Big School Vs. Small School

bigvssmall.jpg If you're a parent of a school-going child, I'm sure this question has crossed your mind more times than you ever would bother to count. Frankly I can make a good argument about the advantages of a small school over a big one anytime of day but I get the feeling that this question can be aswered in the most authoritative way if studies have been done to really find out for sure which is better - a small school or a big school. I have to confess that I have a personal bias why I would like to find out for sure. So what I did was ask the question from Google. "Is a big school better than a small school?" I got my answer and it was a very satisfying one. So if you are a parent who still wrestle with this question every time you pass by a campus with a big gate and a sprawling lawn, hang on and read. The article which I quote in its entirety below can also be found in its orginal location at the website of the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, Portland Oregon. Yes, this one is from Oregon, but is this true in other places? Well, my search yielded also another article, this time from Chicago which I will no longer quote entirely because the findings are the same and a short quote will suffice: "Chicago Public Schools...[in its website] ... makes the case for small schools. In part it says: 'The Chicago Public Schools is committed to creating and sustaining small schools as a district-wide school improvement strategy. There is almost 40 years of existing research and literature on small schools which indicates that students in small schools have higher attendance and graduation rates,...' "
If one is interested in knowing how small is small, the article below will also give you some idea.

Big Learning at Small Schools

Kids usually go for big ice cream cones and giant rides at the fair. But when it comes to school size, research clearly says that kids thrive on small; it's often better for student learning. For parents who sometimes wonder if a larger school might offer more to their child, it looks like bigger is not always better when it comes to the relationship between student learning and school size.

A new report from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory finds overwhelming evidence that student attitudes, behavior, and participation are better when school size is smaller. As for student achievement, small schools get results at least equal to, and in many cases superior to, big schools. That's good news in the Northwest -- Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington -- where 1,500 schools enroll fewer than 138 students, according to one analysis.

  • In Alaska, nearly 200 schools have fewer than 100 students.
  • In Idaho, 174 schools average well under 200 students.
  • In Montana, over half of the schools have 70 or fewer students.
  • In Oregon, over 500 schools have fewer than 300 students. And about 11 percent of those schools have fewer than 125 students.
  • In Washington there are almost 300 very small schools with fewer than 50 students; nearly 900 schools have fewer than 400 students.

"Research has repeatedly found small schools superior to larger ones on most measures and equal to them on the rest," says author Kathleen Cotton in the report, School Size, School Climate, and Student Performance. "This holds true for both elementary and secondary students of all ability levels and in all kinds of settings."

Students in small schools are more likely to participate in activities, less likely to drop out, more likely to attend regularly, less likely to engage in risky behavior, and are more likely to view teachers positively.

Researchers point to a number of reasons for the success of small schools. For one thing, students are less likely to be overlooked or isolated in small schools. To have adequate numbers of students, everybody's participation is needed for clubs, teams, and student government. And people in small schools come to know and care about each other to a greater degree than would be possible in much larger schools.

This caring and inclusive environment leads to a greater sense of personal effectiveness, researchers found. Students tend to take on responsibility when classes are smaller. Furthermore, scheduling is more flexible than in larger schools.

Small schools tend to use innovative teaching methods, among them:

  • Mixing students according to skill and readiness levels, not arbitrary age groupings
  • Individualizing learning activities
  • Grouping students to work cooperatively
  • Pooling teachers' skills and abilities for team teaching

Another benefit of small schools, according to the report, is that they are more likely to make learning both active and relevant to the world beyond the classroom. Kids get to be involved in projects and activities that keep them engaged in learning, helping to answer the age-old, grumble-grumble, question: How come I have to learn this? Bet I'll never use it. By the way they're organized, and by the way teaching is often carried out, it seems that small schools let students discover early on: Bet I'll use this when I grow up!  

This column is provided as a public service by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, a nonprofit institution, 101 S.W. Main, Suite 500, Portland, Oregon 97204.