School Size and
Consolidation: How Big is Too Big? February 1, 2014 by Paul W. Bennett
Belangrijke vragen: How big is too big when it comes to
schools? Why do ministries of education
and school boards continue to subscribe to the myth of economies of
scale? What were the painful lessons of
Bill and Melinda Gates 2000 to 2009 Small School Initiative project? What can be done to bring public policy in
relation to school size more in line with current research supporting the
building of smaller schools and the re-sizing of regional mega-schools ?
Grote scholen: Higher administrative overhead; Higher
maintenance costs ; Increased transportation costs; Lower graduation rates;
Higher rates of vandalism; Higher absenteeism; Lower teacher satisfaction
Tekst van Blog
The century-old trend towards school consolidation and ever
bigger schools is driven by a peculiar logic. School consolidators, posing as
modernizers and progressives, tend to rely upon a few standard lines. Student
enrollment has dropped, so we cannot afford to keep your small school open. Now
dont get emotional on us. It simply comes down to a matter of dollars and
Whats wrong with this conventional school planning and
design logic? A growing body of North
American education research on the dollars and sense of school size is
exploding the myth and now suggest that smaller scale schools are not only
better for students but, more surprisingly, more cost effective for school
boards. Whereas school consolidation and
economies-of-scale were once merely accepted truths, supported by little
evidence, newer studies are demonstrating that true small schools also deliver
better results in academic achievement, high school completion rates, student
safety and social connectedness.
ClassroomDropOutsSchool sizes continued to grow until the
first decade of the 2000s with little research support, coherent analysis, or
public scrutiny. One influential study,
J.B. Conants 1959 book, The American High School Today, fed the growth hormone
with a fateful recommendation that no high school should have a graduating
class of less than 100 students. High
schools were then increasingly
consolidated and, in the United States, the number of high schools with more
than 1,500 students doubled and, by 2010, 40 % of Americas high schools
enrolled more than 1,000 students.
The most popular, safest and single most effective model of
schooling, the small schools model, was not only overlooked but effectively
marginalized by policy makers and school facilities planners. Independent
scholarly research in support of smaller schools, especially for secondary
school students, gradually began to surface.
Such empirical research, however, rarely made it to the table where
policy is made in the ministry of education, superintendents office, school
architects workplace, or even the university faculties of education.
One of the first studies to challenge the prevailing
orthodoxy was Dollars & Sense: The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools
(Knowledge Works Foundation, 2002).
Written by Barbara Kent Lawrence and a team of recognized experts, it
very effectively demolished the central arguments made by large school
defenders based upon so-called economies of scale. Small schools, the
authors, claimed actually cost less to build based upon the metric of cost per
student. They made the compelling case that large schools, compared to small schools, have:
Higher administrative overhead; Higher maintenance costs ;
Increased transportation costs; Lower graduation rates; Higher rates of
vandalism; Higher absenteeism; Lower teacher satisfaction
In addition to dispelling myths about economies-of-scale,
the authors proposed specific guidelines for Ideal School Sizes, specifying
High Schools (9-12), 75 students per grade, 300 total
Middle Schools (5-8), 50 students per grade level, 200 total
Schools (1-8), 25 students per grade level, 200 total enrollment Elementary Schools (1-6), 25 students per
grade level, 150 total enrollment
The authors of Dollars & Sense also rejected claims that
the benefits of smallness could be achieved by designing and creating
schools-within-a-school (SWaS). They recognized that turning over-sized
facilities into SWaS design schools may be practical, but recommended against
designing new schools where large numbers of students (Grades K-12) were reconfigured
into divisions in particular sections or linked buildings.
Craig B. Howleys landmark 2008 Educational Planning
article, Dont Supersize Me, provided the concrete evidence that building
small schools was more cost effective.
Comparing 87 smaller Grade 9-12 schools with 81 larger schools, his
research demonstrated that the smaller schools (138 to 600 students) were, on
average, no more expensive per student to build than the larger schools
(enrolling 601-999 students), and were actually less costly per square foot
($96 vs. $110). Furthermore, the new planned larger schools were oversized when
actual enrollments were considered, making them more expensive per student, the
key cost metric.
During a nine year period, from 2000 to 2009, the Bill and
Melinda Gates Foundation took a $2 billion run at the problem with mixed
results. Comprehensive high schools were declared harmful to the academic
advancement and welfare of American students.
Mega-high schools with as many as 4,500 students educated under a single
roof were found to be breeding apathy, sapping students motivation to learn
and teachers commitment to teaching. Beginning in 2000, the Gates Foundation
poured some $2 billion into replacing these dropout factories, funding 1,600
new, mostly urban high schools of a few hundred students each, some of them in
restructured comprehensive high schools, others in new locations.
The massive Gates Small School initiative, centred on
Portland, Oregon, ran into structural barriers, sparked teacher union
resistance, and did not produce quick
results. Trying to re-size schools and
re-invent decadent school cultures proved more challenging than expected, and
the Gates Foundation ran out of patience when student test scores remained
stagnant. Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve
students achievement in any significant way, Bill Gates wrote in 2009. The
foundation then made a sharp turn and shifted its attention and resources to
teacher quality reform strategies.
The campaign for more personalized urban and regional high
schoolsstructured and designed to forge more meaningful connections between
students and adults in a concerted effort to boost student achievementis still supported by a
raft of research and student and teacher surveys. American authorities on student dropouts consistently
report that students dont care because they dont feel valued. When
adolescents trust their teachers
theyre more likely to persist through graduation,
claims University of Michigans Valerie Lee and a colleague.
The Gates experiments did provide some vitally-important
lessons. Reducing school sizes alone is
not enough to turn around under-performing schools. In the case of New York
City, shutting down twenty large, under-performing high schools worked better
in improving graduation rates (from 47 to 63%) because the principals of the
200 new smaller schools that were created as replacements had the power to hire
their own teachers and staff.
The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools,
created on the small school model also fared much better than the mainstream
reconfigured urban high schools.
Principals and teachers at KIPP schools, for example, pride themselves
on knowing every students namesomething the schools are able to do mostly
because theyre small, with average enrollments of 300. Even in his 2009 critique of the Small
Schools Initiative, Bill Gates praised the small-scale KIPP schools. Their
strong results may reflect the combination of smaller size, high standards, longer school days, and employing their own
teachers and staff.
Creating smaller schools and a more intimate school climate
in the absence of high standards and good teaching isnt enough. Theres no guarantee that small schools, in
and of themselves, will create good
climates. Having said that, smaller
schools are more likely to create the sense of connectedness among students and
teachers that motivates them both to work hard, according to the Dollars &
Sense researchers. Generating a level of
genuine caring and mutual obligation between students and teachers is also
found far less frequently in large, comprehensive high schools. Small schools,
in other words, are more likely to create the conditions that make learning
Writing in the Washington Monthly (July 6, 2010), Thomas
Toch put it best. Breaking up large
dysfunctional high schools into smaller units may not work miracles, but is
likely a step in the right direction. Smaller school settings are still proving
to be one of a number of important means to the desired end: getting students and teachers in impoverished
neighborhoods or marginalized rural communities to invest more in their work
still looks like the best route toward lifting achievement and getting a far
wider range of students through high school and onto post-secondary education.