Vote No on May 8: Smaller is Better for Education
I am voting No on the $79,000,000 proposal to combine Lahser and Andover students in a new high school because it is bad for education. After reading studies such as the ones articulated in the Fielding Nair International (FNI) document (Discovery Workbook: Bloomfield Hills January 2011 Fielding Nair International) and applying my own common sense, I strongly believe smaller is better for our students.
As you know, FNI was hired by the district for $863,000 to sell a new single high school concept to district voters. Part of the FNI report cited compares school size: 800 versus 1,600 students. These studies concluded that it is best for students to keep high school size between 600 and 900 students.
If the bond proposal fails, the District states it will put around 1,200 10 through 12th graders at Andover and establish a 9th grade academy at Lahser for the remaining 400 students. This is a far better alternative for our children’s education than the current proposal which places all students at Andover.
Additionally, if the proposal fails, our community will have the opportunity to demand that the District does what’s best for education and keep Andover and Lahser as two small 9-12 schools.
Many bond proponents will say, “But Chris, we can’t afford the alternative.” I disagree and will address this concern in a future letter.
The following comes from the FNI document cited above:
School Size – 800 vs. 1,600
According to the US Department of Education’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education:
- In small schools, students tend to be more satisfied, more academically productive, more likely to participate in school activities, better behaved, and less likely to drop out than students in large schools.
- The size of high schools may have an indirect effect on student learning. Essentially, more moderately sized schools-those with 900 or fewer students-likely improve the climate and conditions for student success, especially teacher sense of self-efficacy and appropriate sense of responsibility for student learning, when accompanied by high expectations, standards and supporting strategies.
- Smaller schools also may be safer because students feel less alienated, more nurtured and more connected to caring adults, and teachers feel that they have more opportunity to get to know and support their students.
- While small schools have a higher cost per pupil than large schools, they have a lower cost per graduate since they tend to have lower dropout rates. Also, the higher percentage of dropouts from large schools carries additional societal costs.
- At the same time, some high schools may theoretically be too small to provide adequate resources, and the effects of school size may be more important for some groups of students than others.
The only rigorous study was conducted by Valerie E. Lee of the University of Michigan and Julia B. Smith of Western Michigan University. Lee and Smith analyzed federal data for nearly 10,000 students in 789 public and private high schools of varying size. They sampled the performance of these students in mathematics and reading as they progressed from eighth to 12th grade. Lee and Smith concluded that the ideal size for a high school is 600 to 900 students. Size matters, they said, because it affects social relations within the school and the ability to mount a reasonable curriculum. Schools that are too large lack any sense of community and cannot shape student behavior; schools that are too small cannot offer a solid curriculum.
In their study, low-income students made the greatest academic gains in schools of 600 to 900 students. Indeed, the performance of low-income students was worst in schools with more than 2,100 students. Size did not make as much difference for students from advantaged backgrounds, but even their performance peaked in the schools that enrolled between 600 and 900.
So what are the factors that make smaller schools better than larger schools? A research study published by Kathleen Cotton in 1996 titled School Size, School Climate, and Student Performance, points to the following factors that are affected by school size. And, in every case, smaller is better.
- Quality of the Curriculum: Some educators argue that large schools are advantageous because they can offer a broader curriculum. Upon examination, researchers have found that doubling enrollment produces only a 17% increase in the variety of offerings, and that only 5-12% of the students in larger schools avail themselves of these extra courses. Similarly, five of six studies report that smaller schools were just as effective as larger ones in preparing students for college entrance.
- Cost-Effectiveness: Researchers find that up to a point, there are economies of scale and per-student costs decline with increasing size. Then as enrollment continues to increase, extra staff members are required to manage large numbers of students, and costs increase again. The school size that maximizes cost-effectiveness is variable and highly dependent upon the particulars of the community and the school system.
- Academic Achievement: No research finds large schools superior to smaller schools in academic achievement, and smaller schools show positive effects on the achievement of ethnic minority students and those of low socioeconomic status.
- Student Attitudes: Research on student attitudes strongly favors small schools over large ones, with minority and low-SES students again showing the most positive benefits from a small-school environment.
- Social Behavior: Small schools have lower incidences of negative social behavior than large schools, with minority and low-SES students showing the most positive effects from smaller schools.
- Extracurricular Participation: Students in small schools are involved in a greater variety of activities than those in larger schools. Hamilton (1983) writes, Students in the large schools were more polarized, with a group of active participants at one end of the continuum and a large group of students who did not participate in extracurricular activities at the other. In the small schools there were few students who did not participate in anything.
- Attendance: Attendance statistics again favor small schools over larger ones.
- Dropouts: Nine of the ten reports reviewed by Cotton report lower dropout rates for smaller schools.
- Belongingness/Alienation: Researchers report a greater sense of community and belonging among students of smaller schools.
- Self-Concept: Personal and academic self-regard are stronger in smaller schools. As Rutter (1988) writes, Evidence of increases in social bonding to teachers and school, self-esteem, academic self-concept, locus of control and sociocentric reasoning suggest that [small alternative] programs can respond constructively to students’ underlying needs.
- Interpersonal Relations: Researchers report that interpersonal relations among students and teachers were more positive at smaller schools.
- Teacher Attitudes: Cotton reports fewer studies of teachers and administration in schools of different sizes, but those that were found favor smaller schools. As Gottfredson (1985) writes, Large schools appear to promote negative teacher perceptions of school administration and low staff morale.
Looking Under the Hood: When the above statistics are looked at more closely, we begin to understand why smallness matters. The keys to the success of a small school are:
a) Students have a greater sense of belonging;
b) Students have better opportunities to develop positive relationships with caring adults;
c) It is easier to create a strong signature that students can identify with at a personal level (as opposed to the institutional feel of a very large school where students feel alienated and anonymous);
d) It is easier to administer and therefore students and teachers enjoy greater autonomy instead of following too many rigid rules; and
e) Teachers are more empowered and this empowerment creates better conditions for good teaching practices that are conducive to the demands of the 21st century.
It is then easy to see why many efforts to create small schools failed because smallness in and of itself is not a formula for success but smallness creates the conditions under which it is easier to incorporate the above 5 key ingredients for success.