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The Advantages of Small Schools

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Jul 21, 2008

Americans are rediscovering the small school. Education has proclaimed that "bigger is better" for so long that many have become believers in a doctrine which they have not truly examined. Indeed, the largeness of many of our schools may be one factor contributing to declines in test scores and increases in violence among students (Wynne, 1978). The restructuring of schools to smaller entities may ameliorate some of the problems facing today's educators.

What is a small school?

School enrollment size has been the major criterion used to identify small schools. Although disagreement exists over what enrollment figure should be used to determine "small," the figure most commonly accepted is 300 or less. In the 26,000 of these schools, over one half million students are enrolled and 50,000 teachers employed (Swift, 1984).

Where are America's small schools? Although small public schools do exist in large cities, the vast majority are located in rural areas (Sher, 1977).

What contributions have small schools made in the past?

Well into this century, America's public education system was dominated by small schools. In an age before calculators, microcomputers, television, and rapid transit, hundreds of thousands of children learned their arithmetic, civics, geography, and other lessons in the small--often one-room--school of the past. In most cases, students learned independently and progressed at their own rate. While older pupils helped the younger ones, the teacher was able to take time to individualize lessons and provide personal contact with each student on a daily basis. Younger pupils became fully aware of what was expected of them in the next grade because they could see and hear older children working on advanced lessons.

It would be interesting, perhaps astounding, to be able to identify the number of successful professionals in business, education, science, and other disciplines who received their public education in a small school. The small country school of yesteryear was the impetus from which many of today's better known educational "innovations" originated. Notions such as non-graded classrooms, individualized instruction, low student/teacher ratios, cross-age grouping, peer tutoring, using the community as a resource, "mainstreaming" mildly handicapped pupils, and emphasizing the basics--to name just a few--all have their roots in the small school of the past.

What strenghts are inherent in small schools?

There exists in the small school a sense of pride, and an attitude and sense of personal possession and involvement on the part of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community residents. To a great degree, the school is the community center in many small towns and rural areas.

Over 20 years ago, Barker and Gump (1964) proposed the "inside-outside perceptual paradox" which stated that even though larger schools were more impressive on the outside, upon closer scrutiny the small school provided a better quality of education. The small school can offer benefits in several areas: (1) personal relationships, (2) students, (3) teachers, (4) administration, and (5) curriculum and instruction (Beckner, 1983; Dunne, 1977).

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