By David W. Kirkpatrick
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. As far back as 1964, Roger Barker and Paul Gump, in their book, Big School, Small School, summarized hundreds of studies that concluded small schools are better, with the optimum size being about 400 to 500 students. This has been confirmed by numerous studies and reports since then. Norway demonstrated it took such ideas seriously when, in 1978, it passed a law establishing the maximum size of high schools at 450.

Some education reformers, such as Douglas Heath, have said an enrollment of 400 to 500 students is almost too large. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner suggest 250 students and, in 1992, Ted Sizer said no school — elementary, middle, or secondary — should have more than 200 students. Sizer heads the Coalition for Essential Schools, which has numerous school reform projects around the nation, and he has received millions of dollars from Walter Annenberg to assist his efforts.

A survey of 12,708 elementary teachers in Chicago disclosed their belief that there is more progress in small schools than in large ones. The Milwaukee School District has even considered a series of kindergarten through fourth grade schools that would each have an enrollment of only 50 students.

Herbert J. Kiesling studied high schools ranging in size from 100 to 4,000 students and found a direct, but negative, relationship between size and achievement. That is, as the schools got bigger student achievement declined. Not only that, larger schools have higher rates of absenteeism, dropouts, discipline problems, disorder and violence. As one example, high schools with 2,000 students average twice as many dropouts as those with 667.

Smaller schools have lower rates in these categories. A smaller percentage of students in a high school with an enrollment of 1,700 will take part in school events such as athletics, the school paper, and class offices. The percentage of student participation has been shown to peak in high schools with 61 to 150 students.

Those who say small schools are not “efficient,” or effective, need to cite the evidence, not just the rhetoric. The nation’s 25,000 nonpublic schools have an average enrollment of only 200. The average size of Pennsylvania’s nonpublic schools is fewer than 160. That of the new charter schools is only about 200, and many have fewer than 100. The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) has adopted a report that no high school should have more than 600 students.

In recent years the Philadelphia School District has received more than $25 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts to assist in reducing the operation size of the district’s high schools by encouraging schools within a school or, more correctly, schools within a building. Walter Annenberg has made possible a grant of more than $49 million to the Chicago School District to do the same.

Since the mid 1970s the East Harlem District 4, the poorest of New York City’s 32 subdistricts, and one of the poorest in the nation, has moved from last to about 15th by creating minischools, most with 200 to 300 pupils, and permitting students to choose which of the schools they will attend.

Many reasons have been given for the decline of SAT scores in recent decades, such as the growth of teacher unions and the weakening of family structures. Perhaps each of these factors does play a role. But so, too, may be the building of larger schools, which also has coincided with the lower SATs.

Since the mid 1980s, the Kansas City School District and the state of Missouri, under the orders of a federal court judge, have spent more than $1.5 billion extra dollars to build magnificent new schools. Yet dropout rates and other problems remain high while achievement rates are still low. This in a district of approximately 40,000 students. Or you may visit Philadelphia, where a grand new high schools was built a few years ago at a cost of $30 million. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer found the former problems still persist and even quoted a student who said she hated the school.

All of this is separate from the usual questions that arise when a new school building is proposed, such as does anything need to be done, or can it be afforded.

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Copyright 1998, David W. Kirkpatrick
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