal volume in 1964 about high schools and student behavior. Barker and Gump showed that small schools and big schools differ in the opportunities they provide to students. Where small schools provide the opportunity for more responsibility and involvement, big schools give students a greater variety of what Barker and Gump called behavior settings, such as course offerings. Small schools are understaffed in terms of the number of student leadership roles, which encourage involvement, whereas big schools are overstaffed in that regard.

Arguably the big school approach championed by Conant and others has not succeeded in this country, at least if judged by our low graduation rates. In 17 major urban areas, these rates are under 50th, as reported in a 2008 U.S. News and World Report article about the presidential candidates' plans for America's failing schools.

Yet communities continue to build large schools like the middle school proposed in my community. Holding down cost is often a primary driver. Yes, larger schools are more cost effective if the outcome is simply cost per student enrolled, but if the outcome is cost per student graduate, small schools fare well. But sometimes communities also need to address issues of diversity, which are not infrequently associated with geography within a community (i.e., students from different socioeconomic levels living in different parts of town). The single school solution may address this issue for some communities. Thus, there are typically competing pressures in making these school building decisions.

The good news, in my opinion, is that a small school movement is underway in many educational quarters in the United States. This movement is reflected in the principles from The Coalition of Essential Schools, The Franklin Principles, and the National Summit on School Design, among others, as well as in books like Toch's High Schools on a Human Scale: How Small Schools Can Transform American Education, published in 2003. Research indicates that academic achievement is often better in small than in large schools. Parents tend to be more involved in small than in large schools, and many aspects of personal development are better in small than in large schools (e.g., sense of belonging, self concept) as are objective measures like attendance and dropout rate.

Of the eight principles from the National Summit on School Design (2006), many emphasize the idea of a small community, including "foster a small school culture" and "support neighborhood schools." But notice that small school culture is not synonymous with small school size.

How can a large school building foster a small school culture? When communities are unable or unwilling to support the cost of building multiple small schools, educators can try to foster a small school culture by creating small schools WITHIN a large school building. Such schools within a school (SWAS) have been tried successfully in a number of areas in the United States, such as New York City (e.g., the Julia Richman Education Complex).

Yes, I think school size matters in terms of educational outcomes, but it may also be possible to create a small school culture within a large school building to achieve some of the same ends.

Ann Sloan Devlin, Ph.D., is the May Buckley Sadowski '19 Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College.

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