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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Research favors smaller schools

When the Best Uses of Schools Task Force issued their report, one of their key assumption and rationales for reduces the number of elementary schools to eight was falling enrollment. They used not only a fiscal argument about the cost of maintaining and operating a ninth elementary school but they also used an educational argument.

They made the argument that 420 students was the minimum size for a viable elementary school. This assumption was premised on the notion of differentiation and the amount of differentiation needed in order to have various features. However, as far as I can tell they cite no research to support their position.

A perusal of some of the research in a policy brief from WestEd, suggests a very different picture.

"No agreement exists on optimal school size, but research reviews suggest a maximum of 300-400 students for elementary schools..." A further note is that "researchers focusing on the interaction between poverty and enrollment size offer a rule of thumb: The poorer the school, the smaller its size should be." We have to be a bit careful because Valley Oak is by no means an impoverished school.

The review of studies goes on to suggest several major benefits from small schools.

First--students learn well and often better in small rather than large schools. In fact, "no study found large-school achievement superior."

Second--behavior problems diminish.

Third--attendance is higher.

Fourth--extracurricular participation increases.

Finally, poor and minority students benefit the most.

There are a number of key factors that suggest why smaller schools are better. First, smaller schools produce strong personal bonds to the school. Second, there is greater parental and community involvement in small versus large schools. In a large school individual parents would blend in to their surroundings more, while at smaller schools parents and teachers get to know each other and become allies in fostering student success. Third, it helps produce greater simplicity and focus which facilitates communication.

A big one that relates strong to the report offered by the task force is that "student achievement is influenced much more by caliber of instruction than by number of courses offered." This important because it strikes at the heart of the differentiation argument put up by the Task Force.

It seems likely there is other research that suggests that large schools may be better in some settings. However, I think the most important point here is that there is likely competing literature and competing ideas on what is the best school size. The problem with the Task Force is that they did not provide the school board with those alternatives and instead picked the argument that best fit their conclusion rather than presenting competing arguments and then proceeding to a conclusion. The size of schools is but one example exactly that.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting