Michael Klonsky, of the University of Illinois (Chicago) College of Education says, "A compelling body of research shows that when students are part of smaller and more intimate learning communities, they are more successful." This week, Education World takes a look at some of that research.
A compelling body of research shows that when students are part of smaller and more intimate learning communities, they are more successful.
--- Michael Klonsky, College of Education, University of Illinois at Chicago
For much of the latter half of this century, big schools were seen as the academic environment of choice for most of our country's school districts. Large schools, it was said, are more efficient and more economical to build and run. They offer a broader range of course offerings and a wider variety of extra-curricular activities. They provide students with more opportunities for specialization and with more special services. So persuasive were those arguments that, between 1940 and 1990, as the U.S. population increased by 70 percent, the total number of public schools declined by 69 percent -- and average school enrollment rose more than 500 percent!
Today, however, the pendulum is swinging -- if not quite back to the days of the one-room schoolhouse, certainly to a widespread belief that smaller is better, and that, despite their reputed fiscal inefficiencies and curricular deficiencies, small schools can provide a solid -- even better -- education for all students.
The Chicago Task Force on Small Schools characterizes "small schools" in the following way:
Many educators today believe that such schools provide significant advantages over large schools in a number of important areas. Those areas include:
In addition, many researchers now believe that the disadvantages ascribed to small schools may be more perceived than real. A study of 128 New York City high schools, conducted by the Institute for Education and Social Policy, found that schools with fewer than 600 students spent $7,628 a year for each pupil, about $1,410 more than schools with 2,000 or more students. But, when higher graduation rates were taken into account (63.2 percent for small schools, compared to 55.9 percent for large schools), the small schools spent only $25 more per graduate. The study concluded: "We find that the size of the student body is an important factor in relation to costs and output and that small academic and articulated alternative high schools cost among the least per graduate of all New York City high schools. Though these smaller schools have somewhat higher costs per student, their much higher graduation rates and lower dropout rates produce among the lowest costs per graduate in the entire system."
Regarding the argument that big schools can offer more comprehensive programs, researchers have found that "it takes a lot of bigness to add a little variety. On average, a 100 percent increase in enrollment yields only a 17 percent increase in variety of offerings." (Pittman and Haughwout). Moreover, researchers say, the broader curriculum supported by larger schools often consists of introductory courses in non-core areas rather than of higher-level core courses. Furthermore, studies show that only five to twelve percent of the students in large schools avail themselves of those extra courses. (McGuire 1989; Monk 1992; Rogers 1987)
The trend toward smaller schools has presented a dilemma, however, for many districts that cannot afford to abandon buildings intended for much larger student populations. Educators who want to downsize large schools are often forced to develop a number of creative solutions. In Taking Stock: The Movement to Create Mini-Schools, Schools-within-Schools and Separate Small Schools, Mary Anne Raywid identifies the three most common plans.
Whatever form they take, the Small Schools Workshop -- based at the University of Illinois at Chicago -- advises that educators who are considering establishing small schools in their own districts use the Eight Steps to Creating Small Schools as a planning tool. The steps provide additional insight into the problems and challenges of creating and maintaining small schools by posing a series of questions educators should ask themselves when considering restructuring larger schools into smaller units. Those questions include:
1. Understanding The Need for Change
2. Creating a Vision of Smaller Schools.
3. Teacher Self-Selection
4. Choosing a Focus
5. Integrating and Aligning Curriculum and Instruction
6. Building a Professional Community
7. Getting a Buy-In From Students and Parents
8. Assessing Progress
Many factors have contributed to the movement toward smaller schools in recent years, including falling test scores, rising drop-out rates, increased school violence, an impetus toward career and character education in schools, and a trend toward more learner-oriented educational strategies. Perhaps the answer to why small schools are often seen as the panacea that will cure all these ills can be found in "The Big Benefits of Smallness," an article by Deborah W. Meier published in the journal Educational Leadership.
"In small schools," says Meir, founder and director of several small public schools in New York City, "we're more likely to pass on to students the habits of heart and mind that define an educated person -- not only formally, in lesson plans and pedagogical gimmicks, but in hallway exchanges, arguments about important matters, and resolution of ordinary differences. We're more likely to show kids in our daily discourse that grown-ups use reasoning and evidence to resolve issues. We can teach them what it's like to be a grown-up."
The Small Schools Workshop
Based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, this workshop helps create innovative learning communities in public schools. This site provides links to relevant articles.
Bigger Oak Hills High School Aims for Small Feel
An article about one house plan, from the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Safe, Rigorous, Personalized: Rhode Island Small Schools
An article by Dan Corley, from the Providence Journal.
Article by Linda Starr
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