How Important Is School Size?
Which is better? Big or small? It all depends on what's a good fit for your child.
Learn more on what to look for when touring schools in these videos:
Video: A guide to private schools
Video: How to find a middle school
By GreatSchools Staff
What's the Right Size?
When it comes to school size, there is no right size that works for every student. Some students thrive in a smaller environment where they get lots of attention, while others prefer the variety of activities and peer groups available in a larger school. Certainly, small and large schools each have their pros and cons.
Small Schools, A Growing Trend
In the 1960s the general thinking was that larger schools offered more comprehensive instructional programs of greater quality at lower costs than small schools (generally defined as schools of less than 400 to 500 students at the high school level) did. But in recent years researchers have discovered that the cost savings provided by large schools have had a negative effect on student achievement and graduation rates. As schools get bigger, student achievement declines and larger schools have higher rates of absenteeism, dropouts and discipline problems. In addition, "Dollars and Sense II," a 2005 study of 25 different small schools across the nation found that, on average, small schools spent 17 percent less per student than comparable schools in their districts while achieving equivalent or better results.
As a result, there has been a growing trend toward creating small schools, and schools within schools, (particularly in high schools) to better engage students and give them more attention. The federal government has issued more than $94 million a year in experimental grants for small learning communities or "SLCs." School districts may use these grants to create smaller schools within schools. Since 1999, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed more than $1.8 billion to creating 1,500 small high schools around the country, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has committed an additional $32 million to further their efforts, particularly in urban areas.
How Have Small Schools Fared?
The Gates Foundation sponsored a study of 24 small schools in 2005 to look at their effects. The study found that some students talked about their teachers as having higher expectations for them because teachers knew more about the students' capabilities. The 2005 Gates report found that students in small learning communities increased their English test scores but showed a slight decline in math.
In the Newsweek 2007 list of top high schools in the U.S., 22 of the top 100 schools had fewer than 100 students in their graduating class; the number of small high schools on that list (which is based on the number of students taking college-level tests: Cambridge, International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement) has dramatically increased over the past 10 years.
However, overall research on the effect of school size on student achievement has been limited. Most recently, another Gates Foundation study looked at the first graduates of 14 of New York City's new small high schools in 2006. The study shows that attendance was high, ninth-grade promotion rates were high and a majority of the students graduated. A significant number of those graduates were accepted by colleges and more than half of them were the first in their family to attend college.
But other Gates-funded small schools have run into trouble. In Denver, Colorado, the district used $1 million of Gates Foundation money to convert the 1,100-student Manual High School into small schools. In the process, electives, advanced placement and foreign language courses as well as popular activities like choir, debate and athletic teams were cut back. Many unhappy students left causing enrollment to plunge as well as graduation rates. Denver eventually closed the small schools. The Gates Foundation has realized that curriculum and instruction may be as important as school size.