The century-old trend towards school consolidation and ever bigger schools is driven by a peculiar logic. School consolidators, posing as modernizers and progressives, tend to rely upon a few standard lines. “Student enrollment has dropped, so we cannot afford to keep your small school open. Now don’t get emotional on us. It simply comes down to a matter of dollars and cents.”
What’s wrong with this conventional school planning and design logic? A growing body of North American education research on the “dollars and sense” of school size is exploding the myth and now suggest that smaller scale schools are not only better for students but, more surprisingly, more cost effective for school boards. Whereas school consolidation and “economies-of-scale” were once merely accepted truths, supported by little evidence, newer studies are demonstrating that true small schools also deliver better results in academic achievement, high school completion rates, student safety and social connectedness.
School sizes continued to grow until the first decade of the 2000s with little research support, coherent analysis, or public scrutiny. One influential study, J.B. Conant’s 1959 book, The American High School Today, fed the growth hormone with a fateful recommendation that no high school should have a graduating class of less than 100 students. High schools were then increasingly consolidated and, in the United States, the number of high schools with more than 1,500 students doubled and, by 2010, 40 % of America’s high schools enrolled more than 1,000 students.
The most popular, safest and single most effective model of schooling, the small schools model, was not only overlooked but effectively marginalized by policy makers and school facilities planners. Independent scholarly research in support of smaller schools, especially for secondary school students, gradually began to surface. Such empirical research, however, rarely made it to the table where policy is made –in the ministry of education, superintendent’s office, school architect’s workplace, or even the university faculties of education.
One of the first studies to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy was Dollars & Sense: The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools (Knowledge Works Foundation, 2002). Written by Barbara Kent Lawrence and a team of recognized experts, it very effectively demolished the central arguments made by large school defenders based upon so-called “economies of scale.” Small schools, the authors, claimed actually cost less to build based upon the metric of cost per student. They made the compelling case that large schools, compared to small schools, have:
- Higher administrative overhead
- Higher maintenance costs
- Increased transportation costs
- Lower graduation rates
- Higher rates of vandalism
- Higher absenteeism
- Lower teacher satisfaction
In addition to dispelling myths about “economies-of-scale,” the authors proposed specific guidelines for Ideal School Sizes, specifying upper limits:
High Schools (9-12), 75 students per grade, 300 total enrollment
Middle Schools (5-8), 50 students per grade level, 200 total enrollment
Elementary Schools (1-8), 25 students per grade level, 200 total enrollment
Elementary Schools (1-6), 25 students per grade level, 150 total enrollment
The authors of Dollars & Sense also rejected claims that the benefits of “smallness” could be achieved by designing and creating “schools-within-a-school” (SWaS). They recognized that turning over-sized facilities into SWaS design schools may be practical, but recommended against designing new schools where large numbers of students (Grades K-12) were reconfigured into divisions in particular sections or linked buildings.
Craig B. Howley’s landmark 2008 Educational Planning article, “Don’t Supersize Me,” provided the concrete evidence that building small schools was more cost effective. Comparing 87 smaller Grade 9-12 schools with 81 larger schools, his research demonstrated that the smaller schools (138 to 600 students) were, on average, no more expensive per student to build than the larger schools (enrolling 601-999 students), and were actually less costly per square foot ($96 vs. $110). Furthermore, the new planned larger schools were oversized when actual enrollments were considered, making them more expensive per student, the key cost metric.
During a nine year period, from 2000 to 2009, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation took a $2 billion run at the problem with mixed results. “Comprehensive” high schools were declared harmful to the academic advancement and welfare of American students. Mega-high schools with as many as 4,500 students educated under a single roof were found to be breeding apathy, sapping students’ motivation to learn and teachers’ commitment to teaching. Beginning in 2000, the Gates Foundation poured some $2 billion into replacing these dropout factories, funding 1,600 new, mostly urban high schools of a few hundred students each, some of them in restructured comprehensive high schools, others in new locations.
The massive Gates Small School initiative, centred on Portland, Oregon, ran into structural barriers, sparked teacher union resistance, and did not produce quick results. Trying to re-size schools and re-invent decadent school cultures proved more challenging than expected, and the Gates Foundation ran out of patience when student test scores remained stagnant. “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way,” Bill Gates wrote in 2009. The foundation then made a sharp turn and shifted its attention and resources to teacher quality reform strategies.
The campaign for more personalized urban and regional high schools—structured and designed to forge more meaningful connections between students and adults in a concerted effort to boost student achievement—is still supported by a raft of research and student and teacher surveys. American authorities on student dropouts consistently report that students don’t care because they don’t feel valued. “When adolescents trust their teachers … they’re more likely to persist through graduation,” claims University of Michigan’s Valerie Lee and a colleague.
The Gates experiments did provide some vitally-important lessons. Reducing school sizes alone is not enough to turn around under-performing schools. In the case of New York City, shutting down twenty large, under-performing high schools worked better in improving graduation rates (from 47 to 63%) because the principals of the 200 new smaller schools that were created as replacements had the power to hire their own teachers and staff.
The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, created on the “small school ” model also fared much better than the mainstream reconfigured urban high schools. Principals and teachers at KIPP schools, for example, pride themselves on knowing every student’s name—something the schools are able to do mostly because they’re small, with average enrollments of 300. Even in his 2009 critique of the Small Schools Initiative, Bill Gates praised the small-scale KIPP schools. Their strong results may reflect the combination of smaller size, high standards, longer school days, and employing their own teachers and staff.
Creating smaller schools and a more intimate school climate in the absence of high standards and good teaching isn’t enough. There’s no guarantee that small schools, in and of themselves, will create good climates. Having said that, smaller schools are more likely to create the sense of connectedness among students and teachers that motivates them both to work hard, according to the Dollars & Sense researchers. Generating a level of genuine caring and mutual obligation between students and teachers is also found far less frequently in large, comprehensive high schools. Small schools, in other words, are more likely to create the conditions that make learning possible.
Writing in the Washington Monthly (July 6, 2010), Thomas Toch put it best. Breaking up large dysfunctional high schools into smaller units may not work miracles, but is likely a step in the right direction. Smaller school settings are still proving to be one of a number of important means to the desired end: getting students and teachers in impoverished neighborhoods or marginalized rural communities to invest more in their work still looks like the best route toward “lifting achievement” and getting “a far wider range of students” through high school and onto post-secondary education.
How big is too big when it comes to schools? Why do ministries of education and school boards continue to subscribe to the myth of “economies of scale”? What were the painful lessons of Bill and Melinda Gates’ 2000 to 2009 Small School Initiative project? What can be done to bring public policy in relation to school size more in line with current research supporting the building of smaller schools and the re-sizing of regional mega-schools ?