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Is a smaller school always a better school?
December 14, 2004 10:12 AM   Subscribe

Is a smaller school always a better school? School districts across the US are seizing on size as the key to reform. But some experts worry that the rush to create smaller schools is happening too fast.
posted by Postroad (33 comments total)

 
Is a smaller school always a better school?

Well, you don't have to bring as much ammo to a school shooting. That's one advantage.
posted by jonmc at 10:16 AM on December 14, 2004


The way to better schools is to break up the federal education system and give more control to local districts. Ever since the institution of the federal education system, the average level of education in this country has declined.
posted by knave at 10:17 AM on December 14, 2004


Much research argues that small class size improves student performance.

The only serious dissent is the comment in the article that, "Unless small schools are created thoughtfully and deliberately, they say, reducing size will not solve this country's education crisis." Well, DUH!

The way to better schools is to break up the federal education system and give more control to local districts.

The federal government really plays very little role in determining day-to-day curriculum decisions in schools. The primary role of the DoE is to enforce equal-rights and equal-access laws in education for minorities and the disabled. The most major federal control in schools is probably NCLB, and that only came about a couple of years ago. Where people get this idea that getting the federal government out of a role in forming education policy is beyond me. Decisions are made almost entirely on the local level, and this frequently works to the detriment of those school systems (e.g., Kansas).
posted by deanc at 10:27 AM on December 14, 2004


knave,
I'm not sure if the decline in education in this country can be solely linked to its federalization. We can't ignore modernization or continuing racial and economic issues either. I'm a little wary of giving the local districts more autonomy in the field of education. How will this impact the inner city schools where most of the bad education seems to exist? And how about inequality that the federal system pretty much abolished? Can the local districts be held to this same standard?
posted by yossarian1 at 10:32 AM on December 14, 2004


Size is almost irrelevant. Most qualities that make a good school, a good family, or a good citizen are difficult to measure: community, friendliness, peripheral vision, curiosity for learning, adaptability, critical thinking skills, tolerance, etc. School boards and governments invariably make decisions about schools and education based on things that are easy to measure. Pupil teacher ratios, tax base, building costs, real estate prices, test marks. Teaching for test results or the job market will produce only a veneer of education. School boards need philosophers as well as accountants. Teaching is an art.
(Disclaimer: retired teacher)
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:43 AM on December 14, 2004


One study (pdf) from Google Scholar:

" [...] I find that reductions in class size have no effect on student achievement."

And on a personal note, gigantic fonts have a negative effect on reading, according to the study I just made up.
posted by odinsdream at 10:57 AM on December 14, 2004


Smaller class sizes and more choices in classes = good. So, big school, small classes = good.
posted by u.n. owen at 10:58 AM on December 14, 2004


Size is almost irrelevant.

*ahem*

Anyway, you're right that there are many, many factors that go into the making of a successful school. But all other factors being equal (or at least comparable), smaller class size does improve schools. It would be a healthy change to try, since school-management problems have increased since the consolidation/regionalization of US schools in the 60s and 70s. Stands to reason that reducing scholl size could reverse that trend.

Studies showing increased academic performance with small school size are many and can be found on the former ERIC website. There are also studies showing little academic difference, and these studies are hard to weigh against each other given that children are neither apples nor oranges and don't compare evenly from school to school. But even with the academic evidence aside, smaller schools also produce behavioral and social improvements in children. If you read Gladwell's The Tipping Point, there's also some interesting research presented about communities of any kind (companies, tribes, etc), indicating that social problems skyrocket when the community goes about 150 or so individuals. As soon as not everyone is known and recognized to one another, problems arise.
posted by Miko at 11:07 AM on December 14, 2004


Good teacher + small class size = the best. But there are only so many really good teachers to go around. If you make many small classes, then many of them will be led by crap teachers, and crap teacher + small class = small but nonetheless crappy class.
posted by Wolfdog at 11:20 AM on December 14, 2004


In my experience, size may be the deciding factor. A "crappy" teacher who has to deal with far less students can still have a big positive impact. Size changes everything; how much time the teacher can spend with the student, how focused the student is, and how "communal" the environment of the classrom is and thus how conducive it is to learning.

Having spent a lot of time in big classrooms and little classrooms, I see this as probably the core difference between the subpar really big public schools and the high-quality really tiny private schools in the Northeast (Boston, NYC). Other differences like quality of equipment/textbooks just aren't that great.

(I wish people would stop ragging on all these hypothetical crappy teachers that supposedly infest our public schools. They're not there. Most of the time the problem is crappy students. Not crappy parents, not crappy teachers--crappy students.)
posted by nixerman at 12:08 PM on December 14, 2004


Interestingly, from a Tipping Point sort of perspective, the middle/high school I went to was capped at 150 students. I don't think it got above 135 or so the whole time I was there.

That experience, contrasted with the experience of my sister and my friends in public school, convinced me that small size is one key, but that even more important is school-based control. Our headmaster was in charge of what went on in that school. There was no school board, no district superintendent, no higher authority. The result was that the educational approach and philosophy was clear and consistent, teachers knew what they needed to do, and everyone knew who to talk to if there was a problem. The headmaster also knew all of the students, so future trouble was usually averted before it became trouble.

My mother was a public school teacher, and the biggest problem of her working life was the "school district" structure. It just doesn't work. If we could change one single aspect about the US public education system, I would want to abandon school districts entirely and put the principals back in charge of their schools.
posted by rusty at 12:21 PM on December 14, 2004


I'd say size is a factor, but not a real important one. Making a big pile of crap smaller only results in a smaller pile of crap.

And there is something to be said for the resources of a large establishment. Instead of having 5 small science labs that are minimally equipped, it'd make more sense to make one large lab with some superb resources.

But to complete my circular argument, making a big pile of crap out of a bunch of smaller ones doesn't help much either.
posted by jim-of-oz at 12:24 PM on December 14, 2004


A "crappy" teacher who has to deal with far less students can still have a big positive impact.

But a smart kid who has less stupid peers to deal with but still has an awful teacher isn't much better off.

I think it's all very relative. Before high school I switched from a huge public school to a tiny private school, but the classes I liked best (in both cases) were the ones where the teachers were great. It depends on the type of student you are- if you feel less comfortable speaking up in a class of thirty than in a class of twelve, then yea, a smaller class will do some good.
posted by hopeless romantique at 12:50 PM on December 14, 2004


Yes, there is plenty of research in support of smaller schools. And I see their benefits every day, since I work in one. The family vibe is indisputably valuable to the kids' sense of well-being, which is in turn indispensable to their academic achievement. They should have started building smaller school buildings twenty years ago.

But they didn't.

So, instead, many of these "smaller schools" are really subdivided monster schools. Their is plenty of data about the general lack of success of the "school within a school" model big in the seventies, which is basically what some of these "smaller schools" really are.
posted by kozad at 12:55 PM on December 14, 2004


As far as I'm concerned, the ideal is really summed up in the Sudbury Valley School, in which case smaller class sizes can be a teeny tiny baby step in the right direction.
posted by jefgodesky at 1:15 PM on December 14, 2004


In my experience a smaller school may not always be the best. A mediocre teacher can have far more impact when he/she is the only teacher. My case is probably a little more extreme than most (my two youngest children attend a public school with a total enrollment of three, my family accounts for 2/3 of the student body) but I found my eldest child to be woefully unprepared for his post elementary transition to a larger school.

In a school so small the bar can be set very low.
posted by cedar at 1:28 PM on December 14, 2004


The size of the building matters little, it's the size of the class and the dedication of the teacher to actually teach and make the students learn that will start to make that difference.

It's not entirely the fault of the federal school system. There also has to be parental interaction with the student, if the parents don't give a shit, why should the student? Just asking if the homework is done is NOT enough. Ask what the homework was, look at it, see what kind of work the child is doing. Offer advice, don't give the answers. Work with them if they need help. Make some time for your kids. Trust me, it's so worth it.
posted by kamylyon at 1:30 PM on December 14, 2004


Not crappy parents, not crappy teachers--crappy students.

Crappy students come from crappy parents.
posted by kamylyon at 1:32 PM on December 14, 2004


Small schools are superior to large schools in many ways, but I'm not convinced that changing large schools into small schools (which is different) will have the impact proponents hope it will have. The same is true for class size - smaller classes are better, but switching from larger to smaller classes doesn't always work the way one would hope.

In a larger school, or larger classes, principals and teachers have to cut some corners - less individualization, less attention to individual students, less differentiation, more teaching to the mean.

When large becomes small, it's not a magic wand - teachers and administrators have to be taught the methods that work better for a smaller school. If a smaller school means more attention to every student and more ability to individualize instruction, it's likely to do some good. But if it's simply an impersonal instution on a smaller scale, there'll be little benefit.
posted by Chanther at 1:36 PM on December 14, 2004


Crappy students come from crappy parents.
Thank you kamylyon, I was hoping I wasn't the only one who doesn't believe in spontaneous generation.

As far as crappy teachers, yeah they do exist and they perpetuate the lack of critical/creative thinking and applicable problem solving rampant in public schools. They rely on worksheets and "plug 'n' chug" work to reinforce rote memorization.

Too many teachers and school officials (along with anyone else in any position of authority/power) don't question their own methods often enough. They rely on the same...old....tired....ways to achieve "results."

Wait, doesn't Federal funding get approved via standardized test scores? Ever wonder why those tests were treated so carefully by your school officials?
posted by raygun21 at 1:55 PM on December 14, 2004


Size is almost irrelevant.
*ahem*
Miko: I wasn't referring to class size, and neither was the FPP.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:20 PM on December 14, 2004


Taking smaller is better to the extreme conclusion, I think it is safe to say that having a 1:1 ratio of students to teachers would not, on average, improve the situation.

So, at what size is the balance reached between the benefit of reducing class size and the penalty of diluting the quality of teachers?
posted by obfusciatrist at 4:14 PM on December 14, 2004


"I'd say size is a factor, but not a real important one. Making a big pile of crap smaller only results in a smaller pile of crap."

This assumes only two extremes: great teachers and crappy teachers. Many teachers are somewhere in between, and if they have a smaller class size to administer, they can use the skills they do have to their best effect. I think dismissing size entirely because some teachers are so good or bad that it doesn't matter, is oversimplifying.

In general, discussions about education are strangely skewed this way, I think; teachers are either saints or morons. But many are simply competent, hardworking teachers who can have a good impact, given the right tools, even if they're not the Best Teacher Ever. I'm more interested in finding out how to raise the average level of education, not in demonizing or canonizing the entire teaching profession. And small class sizes seem a sensible move in that direction.
posted by emjaybee at 5:14 PM on December 14, 2004


I'm all for smaller class size, but not necessarily for smaller schools. My elementary school had about 500 kids, my middle school around 700, and my high school was somewhere between 1500 and 2000. In middle and high school I had the opportunity to go to a centralized school downtown where classes that wouldn't have as much demand in the individual high schools (some foreign languages, advanced courses, vocational classes) were taught. I'd say that most of my classes at my home high school had 20-30 students, where class size tended to be a little smaller in the specialized courses.

Giving students classes based on their needs might be a better plan. Students who are failing aren't going to get much help in a huge class, but neither are the bright students who breeze through the curriculum. In a larger school or district, there's more room for specialization.
posted by mikeh at 6:17 PM on December 14, 2004


Small school vs. Large School also matters for outside-the-classroom activities.

There are X number of players on a basketball team, Y members of student council, and 1 yearbook editor regardless of whether a school is small or large. This means that wherever there's a cut to be made (as in "making the cut") students at a given level of talent have a higher probability of making it in a smaller school. In other words students at smaller schools can have better chances to develop their non-academic skills (and resumes).

Of course at a larger school there can be clubs for a wider variety of interest since there's a larger pool to draw from. It's not likely that you'll find enough people for the future-lawyers-who-love-metafilter club in a small school.
posted by duck at 6:37 PM on December 14, 2004


duck: That's a great point about sports and whatnot in smaller schools. My school's sports team policy was that if you showed up to the practices, you were on the team. There were no tryouts and no one got cut.

I played lacrosse for seven years there. I was, for the first four of those years, a really bad lacrosse player. I was bad at midfield, I was bad at defense, I was even bad in goal the one time anyone was foolish enough to let me try it. But finally, around the middle of year five, they put me at attack. I also got in better shape, and I turned out to be a pretty good lacrosse player for my last two years. We were undefeated both years, and me and the center scored about 3/4 of all our goals.

In a school with competitive tryouts, I would have been pure nerd all the way through. There's no way I'd have had the opportunity to suck for four straight years on a public school team. But I think that playing lacrosse was one of the best things I did in high school, and taught me at least as much about how to get along in life as the classes did.
posted by rusty at 8:15 PM on December 14, 2004


Last year I graduated from a very large high school in Minnesota (my graduating class numbered around 900, I believe). The school is in an affluent area and the students are, for the most part, quite successful academically. The graduation rate is extremely high and almost all the students go on to college. Personally, I am very pleased with my academic experience there, although the class sizes were quite large (I believe the average was 36 students in a class). However, I think that there are some other less measurable problems with larger schools. My school certainly never felt like a community. I didn't even know the first names of the majority of the kids I graduated with. Everything seemed very institutionalized. It was very rare that I felt like I had any sort of personal relationship with my teachers. Some of my friends claim that they never once saw our school principal in the four years that they attended! It probably is just in the nature of high school itself, but I felt like the size of our school and the institutionalization instilled in a lot of kids a sense of anonymity and isolation.
posted by honeyx at 8:35 PM on December 14, 2004


One of the best schools in my area had 4000 kids. Literally, 4000 kids. Parking for seniors via lottery only. Schools in that county are usually not that large, but all of them have a ton of people. My college roommate went to a school in that county, and her marching band was larger than my senior class, probably larger than my entire high school. The kids in these schools have a high percentage of teachers with masters or higher degrees. The Roomie had at least one science teacher with a PhD. These are PUBLIC schools. The difference in this case is money. The county in question is chock-full of people who make tons of money, own big expensive houses, and pay a ton into the system consequently. Sure, not everyone got a stellar education, but for the kids in this particular area, it's a matter of if they care. When I went to Governor's Honors (for big brained kids, best of the best, blah, blah, blah, right? :) ) a large percentage of the kids there were from this particular school district/county.

In sum, it seems to me that the problem is disparity in funding. Not everyone will have a wow-crazy-fabulous high school life. I went to a very small school and I hated 9/10 of the people there, simply because no matter how well I knew them, I was 1) a teenager; 2) unable to relate to them. I was an urban person in a rural situation. If nothing else, I learned to cope.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:29 AM on December 15, 2004


Rural schools in my area (Illinois) are dissolving their districts and consolidating with other schools. So, smaller may be better for the students, but it's not better financially for the districts. I went to a small rural high school (now consolidated) with only 80 students. I had 13 in my graduating class. I would say that only four of us were on a college-prep track; the rest of my class were kind of written off. A lot of them only graduated because I "helped" them (i.e., let them copy off me) with certain subjects. It's bad when you have only one (mediocre) teacher per subject. It's bad when you don't have the opportunities that a larger school can provide. Somehow, I got a good education there with what I had to learn from. I liked school, though, so maybe that made a difference.
posted by cass at 7:23 AM on December 15, 2004


My high school class was a whopping 5 students. Urban/suburban areas have problems with schools being too consolidated, while rural areas are struggling and consolidating. There areas in the midwest/plains, where an hour + commute/bus-ride to school is the norm, and chances are you don't have a choice for most of your classes.

The school I went to had 1 teacher for math, 1 for English, 1 for Science, 1 for social science, and most of those had to double as a coaches and a few coaches had to pick up some of the extra classes, but there wasn't much for choices. In this situation a crappy teach can cripple students. We had 1 choice for foreign language, and our teacher was drunk half the time and never taught more than a tiny fraction of mechanics and very little vocabulary. Even worse was the fact that in 4 years our 1 math teacher ended up being 3 different people, all of which sucked so bad at math that the book was teaching them. While I still managed to get good enough scores on the ACT/SAT to go to college, I had really hard time passing any foreign language and math class offered. I still despise those teachers and the school for that.

On the flipside, our English teacher was awesome. He had started a speech and drama program when he first arrived (some 15 years before I got there). His program was considered one of the best in the state. In fact our little school (total enrollment of 35) would often trounce the 900+ enrollment schools in most competitions. The best part was that everybody would participate and learn something.

Also as a small aside, of the 5 people in my class 4 of us have bachelors (the other has an associate, I believe), 3 of us have advanced degrees (I'm still thinking about working on mine), 1 of us is literally a rocket scientist (works on guidance systems on F-16 Air to Air missiles), another works with special education students in a megahuge (tm) school district, another has gone back to our old high school to be the social sciences teacher. I have found this to be somewhat typical of the products of that small high school. Really, the only ones who didn't go on to do more after high school were the ones who didn't give a rat's ass about anything and would have been dropouts or involved in gangs if it weren't for the fact that everybody in town would know if they didn't show up to school.
posted by Numenorian at 7:31 AM on December 15, 2004


Upon further review, what cass said...
posted by Numenorian at 7:32 AM on December 15, 2004


This assumes only two extremes: great teachers and crappy teachers.

Well, my experience is that so many teachers are crappy that anyone who posesses half a brain and has any motivation whatsoever becomes a "great" teacher.

In an upper-class suburban school district, many teachers think their job is to show videos. This is a problem.
posted by dagnyscott at 8:35 AM on December 15, 2004


In an upper-class suburban school district, many teachers think their job is to show videos. This is a problem.

I think the number one problem here is teacher pay and benefits. If I received similar pay and benefits as the crappy job I have now, I'd take a teaching job in a heartbeat. I think there are a lot of college students out there who would teach if they could somehow pay the bills with being a teacher. The big problem here is that getting the education needed to be a teacher and keep current as a teacher (most states require teachers to take so many classes a year). This education costs a small chunk of change. Bottom line being a teacher doesn't really pay in terms of money, so you're only reward is enjoying the job. I don't think I'm alone in saying that most people would have a hard time doing a job they might enjoy if it meant living at poverty levels.
posted by Numenorian at 3:31 PM on December 15, 2004


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