Class Size, School Size, District Size
Effects of Reducing Class Size
- Smaller classes
No clear evidence of improved learning
Fewer students in a class makes it tempting to run a classroom with less structure
Smaller classes permit expansion of ineffective progressivist methods
Smaller classes reduce teacher workload
With same number of students, that means more classrooms
More classrooms required
More classrooms required
More teachers required
- More teachers Spending increases
- More teachers Increased union revenues
- More teachers Requires lowering the bar on teacher hiring
Articles on Class Size
Smaller Is Better?
While newspapers spend copious space on class size -- an issue promoted by
education unions wishing to expand membership -- research indicates that the more significant issue
is school size. Education writer David W. Kirkpatrick discusses this dilemma:
We seem unable to learn from experience. This is particularly
amazing in education/schooling which, of all fields of endeavor, is
the one that professes to teach critical thinking and problem
solving. Yet it seems unable to think critically and solve its own
For example, class size. As has often been stated, class size does
matter, but it depends on many variables - subject matter, type of
students, teacher skills, teaching method, etc. The only guaranteed
effect of smaller class sizes set at some arbitrary number regardless
of all the variables is greatly increased costs. Unfortunately
almost everyone buys into it, including parents, taxpayers and the
general public. One review of 152 studies on class size found a
handful, about fourteen, showed minor gains. About the same number
showed negative results, while the great majority, about 125, found
On the other hand, literally hundreds of studies have shown that
school size does make a difference with larger schools being less
effective and efficient than smaller ones. For example, one study
found that the average dropout rate for high schools with 2,000
pupils is twice that for schools of 600. At their annual conference
some years ago, the National Association of Secondary School
Principals adopted a resolution that secondary schools should not be
larger than 600 pupils. Yet the public school establishment
continues to build and maintain huge schools, some with as many as
5,000 pupils, with correspondingly weaker results.
School Inflation by Christopher Berry, Education Next, Fall 2004.
This excellent article provides a thorough review of how schools bulked up in size in the
20th century (accompanied by clear presentation graphics), and then goes on to evaluate
measures of performance by school size. Excerpts:
"How times change. Small schools, once derided as relics of the education system
and obstacles to national progress, now lie at the heart of one of America's
most popular reform strategies. After decades on the endangered species list,
small schools have become the next big thing in education. ...
Beginning in the 1980s, scholars began to look at the relationship between
school size and student achievement. These studies have been less favorable
to large schools. Of seven studies ... only one found that performance increased
as schools grew in size."
Smaller Is Better -- The evidence is coming in: Smaller schools produce results
by Hanna Skandera and Richard Sousa, Hoover Institution, No. 1, 2003.
"A comprehensive review of 103 studies revealed the following: The academic
achievement of students in small schools is at least equal to, and often superior to, that of large schools."
Smaller High Schools Proving to be Educationally More Effective
by Jay Mathews, Washington Post, March 25, 2003.
"[There is] growing movement to break big high schools into little pieces
and never again let them get bigger than 600 students."
- Robert I. Soare is a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago, a position that
gives him a unique insight into the "product" delivered by high schools. On
he has written about the phenomenon of "gatekeeping" and "pyramiding"
in large high schools, such as New Trier on the North Shore of Chicago's suburbs:
"[J]udging the school's success by the performance of the elite, rather
than a broader-based group of students, leads to weaknesses like 'gatekeeping'
Prof. Soare has additional comments about pyramiding and gatekeeping
on his page for parents.
"A national survey used the term 'gatekeeping' to mean 'faculty room
jargon for offering hard courses only to the best students and finding something
easy for everyone else.' New Trier ranked only 30th in this national survey on the
breadth of AP (Advanced Placement) participation. Can't we encourage
more 3 level students to take AP courses as other high schools do?
"The second weakness is pyramiding, which occurs particularly in
interscholastic sports, but also in the performing arts and other
highly competitive activities. New Trier Basketball Coach Rick
Malnati in the Winnetka Talk, November 7, 2002, said 'Freshman year,
the six feeder schools each have 25 of the best tryout, and we can
only keep 24 or 25.' This is a reduction of the 150 potential
athletes from the six feeder schools to only 25 places on the
Freshman team. The situation is similar in Girls Volleyball.
The students cut would often have made the varsity at many high
schools around the country."
Thinking Small ... Is downsizing the answer?
by Laura Fording, Newsweek, September 22, 2003. This article is an
interview with Thomas Toch, writer in residence at the National Center on Education and the Economy
and author of "High Schools on a Human Scale: How Small Schools Can Transform American Education".
The article starts, "Are smaller schools better for our kids? Many educators believe they are."
One interesting exchange concerns large high schools in the suburbs:
"[Newsweek] Is this happening as much in the suburbs as it is in urban areas?
[Toch] The focus at this point is on urban areas, although I think an increasing
number of suburban school leaders are realizing that large comprehensive
schools don't do well by most kids in the suburbs either.
People who run schools in the suburbs think they are doing well because a
higher percentage of their kids go to college.
Well, the fact of the matter is that those kids are going to college
not because they are getting a better education,
but because they come from more advantaged families.
The problem, in my view, is no less acute in the suburbs than it is in the cities,
but it will take some time to convince people."
Dumbing Down By Sizing Up by Craig Howley,
The School Administrator [American Association of School Administrators], October 1997.
Subhead: "Why smaller schools make more sense if you want to affect student outcomes."
The article warns of efforts to further consolidate schools, giving details on
"First, very few before-and-after studies of consolidation exist. ...
Second, consolidation does not seem to save money. ...
Third, small schools seem to be especially productive for poor kids. ...
Fourth, increasing school size doesn't reliably produce better curriculum. ...
Interest in the benefits of small schools and small districts has
grown stronger over the past decade. Some proponents contend all schools need to be small.
This seems to me to be an overstatement. Some large schools (up to 1,000 or so students)
probably can exist in very affluent communities without harming children.
What's clear is that extremely large schools serve no one particularly well ..."
- The May 1998 issue of Catalyst (a magazine focusing on school issues in Chicago) was devoted
to the topic of school size. The cover said it all: "Smaller is better."
Smaller is better by Veronica Anderson.
"Those three words sum up stacks of studies that have produced one of the most
solid findings in school research: All other things being equal, elementary
schools with fewer than 350 children are likely to be more successful than larger ones."
Small school by design: identifies different design strategies for creating smaller schools
Characteristics of Chicago's elementary facilities: statistical summary of Chicago
schools by size
Research sampler: quick review of a few key studies on school size
Let Lawmakers Discover Smaller Schools by Thomas Dawson, Bridge News, December, 1999.
"...cutting class size is a hit among politicians of almost every stripe.
Despite spending billions on class-size reduction at the federal, state,
and local levels, recent evidence suggests policymakers should have
focused more attention on smaller schools, not smaller classes."
"Dollars and Sense: The Cost-Effectiveness of Small Schools,"
Knowledge Works Foundation, September 2002.
Even though people may appreciate the benefits of small schools, some argue
that the cost of such schools is prohibitive. This detailed analysis replies
that small schools are very much cost-effective, and that small schools
can be built and operated in cost effective ways.
Small Schools Are Cost-Effective, Yet communities keep building larger and larger schools
by George A. Clowes, School Reform News, January 1, 2003:
"A new review of research on school size concludes investing in smaller rather than larger
schools is a wise move when the cost per graduate is taken into account.
In making the case that small schools are not cost-prohibitive,
the report identifies educational and social benefits of small
schools and contrasts these with the negative effects large schools
have on students, teachers, and members of the community."
- The Problem of the Megaschools
by Anna Quindlen, Newsweek, March 26, 2001. This excellent article is not online, but
see the following two links.
- In reviewing violence in schools,
this author points
to one cause, quoting
from the Quindlen article mentioned above:
"The Megaschool: James Garbarino of Cornell, an expert on adolescent crime,
said that if he could do one thing to stop violence, 'it would be to ensure
are not in high schools bigger than 400 to 500 students.'
(Newsweek, "The Last Word," March 26, 2001). In this same article,
Anna Quindlen points out that between 1940 and 1990
the average size of high schools has risen fivefold. I went to a tiny high school,
with only 50 students in the entire place. So I was a varsity basketball player,
I was President of the FFA, I went to all the high school parties.
Everyone but a few fundamentalist sectarians were involved in everything,
and everybody knew everybody. Indeed, we knew the same people since we were
in first grade. All 12 grades were in one building. In huge high schools,
it is easy for a shy loner, a late developer, to be part of nothing. But this
is surely not the only factor. Even when I was in school, there already existed
some megaschools. I had a classmate from Cincinnati where there were 15,000
students in one high school."
Bigger Schools, Greater Violence: "The experts say that the megaschool is a big mistake."
Planning Policies Impact on Schools (PDF file)
by Kelly Ross,
Home Builders Association of Portland.
This interesting report comes from a fresh perspective, that of developers
and urban planners. Excerpts: "All of the educational research conclusively
establishes that the trend must be for smaller
schools ... Monolithic 'big box' schools without adequate recreational facilities create the
disenfranchisement and alienation that educators are scrambling to avoid."
Sizing Things Up: What Parents, Teachers and Students Think
About Large and Small High Schools by
Jean Johnson, Ann Duffett, Steve Farkas and Kathleen Collins, Public Agenda, 2002.
"Parents whose children attend small high schools were more likely to praise
academics and say struggling students get help, while parents whose children
were in large schools reported more students falling through the cracks.
Teachers say that large schools are more likely to be overcrowded but also
provide more academic options. Students report many problems, such as drug
and alcohol abuse, carry across large and small schools."
Will Parents and Teachers Get on the Bandwagon To Reduce School Size?
by By Jean Johnson, Phi Delta Kappan, Volume 83, Number 5, January 2002.
"'Small-school' reformers believe that they have an idea that will improve
student learning, enhance school discipline, increase parent involvement,
and catch more children who might otherwise be lost."
part two of this story.
Bigger Is Not Better by David W. Kirkpatrick, April 3, 2002.
"Few aspects of education have been more thoroughly researched than school size;
few findings have been more consistent; and few have been more consistently ignored."
Breaking Up Large High Schools by Tom Gregory, ERIC Clearinghouse.
"Essentially all of the research on high school size conducted in the
past 30 years suggests that we need to move to much smaller schools. ...
Despite growing support for smaller schools, high schools have
continued to grow in size."
Big Trouble: Solving Education Problems Means Rethinking
Super-Size Schools and Districts by David N. Cox, Sutherland Institute, January 2002.
"What research has demonstrated regarding district size, it has even more clearly
demonstrated regarding school size. ... Reviews of more than 100 research projects
regarding school and district size, show conclusively that bigger is not better
once schools increase beyond a certain size. ...
Larger schools are not necessarily less expensive either."
Smaller Schools, Smaller Districts: The Trouble With Big:
This website was created by David N. Cox, a state representative in Utah.
Rep. Cox has provided a number of new and useful references on both
the issue of smaller schools and the issue of smaller districts.
Research: Smaller Is Better by Debra Viadero, Education Week, November 28, 2001.
"Studies indicate that students in smaller schools come to class more
often, drop out less, earn better grades, participate more in extracurricular
activities, feel safer, and behave better. Researcher Mary Ann Raywid says
the advantages of smaller schools has been established 'with
a clarity and a confidence rare in the annals of education.'"
The Tragedy of School Consolidation by Bill Kauffman,
The American Enterprise,
September 2001. This provides a valuable historical insight into
how we ever came to think that large high schools could possibly be a good idea.
Just Right: School Size Matters by Ann Marie Moriarty, Washington Post,
August 7, 2002. "[School size] may be the biggest educational issue that
parents aren't fretting about. But educational researchers are.
They've been looking at school size in a serious way for at least
the past 20 years. And the clear message from their results is that
smaller schools work better for most kids."
Connectedness Called Key to Student Behavior by Michael A. Fletcher,
Washington Post, April 12, 2002.
"Students who attend small schools are less likely than others to
engage in risky behavior such as drug use, violence or early sexual
activity, largely because they feel better connected to their teachers
and one another, according to a study released yesterday.
The results drawn from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health,
a federally funded survey of 72,000 junior high and high school students,
found that when the number of students in a school increases beyond 1,200,
students become more isolated from one another,
which contributes to a wide range of unhealthy activity."
Teachers: Students In Large High Schools More Likely To 'Fall Through The Cracks',
Smaller, Safer, Saner Successful Schools
by by Dr. Joe Nathan, who directs the Center for School Change, and Karen Febey.
"The report offers twenty-two case studies
illustrated by dozens of color pictures, and a summary of research showing how
shared facilities and small schools have increased achievement and safety,
while developing stronger community support and involvement in the schools.
The case studies describe how schools have used small size or shared facilities
(or both) to dramatically improve achievement, attendance and behavior."
- 'Small' Schools Popular, Effective:
Dividing students, teachers into teams at large high schools improves test scores, behavior
by Stephanie Warsmith and Katie Byard
Beacon Journal (Ohio), Sun, Aug. 24, 2003. Excerpt:
"When Amanda Grohe began her freshman year at Garfield High School, she
was nervous about finding her way in the 1,400-student building.
But that's not the case now."
(Hmmmm: if this article finds that an enrollment of 1,400 makes a high school unpleasantly large,
what does that say about megaschools with 4,000 or more students?)
Elementary School Size, Crawford Central School District, Meadville, PA.
This is a particularly nicely done outline of perceived benefits of smaller schools.
- A movement to small schools is supported by Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform.
This organization mostly supports the "more money" approach to reform,
with few serious changes to the system. But when it comes to school size, they
firmly support small schools. They offer a link on
resources on small schools, and also a book,
Small Schools, Big Imaginations: A Creative Look at Urban Public Schools.
Small Schools Workshop
When is Small Too Small?
Downsize High Schools? Not Too Far
by Diane Ravitch, Washington Post, November 6, 2005.
"The latest fad in American education is the small high school. ...
No one seems to have asked, however, whether a high school can be too
small and whether tiny high schools will fix the dual problems of low
performance by our best students and low graduation rates overall.
Most new high schools enroll fewer than 500 students, and advocates
for small schools think they should be even smaller, perhaps around
300, so that the school has the feel of a community or a big family.
But a high school can be too small to provide a solid curriculum and
to offer advanced courses in mathematics and science and foreign
languages. Our nation has had many decades of experience with small
schools in rural areas, which were indeed like a community or family,
and they were seldom exemplars of rigorous academic preparation. In
many cases, they did not offer even the courses in calculus,
trigonometry or physics that students need to prepare for college
Small Schools -- or "Theme Parks"?
Small Schools of the Absurd
by Ryan Sager, New York Post, June 25, 2004
"Wonderful news for New York City parents: Schools Chancellor Joel Klein is
opening a high school called the 'Peace and Diversity Academy' in The Bronx.
The brochure says students lucky enough to be admitted will be able to take
courses on: peace, diversity, cultural identity, cultural awareness, bias,
conflict resolution, discrimination, prejudice, social action and leadership,
and -- why not? -- war.
All at the same school!
At another new Bronx school, kids will be able to take 'Hip-Hop & Citizenship.'
Wonder when the students will have time for math and English ..."
- This article provides an important caution regarding the push for small schools:
Gates Gets His Revenge
by Andrew Worf, columnist, The New York Sun, October 17, 2003.
"To say that New York City's high schools are in trouble is an
enormous understatement. Unfortunately, the answer to fixing the high
schools will not be found in slicing and dicing all of the existing
schools into new cutesy themebased mini-schools.
"The answer to
our high school dilemma will come when we fix the education that we
are providing to our children, from kindergarten through the 8th
"The enthusiasm for these small schools is understandable, at least on the
surface.After all,smaller seems better than bigger, and the big
schools have been synonymous with failure and violence. However, the
Daily News recently demonstrated no difference in test results
between the old big schools and the new mini-schools. ...
"One has to be suspicious of schools such as the Acorn High School for
Social Justice (affiliated with ACORN, one of the city's most radical
political groups), the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice
(immortalized by Heather Mac Donald for offering Hip-Hop 101 and
instructing children in the fine art of graffiti), and the Academy
for Careers in Sports (that substitutes courses such as History of
Basketball for more traditional academic offerings).
"Lurking behind the small schools is another agenda. Many of the key
supporters of the mini-schools are also among the loudest advocates
for ending Regents exams -- and all objective measures of
accountability. They favor the use of 'portfolios,' 'roundtables,'
and other subjective assessments -- devices that, in practice, are
"There is good reason why the small school advocates seek to avoid
giving students objective exams. These 'activists' know full well
that they are unable to deliver the goods. 'Theme-park' schools, as parent
activist Melanie Cissone derisively refers to them, may be more
entertaining, but there is little evidence that they can provide
what society expects and employers demand."
"Schools Within Schools"
Schools' New Motto: Think Small
by Linda Shaw,
Seattle Times, September 3, 2003. Excerpts:
"As of yesterday, [Mountlake Terrace High] is no longer one big
school of more than 1,800 students. Instead, Terrace is now The
Discovery School, The Innovation School, The Renaissance School -- in
all, five small schools sharing one big building.
Ten other Washington [State] high schools will also break up into smaller
units this fall -- the largest concentration of such efforts in the
country. ... They are part of a $575 million effort by the Bill & Melinda Gates
Foundation to shrink and improve the American public high school.
More than 150 new small schools or schools-within-schools will open
this fall with help from the foundation.
The greatest number -- 55 -- will be in this state, followed by 24 in
New York and 21 in California. The rest are spread among 20 other
About 50 of the 150 are small schools created from scratch..."
Small schools, big lessons, by Bill McKinney, David M. Steglich, and Jill A. Stever-Zeitlin,
McKinsey Quarterly, Issue 2, 2002.
"Today's public high schools are the legacy
of an era when economies of scale and prevailing educational philosophies
suggested that bigger was better. Evidence continues to mount, however, that
breaking up large, anonymous high schools into small learning communities can
dramatically improve outcomes for students. Schools that have tried this
approach have raised their test scores and graduation rates and minimized
the behavioral problems that plague larger institutions."
Schools Within Schools
by Donna Garner, November 22, 2003
"Bill Gates and Dell Computer have gone together to pump $55 M into
the Texas High School Project. The education establishment in Texas
is ecstatic -- more money is coming their way. ... In the SWS model,
high schools that are over 400 students must be broken into
'houses.' ... The idea is to
make students feel they are important individuals rather than just a
number on a list. ... The idea is sound, but it is in the nuts and
bolts that the system breaks down. ... you have real grounds for
asking the question, 'Of what value is Schools Within Schools
anyway?' I appreciate Gates and Dell wanting to help students
achieve, but I wish they were spending their time and money on
something else besides the Schools Within Schools model."
Interestingly, in an online discussion of the above article, one teacher
wrote to the author,
We participate in the Gates grant program at our high school and you have
enumerated many of the problems that come up. I too appreciate the fact
that Mr. Gates wants to help improve education but this is not money well
spent. The whole concept causes a breakdown in essential communication between
staff which has more negative effects than positive effects. The small
artificial schools that they are trying to create just don't really happen.
I believe that many schools who participate in this program make it work
better on paper than in reality. It's all about money.
Schools Within Schools: Latest Education Reform Idea Sounds Great. Is There a Downside?
by Donna Garner, Education Matters, Association of American Educators, April/May 2004, pages 8-9.
A teacher's perspective on practical, day-to-day problems with the SWS concept.
High School Size Affects College Admissions
Some large schools provide good opportunities for the best and the brightest.
But when it comes time for college admission, the size of the school and the academic quality
of that very top tier can actually hurt all of its students' chances of acceptance at desired colleges.
Competitive High School May Limit College Choices
by Jay Mathews, Washington Post, November 6, 2001. Excerpt:
"...except for a few superstars, attending a very competitive high school hurts
chances of getting into a very selective college.
... When you apply to Wedontwantyou U., the selective university of your dreams
--WHOOPS!--you find 70 other kids [from your school] ... have done the same thing.
... The colleges are reluctant to say it out loud, but they limit the number of
students they take from any one high school. ...
diversity in admissions means, among other things, a sampling of students from
many different high schools."
In College Admissions, Magnets Are Negative
by Jay Mathews, Washington Post, November 12, 2001.
- In west suburban Bartlett and Streamwood, a group of parents, teachers, and other citizens
have organized to detach themselves from the gigantic U-46 district. Their
Better Schools For All.
Smaller Schools, Smaller Districts: The Trouble With Big:
This website was created by David N. Cox, a state representative in Utah.
Rep. Cox has provided a number of new and useful references on both
the issue of smaller schools and the issue of smaller districts.
The Road To Trust
by Deborah Meier, American School Board Journal, September 2003 (cover story). Excerpt:
"In 1930 there were 200,000 school boards in the United States. Today,
with twice as many citizens and three times as many students in our
public schools, we have only 15,000. Once one of every 500 citizens
sat on a school board; today it's one out of nearly 20,000. Once most
of us knew a school board member personally; today it's rare to know one."
Mission Creep: How Large School Districts Lose Sight of the Objective, Student Learning
By Mike Antonucci, Alexis de Tocqueville Institution Issue Brief No. 176, November 17, 1999:
"With class size reduction and school size reduction on the public's mind, educators
are coming to the realization that bigger is not always better -- but school district
size has not yet made it onto the education policy agenda.
In 1937, there were 119,001 school districts. By 1970, that number had dropped to 17,995.
In 1996, there were only 14,841. For decades, Americans have accepted the premise that a
large city requires one mammoth school district. But evidence suggests that the larger
a school district gets, the more resources it devotes to secondary or
even non-essential activities. ... In sum, large school districts engage in 'mission creep,'
building support activities which rapidly lose any connection to the original goal of educating children."
Unresolved Labor Issues Stymie Merger Efforts
by Victoria Wallack, State House News Service.
"With 80 percent of school budgets dedicated to paying for personnel
... those planning new regional school units are wondering how they're going to
save money in the near term, since the law says they inherit all the
people and their labor contracts when districts come together. ...
'I think it's nearly impossible for well-intentioned board members and community
leaders to show savings to taxpayers and to the voters unless they have enough
flexibility to look at all costs centers,' [said one state legislator]."
Small Is Beautiful
by George Clowes, March 1, 2000.
"In a new study from the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, Mike
Antonucci makes a compelling case for breaking up large school
districts, which generally devote a smaller portion of their
resources to student instruction than smaller districts.
Indeed, even though U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley recently
voiced his criticism of 'high schools the size of shopping malls,'
smaller schools aren't likely to be created unless large school
districts are actually broken up. A 1990 Clemson University study
concluded that "school district size is the most significant factor
in determining school size, with consolidation/reorganization plans
generally resulting in larger schools."
Larger Means Less Efficient in School Districts: Economies of scale work in reverse in education,
School Reform News: February 2000:
"[There is] a compelling case for breaking up large school districts,
which generally devote a smaller portion of their resources to student instruction than do smaller districts."
"Smaller Districts: Closing the Gap for Poor Kids"
by Craig Howley and Robert Bickel
"Full Service Social Agencies?: Mission creep -- Larger school districts tend to veer 'off task'"
by Vin Suprynowicz
Education Intelligence Agency
(a wonderful regular report on administrative and union
issues in education) provided this interesting snapshot of articles in one week in November 2005 giving
some insight into how district size issues are playing out around the country:
- November 17
Las Vegas Review-Journal: The Nevada legislature appropriated $250,000 to fund a study of how to
break up the Clark County School District.
- November 17
Tampa Tribune: Resolutions were introduced in both houses of the Florida legislature to allow counties
with more than 45,000 students to split districts.
ran its own story on the resolutions on November 20.
- November 22
Lincoln Journal Star: Advocates for small school districts in Nebraska are battling
forced mergers into larger school districts.
- November 23
Detroit News: Enrollment in the Detroit Public Schools has dropped by more than 30,000 students
in the last four years, 10,000 in the last year alone. More school closures are inevitable.
- November 25
Sacramento Bee: The best of the bunch. Reporter Phillip Reese found that of the 25 school districts
in the area with declining enrollment over the past five years, only eight had reduced the number
of school administrators. Five districts with declining enrollment added administrators.