Jack and the Giant School

Date: 5 Jul 2000 | posted in: equity | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

 This article originally appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of our New Rules Journal.

Jack and the Giant School

by Stacy Mitchell

On Octo ber 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial object into Earth’s orbit. Dubbed Sputnik, the satellite measured only two feet in diameter, but it had a profound impact on the American psyche. Sputnik provided an undeniable demonstration of Soviet technological superiority and, more significantly, the power and reach of Soviet rockets.

Among its many impacts, Sputnik galvanized a movement to modernize and enlarge America’s schools. The best and the brightest agreed that small schools burdened our ability to win the Cold War. The campaign to abolish them was led by Harvard University President James Bryant Conant, who contended that those who resisted school consolidation were "still living in imagination in a world which knew neither nuclear weapons nor Soviet imperialism"

Stateand local governments began aggressively closing small schools and herding kids into larger facilities. In 1930, one-room schoolhouses accounted for nearly 70 percent of the nation’s public educational facilities. Between 1940 and 1990, the number of elementary and secondary schools decreased from 200,000 to 62,000, despite a 70 percent rise in U.S. population. Average enrollments skyrocketed from 127 to 653.

The trend toward giantism continues. The number of high schools with more than 1,500 students doubled in the last decade. Two-fifths of the nation’s secondary schools now enroll more than 1,000 students. Some schools have as many as 5,000 students and enrollments of 2,000 or 3,000 are common.

Proponentsargue that big schools allow for more courses, advanced equipment and significantly lower cost, per pupil year, than small schools. But, a growing number of critics are asking, do big schools produce better students? In the 1970s a handful of educators began to question whether the failings of the nation’s schools weren’t directly related to their size. Large schools, they believed, bred alienation and isolation, which in turn fostered poor student achievement, violence and high dropout rates.

Today, riding on a wave of real-world success and a mountain of empirical evidence, a full-fledged small schools movement has emerged. It’s transforming public education in several big cities and, in rural areas, reinvigorating a long-standing fight to wrest local schools from the jaws of consolidation.

Themovement has received endorsement from high offices. In May 1999, prompted largely by the shootings at Columbine High, a school with 2,000 students, Vice President Al Gore criticized the practice of"herding all students into overcrowded, factory-style high schools" A panel of school security experts was convened by Education Secretary Richard Riley. Their top recommendation had nothing to do with gun control, metal detectors or police on the premises. Rather, they said, reduce the size of the nation’s schools. Small schools are a powerful antidote to the sense of alienation that can lead to violence.

InSeptember, Riley told the National Press Club that the nation needs to"create small, supportive learning environments that give students a sense of connection. That’s hard to do when we are building high schools the size of shopping malls. Size matters."

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s report, Violence and Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools: 1996-97, more than half of small school principals report either no discipline or minor discipline problems, compared to only 14 percent of big school principals. Furthermore, compared to schools with fewer than 300 students, big schools (1,000 or more) have 825 percent more violent crime, 270 percent more vandalism, 394 percent more fights and assaults and 1000 percent more weapons incidents.

The federal government now provides a small amount of money to districts seeking to restructure large high schools by breaking them into small learning communities or autonomous schools housed within the same building. But the real action is at the local and state level, where the notion that large schools offer superior learning opportunities persists, despite substantial evidence to the contrary.

The Empirical Record

In1996, Kathleen Cotton, a research specialist with the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, reviewed the results of over 100 studies on school size. "Student achievement in small schools is at least equal and often superior to achievement in large schools," she concluded. "In addition, a large body of research in the affective and social realms overwhelmingly affirms the superiority of small schools."

Asidefrom financial resources, many teachers and researchers believe that school size is the single most important factor in the success of public schools. In her 1999 review of school size studies, Mary Anne Raywid of Hofstra University writes that the relationship between size and positive educational outcomes has been "confirmed with a clarity and at a level of confidence rare in the annals of education research."

Thereis no standard definition of small. Generally, small school advocates suggest no more than 400 for elementary schools and 800 for secondary schools, although many recommend smaller sizes of fewer than 300 in elementary and 500 in secondary.

Achievement: Small school students equal or outperform large school students. Indicators used include grades, test scores, honor roll enrollment, subject-area achievement, higher-order thinking skills and years of education attained after high school. In Nebraska, 73 percent of students in districts with fewer than 70 high school students enrolled in a post-secondary institution, compared to 64 percent of those in districts of 600 to 999 high school students. These findings hold even when other variables, such as student attributes or staff characteristics, are taken into account. Many small schools are in rural areas, but researchers have concluded that it is the smallness of the school, not its setting, that makes it successful.

Sense of belonging: Large schools function like bureaucracies, small schools more like communities. Small school students are less likely to feel alienated and more likely to report a strong sense of belonging. Teachers in large schools might have 150 students each semester. Students tend to be relatively anonymous and easily slip through the cracks. Small schools enable teachers to work more closely with a smaller number of students. This encourages teachers to go the extra mile and enables them to respond to individual needs. The result is that both students and teachers have a more positive attitude about school.

Parental involvement: Kids are not the only ones who are alienated by large schools. Parents are as well. Studies have found that small schools parents are more likely to be involved in their child’s education and to volunteer at the school. In rural areas, this is due in part to the fact that small, local schools are close to home, while consolidated schools may be many miles away.

Attendance/Dropout: Closely connected to a strong sense of belonging, students at small schools have higher attendance rates. Students who transfer from large to small schools also exhibit improved attendance. Small schools graduate more of their students. In Nebraska, only 3 percent of those attending high schools with fewer than 100 students dropped out, compared to a statewide average of 15 percent.

Extracurricular activities: Studies have found that participation in extracurricular activities improves attendance and academic performance. Students at small schools exhibit higher rates of participation in extracurricular activities and individuals participate in a wider variety of activities. In a school of 2,000 students, only the most talented will be recruited for the basketball team or the drama club. The result is that a small number of gifted students dominate the sports and activity rosters, while the vast majority are relegated to spectator status. In small schools, sports teams, musical groups and clubs depend on broader participation.

Thenumber of extracurricular opportunities does increase with school size. But a twentyfold increase in population produces only a fivefold increase in opportunities. That is, as the school expands, an increasingly smaller percentage of students are needed to fill the available slots.

Poverty: Research has consistently shown that poverty exercises a substantial negative effect on student achievement. The impact of poverty is significantly reduced when kids attend small schools. In fact, the larger the school, the more likely poor students are to fail; the smaller the school, the more likely they are to succeed.

Craig Howley of Ohio University and Robert Bikel of Marshall University recently studied this relationship in Georgia, Montana, Ohio and Texas. In all four states, smaller schools cut poverty’s "power rating," or impact on test scores, by 20 to 70 percent, depending on the grade level. Researchers concluded that one-fourth of schools serving moderate to low income students in Texas, one-third in Georgia and two-fifths in Ohio were too large to maximize student performance. Interestingly, the researchers controlled for class size and found that it did not impact their results. That is, poor students are better off in small schools, even if the class sizes are larger.

Curriculum: Even the smallest schools (100-200 students) are able to offer core curricula comparable to schools of more than 1,200. Moreover, small schools tend to be more flexible and allow teachers to exercise greater control over curricula. As a result, small schools more often apply innovative teaching methods, such as team teaching, integrated curriculum and multi-age grouping, all of which have been shown to improve student achievement.

Very small schools may not be able to offer many advanced or specialized courses, but bigness does not guarantee breadth. Researcher William Fowler concluded, "Above 400 students, increases in enrollment made little difference in improving students’ access to courses or in offering teachers the opportunity to teach more specialized classes."

Collaborationand advances in technology continue to broaden curriculum at small schools. Three rural schools, for example, can each hire a language teacher and, by broadcasting classes through fiber optic connections, enable their students to choose among three languages. Collaboration is even more feasible in urban areas, where schools can share course materials and even teachers.

Small Schools, Big Cities

Thesmall schools movement traces its roots to 1974 when Deborah Meier opened Central Park East, the first of about two dozen small elementary and middle schools in the East Harlem district. By 1982, the district’s ranking on reading tests had moved from 32nd, dead last in the city, to 15th.

In 1985, Meier went on to found a secondary school, also known as Central Park East, with 550 students in grades seven through twelve. More than half of the students qualify for free lunches and the school has twice as many students with learning disabilities as the average New York public school. Despite these challenges, Central Park East has a graduation rate of 90 percent, compared to 55 percent citywide. Even more striking, between 85 and 95 percent of its graduates go on to college.

Thesesuccesses spawned an explosion of small schools in the 1990s, driven in large part by the efforts of the Center for Collaborative Education. Today, 150 of New York’s 1,000 public schools have fewer than 600 students.

Julia Richman High School is a good example of the impact of these changes. In 1992, this school of 3,000 had the highest rate of violence in the New York school system. Only one out of three students graduated in four years. Following the advice of small school advocates, the Board of Education and the teachers’ union broke the school into six separate high schools.

Today, the Julia Richman Education Complex houses four of those schools, along with an elementary school and daycare for toddlers. The building now has one of the lowest rates of violence among the city’s schools. Gone are the weapon scanners and the police patrols.

Accordingto Columbia University researchers, students in the complex’s high schools are poorer than the students of the former Julia Richman High. Yet they have higher attendance, fewer dropouts and better achievement. One of the schools, the Urban Academy, sends 90 percent of its students to college and has won a U.S. Department of Education award for excellence.

Despite their successes, New York’s small schools have struggled to justify themselves. In late 1997, facing stiff budget cuts, Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew questioned the cost-effectiveness of small schools. Staff at the Board of Education floated a preliminary proposal to set minimum enrollments at 400 for elementary schools and 800 for high schools. The proposal shocked small school teachers and administrators, some of whom noted children would be better served by a ceiling, not a floor, on enrollments.

Afew months later, New York University researchers released a study that silenced the critics. Although smaller schools had higher per pupil costs, "their much higher graduation rates and lower dropout rates produce among the lowest cost per graduate in the entire New York City system." Schools with fewer than 600 students spent $7,628 per student, or 23 percent more than the cheapest schools, those with populations of more than 2,000. But lower dropout rates meant small schools spent slightly less per graduateÑ$49,553 compared to $49,578.

Newsmall schools have been launched or are in the works in cities across the nation. In Boston, the teachers’ union and school district have worked together to launch several successful small schools. Chicago’s Board of Education has contracted with the nonprofit Small Schools Workshop to decentralize its large schools. In Oakland, the Board of Education will soon adopt a policy creating ten small schools and plans to create more in the future.


Small schools may revive the role of parents and neighbors in the governance of their school. Over the years, large, centralized school systems have steadily eroded this role. The number of citizens serving on school boards dropped from 1 million in 1930 to fewer than 200,000 today(while U.S. population doubled). In many of the new generation of small schools, parents and community members are actively involved in running the school.

Mark Gordan, of the Bay Area Coalition for Essential Schools, points out that although the movement for downsizing and decentralization has come from education professionals in many cases, elsewhere it has risen from the ground up. In Oakland, parents tired of sending their children to distant, impersonal, failing schools demanded that the school board offer small, autonomous, close-to-home alternatives. They feel that with control over the school, they can create a learning environment where their children will succeed.

Researchhas suggested that the greater the degree of local control, the more likely community members are to vote in school board elections and to authorize additional spending for education. This participation has a spillover effect: those who vote on school issues tend to exercise their vote on other matters and to take a more active role in democracy.

Rural Schools

Whilesmall schools are undergoing a rebirth in urban neighborhoods, many of rural America’s remaining small schools are struggling against the forces of consolidation.

In small towns, more is at stake than educational quality. When the local school closes, the town loses a major industry with a significant annual budget and payroll. A Nevada study found that retail sales decline by 8 percent when the local high school closes. Often the school is a critical component of the town’s collective identity. Nowhere is this more evident than affiliation with the school’s sports teams. Schools are important community institutions; they provide a common connection and a gathering place for events and services, including political forums, community theater and health care clinics.

Forchildren in rural areas, consolidation often means going to school miles from home, spending as much as three hours a day on the bus and missing after-school activities as a result. The nation’s 400,000 schoolbuses travel 21 million miles every day.

Untilrecently, the size, structure and location of public schools was exclusively the domain of local governments. Although public education is a state responsibility, local governments were given substantial control over their schools. School revenue was primarily derived from local taxes, particularly property taxes. Those districts that chose consolidation did so (and still do today) for many reasons, including declining populations, lack of resources and the feeling that large schools provide a better education.

Today, the size and structure of public schools is as much a function of state policy as it is of local policy. Over the last 30 years, states have exercised increasing control over education. Many states, for example, have adopted statewide standards for student achievement. States are now the single largest source of education revenue.

For many small rural districts, state financing has been a lifesaver, providing desperately needed resources. But state control of the purse strings has also been problematic for small schools. In many states, funding formulas have given priority to maximizing efficiency (as measured by annual per pupil costs). These states have devised policies that favor big suburban districts and pressure rural schools to consolidate. Meanwhile, a few states have recognized the effectiveness of small-scale, local education. Two statesÑNebraska and VermontÑillustrate each approach.


Nebraskais home to many small schools. In fact, the state has the largest number of school districts per capita in the nation. During the 1950s and 1960s, Nebraska resisted the trend towards consolidation. After a 1968 report concluded that the Midwest’s schools were too numerous tobe effective, Nebraska’s neighbors – Iowa, South Dakota, and Missouri -embarked on a major reorganization. But Nebraska residents chose instead to oust the state education commissioner, who had endorsed the report.

Today, however, Nebraska’s small schools are struggling to survive. Beginning in 1996, the state adopted a series of policies aimed at forcing small schools to consolidate. The state increased its share of school funding from about one-quarter to one-half. But unlike the old funding formula, which had doled out funds based on each school district’s costs, the new formula provides a flat rate per pupil. This rewards the state’s largest school districts, which have low per pupil, per year costs, and penalizes the state’s smallest school districts.

Ninety small rural districts have lost more than 10 percent of their state aid. Meanwhile, the largest school districts saw their funding increase by $78 million.

Nebraska’s small school districts now face a difficult choice. To survive, they must either slash school budgets or raise property taxes. But the schools affected by funding cuts are in some of the poorest areas in the state. The farm crisis has further aggravated the situation.

Dozensof small school districts are now considering consolidation. Accordingto the Nebraska Alliance for Rural Education, the state is losing some of its best schools. Those who attend high schools with fewer than 100 students are significantly more likely to graduate and go on to college.

Bynarrowly focusing on short-term efficiencies, the state is missing the bigger picture: the cost per graduate for the 90 school systems that have lost funding is $6,717 per year, only 7 percent more than the state’s largest schools (1,000 or more). Add to this the societal impact of college educated citizens and the community impact of having a local school and Nebraska’s small schools easily provide the best value.


Like Nebraska, Vermont has many small schools. The average school in the state has only 310 students. But with regard to its smallest schools, Vermont has taken a very different approach than has Nebraska.

In1997, following a court ruling that concluded that the state’s method of financing education was inequitable and unconstitutional, Vermont adopted Act 60. The law replaced local school taxes with a statewide property tax, ensuring that every citizen pays the same tax rate ($1.10 per $100 of value) and that each district, rich and poor, receives a basic per pupil grant for education.

On top of this, lawmakers provided additional funds to cover the higher costs of the state’s smallest schools. Act 60 allocated $1 million annually to those school districts with fewer than 100 students. Initially, this was meant to be a temporary arrangement. Many legislators favored consolidating small schools. Act 60 contained a section (known as the"base closing" section by small school supporters) that directed the Education Department to determine which schools, if any, should continue to receive the extra funding. The department was to recommend"alternative physical arrangements for those small schools."

Butearly in 1998, the department’s report came to a surprising conclusion."Small schools in Vermont cost more to operate than larger schools but they are worth the investment because of the value they add to student learning and community cohesion." Academically, small school students do as well or better than large school students, despite living in communities with higher rates of poverty and lower education levels.

Ratherthan suggesting "alternative physical arrangements," the department urged the legislature to increase the small schools grant and expand the number of districts that qualified. The state responded by increasing the grant to $4 million and extending it to districts with fewer than 20 students per grade level. This year, one-third of allschool districts qualify. The additional funds provide an average of 5 percent of their revenue.


Theeffort to create small urban schools still faces a long road and many challenges. "When we talk with school officials and local politicians about restructuring large high schools," says Deborah Meier, "the first thing they worry about is what will happen to the basketball or baseball teams, the after-school program, and other sideshows; that the heart of the school, its capacity to educate, is missing, seems almost beside the point." Nevertheless, the urban movement for small schools has gathered significant momentum in the last decade. The future of rural small schools is less certain. In many states, the push to consolidate continues. In South Dakota, the state legislature is considering abolishing the state’s small school funding adjustment, which provides 20 percent more aid for schools with fewer than 200 students.

In West Virginia, a group of parents in the town of Circleville sued the state School Building Authority (SBA), which controls funding for school construction and repair. The SBA allocates funds only to those schools that meet minimum enrollment requirements (1,050 for schools with grades 7-12). Since the SBA’s creation in 1990, one-quarter of the state’s schools have closed. Circleville’s school was one of these. The town’s children spend up to two and half hours on the bus each day. Parents contend that this amounts to an unequal education. The state Supreme Court ruled against them, concluding that they did not provide enough evidence of the harm caused by lengthy bus rides.

But the parents may get the last word. Their cause has ignited a statewide grassroots movement, which is backing a bill to limit the time kids can spend on a bus each day. [!]

Stacy Mitchell
Research Associate, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

© 2000 Institute for Local Self-Reliance