Home >> A Issues >> Issues >> Reform Means More Than Just Small

Search form

Reform Means More Than Just Small

Research has shown that smaller schools are more effective at meeting students' needs, but just breaking up a school into smaller parts does not necessarily change the climate, according to Indiana University researcher Thomas Gregory. Included: Resources to help restructure a larger school.

In response to research that smaller is better when it comes to schools, states, cities, and corporations are allocating money to school districts to divide larger school buildings into smaller "learning communities."

One researcher, Thomas Gregory, an education professor at Indiana University, who has been studying small school issues for 25 years, writes that merely dividing a large school into several smaller ones does not always solve big-school problems.

In Breaking Up Large High Schools: Five Common (and Understandable) Errors of Execution, Gregory notes, "There is little evidence that this strategy is successful, even though hundreds of high schools currently are pursuing it.

"What we are getting are more personal versions of big, factory high schools," Gregory tells Education World. "The large-school culture kills off reform."


At the same time, much of the spending in small-school reform is going to subdividing existing schools, such as $165 million from the federal Smaller Learning Communities Initiative. A number of private foundations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, also are funding these initiatives.

Just creating several smaller schools out of one larger one will not necessarily affect student learning, some researchers write. Although restructuring larger schools is a popular reform, if not done properly, such efforts could be abandoned if they do not yield small-school results, writes Kathleen Cotton of the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in the report New Small Learning Communities: Findings from Recent Literature.

"Since not all small-school restructuring outcomes are equal, care must be taken to insure that these resources and efforts will be truly productive," Cotton writes. "The last thing small-school proponents want to see is a future in which school downsizing ends up on the dead fad pile, with students reaping few benefits from it, funding agencies declaring it a bust, and school personnel across the country remarking wistfully, `Oh, we tried small schools, but they didn't work.'"

Among the obstacles to losing the large-school culture in smaller educational units, according to Gregory, are errors of autonomy, size, continuity, time, and control.

  • Autonomy: It has been hard for smaller units to develop identities separate from the larger school, in part because services and extracurricular activities remain centralized.
  • Size: Even smaller high school units of 400 to 600 students with separate administrators and faculty are large enough to have trouble personalizing the high school experience.
  • Continuity: Sometimes in breaking up large schools, separate programs are created for different grade levels. That increases the number of transitions for students and reduces the opportunity to learn from peers.
  • Time: Often all the units remain on the same schedule, so there are not many changes in how classes are structured.
  • Control: Even when a large building is broken into smaller units, it still can require large-school student management techniques, "so many of the control issues that constrain more informal teaching and learning remain."


At the same time, few districts can afford to simply walk away from large school buildings and construct multiple smaller schools, Gregory notes.

"We've got these huge buildings that we have to make work," he says. "But there are limits to what autonomy large schools can give to smaller parts. That's not enough of a reform."

What the country does not seem to be doing, according to Gregory, is creating new, small schools. "The best of those really have different climates. We have to deal with growth by not building more big schools."

John Nori, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, says that districts are working with the resources they have.

"Breaking up large schools into smaller units is a powerful wave sweeping the country," Nori tells Education World. "We can personalize schools more for students. But in the existing structure we have, we can't abandon large schools. We need to work on personalization. The key is the connection between adults and kids."

Gregory also recommends several resources for those considering dividing up larger schools. They include the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Small Schools Project of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.