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).
The size of the school does not inhibit personal interaction; it encourages it. Small schools typically serve a community nucleus. This invites strong support from parents and community members as well as closer working relationships among the school staff. In a small school it is not unusual for teachers, administrators, and school board members to know each other well. This can lead to easy acceptance of new ideas among friends as well as a strong sense of identification and belonging.
Morale among students tends to be higher in small schools. There are fewer students to be leaders in clubs and organizations and to participate in athletics and plays. Hence, students are generally exposed to more opportunity to develop leadership skills in a greater diversity of situations. Often, literally everyone must participate in order to make a project a success. This promotes among students a sense of belonging, of pride in their community, their school, and themselves. As a result, students are likely to have better attitudes toward school and less likely to create discipline problems.
Teachers are more apt to know their students as individuals and to be familiar with the family backgrounds from which they come. This enables teachers to more knowledgeably make special provisions for individual needs and talents and to receive better cooperation from parents in resolving problems that may arise. Students in small schools also interact more frequently and informally with the teacher and with each other.
Because relationships between teachers and administrators tend to be more personal and informal, there is a greater tendency for cooperation among the staff. Also, teachers who live and work in small communities are more likely to be viewed as respected and valued citizens by other community members.
Small schools are manageable. There is usually less red tape and fewer regulations. Scheduling is much more flexible than in a large school, and schedules can be easily altered to accommodate instructional activities. Record keeping and reporting activities are less complicated and time consuming. Bureaucratic layering is at a minimum, allowing relatively easy access among students, teachers and administrators. Individual problems of both students and faculty can be addressed more readily by administrators. School administrators are more likely to spend time out of their office to be with students and teachers on a regular basis and routinely visit classrooms and observe instruction.
Curriculum and instruction
Due to low pupil/teacher ratios, the school is more likely to be learner-centered with strong emphasis placed on individualized and small group instruction. By contrast, large schools with large class sizes have traditionally led to reliance on lecture and objective tests that stress recall. The potential for student self identity, participation, and expression is thereby enhanced in small schools.
Multi-grade teaching is common practice in many small schools. Cross-age mixing of students allows younger students exposure to lessons and expectations of older students as well as opportunities to receive personalized tutoring from them.
Smallness also permits changes in curricula and organization of instructional materials with relative ease. It is easier to arrange schedules in order to participate in field trips, assembly programs, parent-teacher conferences, etc.
The advantages of smallness can be summarized as follows:
--Students are at the center of the school. --Discipline is usually not a serious problem, thereby resulting in an increase in time spent learning. --Teachers still have a sense of control over what and how they teach. --A minimum of bureaucracy allows for more flexibility in decision making. --Low pupil-teacher ratios allow for more individualized instruction and more attention given to students. --Relationships between students, teachers, administrators, and school board members tend to be closer. --Parental and community involvement tends to be stronger than in larger schools.
What does research say about optimum school size?
Research has not yet revealed an "optimum" school or district size. The studies which have been conducted show a broad range enrollment for the "best size" school. The Education Research Service (Research Action Brief, 1982) summarized 119 publications printed between 1924 and 1974 regarding school size. The differences for optimum size varied by as much as 370 students for elementary schools, 50 students for middle schools, 679 students for junior high schools, and over 1700 students for senior high schools. Due to differences in the design and methodology of the many studies summarized, it is difficult to compare them and thus impossible to draw hard and fast conclusions.
Although research on optimum school size has provided mixed results, most teachers and parents clearly feel that class size radically affects the quality of instruction and achievement of students. A summary of research on class size suggests that (Glass, 1982):
--Class size is strongly related to pupil achievement. --Smaller classes are more conducive to improved pupil performance than larger classes. --Smaller classes provide more opportunities to adapt learning programs to individual needs. --Pupils in small classes have more interest in learning. --Teacher morale is higher in smaller classes.
How do characteristics and practices of "effective schools" research relate to small schools?
Recent research has identified numerous practices and characteristics associated with effective schools. Among characteristics commonly noted are (Fried, 1982):
--A school climate that is orderly, serious, safe, and attractive. --A clear school mission where there is consensus on goals for the school, consensus on teacher objectives and priorities assigned to those objectives. --Strong leadership by the principal which focuses on instruction. --High expectations for student achievement which are clearly communicated to students. --Instructional activities absorb most of the day. --There is an evaluation system which includes student progress, the staff, and the school itself. --Supportive home/school relations.
Small schools need not apologize for their size. The strengths inherent in small schools clearly support characteristics and practices associated with findings emanating from "effective schools" research. The challenge facing administrators, teachers, parents, and students attending small schools is to capitalize on many advantages of smallness in order to provide the most meaningful education possible.
For more information
Barker, Roger, and Paul Gump. BIG SCHOOL, SMALL SCHOOL: HIGH SCHOOL SIZE AND STUDENT BEHAVIOR. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1964.
Beckner, Weldon. THE CASE FOR THE SMALLER SCHOOL. Bloomington, Indiana: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1983. ED 228 002.
Dunn, Faith. "Choosing Smallness." In Jonathan Sher, ed., EDUCATION IN RURAL AMERICA: A REASSESSMENT OF CONVENTIONAL WISDOM. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1977.
Fried, Robby, ed. EFFECTIVE SCHOOLING IN A RURAL CONTEXT: A NEW HAMPSHIRE VIEW. Northeast Regional Exchange, Chelmsford, MA., 1982. ED 243 628.
Glass, Gene, ed. SCHOOL CLASS SIZE: RESEARCH AND POLICY. Beverly Hills, California: Sage Publications, 1982. ED 217 111.
National Center for Education Statistics. DIGEST OF EDUCATIONAL STATISTICS, 1983-84. Washington, D.C: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983.
Research Action Brief. SCHOOL SIZE: A REASSESSMENT OF THE SMALL SCHOOL. Eugene, OR: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, February, 1982.
Sher, Jonathan, ed. EDUCATION IN RURAL AMERICA: A REASSESSMENT OF CONVENTIONAL WISDOM. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1977.
Swift, Doug. FINDING AND KEEPING TEACHERS: STRATEGIES FOR SMALL SCHOOLS. Las Cruces, NM: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools, 1984.
Wynne, Edward. "Behind the Discipline Problem: Youth Suicide as a Measure of Alienation." PHI DELTA KAPPAN 59 (1978): 307-315.
Reprinted with the permission of the Education Resources Information Center.