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Are Smaller Schools Better Schools?

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Reforming public education may be as simple as creating smaller schools. The results of two recent studies indicate that small schools may be the remedy for lots of what is wrong with public education. Small schools can reduce the negative effects of poverty, reduce violence, and increase parent involvement and student accountability.

Creating a better school may be as simple as creating a smaller one. The results of two recent studies indicate that small schools may be the remedy for lots of things that are wrong with public education, especially for the nation's poor children. The separate studies credit small schools with reducing the negative effects of poverty on student achievement, reducing student violence, increasing parent involvement, and making students feel accountable for their behavior and grades.

Educators have long known that poverty hurts student achievement. Researchers Craig Howley, of Ohio University and the Appalachia Educational Laboratory, and Robert Bickel, of Marshall University, set out to find out whether smaller schools could reduce the negative effects of poverty on student achievement. In four separate studies of seven states, they repeatedly found that poor kids do better if they attend a small school. In fact, in the most recent four-state study, the correlation between poverty and low achievement was ten times stronger in larger schools than in smaller ones in all four states. Howley and Bickel found that the benefit of smaller schools was particularly important in the middle grades, when children are most at risk of dropping out.

The researchers initially evaluated schools in California. Howley then replicated the research in schools in West Virginia and Alaska.

More recently, the Rural School and Community Trust, a national nonprofit organization, asked Bickel and Howley to study school size, poverty, and student achievement in Montana, Ohio, Georgia, and Texas. The study included 13,600 urban, suburban, and rural schools in 2,290 school districts.

They found that at least one-fourth of the schools serving moderate- to low-income communities in Texas, one-third in Georgia, and two-fifths in Ohio are too large for students to achieve top performance. In Montana, among kids in grade 8 in larger districts, the power of poverty over achievement was 2.5 times greater than in smaller districts overall and three times greater in elementary-only districts.

Size Matters
"Everyone knows that there is a strong association between social class and achievement and that this association works very much to the disadvantage of economically disadvantaged students," Bickel told Education World. "The California research, however, had the virtue of demonstrating that this disadvantage was exaggerated as school size increased."

Each time Bickel and Howley conducted another study, the results were very similar. "It's very unusual in education research to find this degree of consistency," Bickel said.

Howley and Bickel did not base their findings on a definition of what constitutes a large or small school but looked at school size on a continuum. They found that poor students from relatively smaller schools outperform poor students from larger schools.

Test Scores Drop in Large Schools
A new study, Small Schools: Great Strides, reveals some significant potential benefits of small schools.

  • Dropout rates are significantly lower.
  • Students have higher grade-point averages.
  • Students have better attendance records.
  • Fewer students fail courses.
  • Students demonstrate persistence toward graduation.
  • Fewer students are retained at the elementary level.
  • Students achieve higher standardized test scores in reading.

In Georgia, achievement scores in schools serving children from poorer communities fell on 27 of 29 test scores as the school size increased. In Texas, scores dropped on eight of ten tests. In Ohio, at all grade levels, students in both smaller schools and smaller school districts that served poorer communities had a higher achievement rate.

The researchers also found all students benefited from attending small schools, regardless of the levels of community poverty. That was especially true in Montana. In fact, groups of less-affluent students out-performed groups of more-affluent students on standardized tests in the eighth grade if they attended a smaller school.

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