The effects of school and distric size

Small schools make a big difference for children from poor families, conclude Craig Howley, Ohio University, and Robert Bickel, Marshall University, Huntington, West Virginia.

Schools and districts with large numbers of economically disadvantaged students are likely to have higher average test scores if both the school and the district are small.

In their research looking at student achievement in 13,600 schools in 2,300 districts in Georgia, Ohio, Montana and Texas, the smaller the school in low-income areas, the higher the scores. In affluent communities, school size is less of a factor and, in fact, somewhat larger schools produce better achievement.

Previous studies found similar results in Alaska, California and West Virginia. Howley and Bickel believe that “small schools and small districts could level the academic playing field for children from poor families.” They recommend that poor students attend high schools with fewer than 1,000 students and elementary schools with fewer than 500 students. Unfortunately, most low-income students attend large schools in large districts.

The data from Georgia differed somewhat from the other states, in that while small school size improved achievement for low-income students, district size did not appear to affect their achievement scores.

Size and economic status

When the Georgia data was evaluated more closely, it was found that small districts did not raise the academic performance of poor students, but instead reduced the influence of economic background on achievement.

In larger districts, economic background had a considerable influence on school performance, but this influence disappeared in small districts. Thus, district size made a substantial difference in the equity and excellence of school-level achievement in all four states studied. Howley and Bickel conclude that smaller schools and districts support equity and excellence in school performance. Unfortunately, the number of school districts is declining and large schools continue to be built.

These researchers contend that smaller- scale, more user-friendly schools and districts are badly needed in the United States. They believe that high schools of 1,000 students are large enough to provide a comprehensive curriculum, and that high schools with as few as 400 students can be equally effective with a more focused curriculum.

They suggest that school districts of even 5,000 students may be too large and that perhaps districts should be formed around one high school and the schools that feed into it. They recognize that changing school size can be expensive and controversial, but given the amount of time and money spent on school reform, reducing the size of schools may be more efficient as well as more effective.

They conclude that since small schools and districts help children achieve despite their economic disadvantages, it is time to create schools and districts on a much smaller scale.

“The Influence of Scale” American School Board Journal Volume 189, Number 3, March 2002 Pp. 28-30

Published in ERN April 2002 Volume 15 Number 4


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