The Scale of Schools

It was, sadly, the Columbine High killings in suburban Denver in 1999 that may have provided the most dramatic evidence in the case against big schools. In the aftermath, many blamed the violence on Columbine’s immense size–2,000 students–and the powerful cliques that evolve in such an environment. Critics included Al Gore, who blasted the practice of “herding all students into overcrowded, factory-style high schools.”

And yet the case for small schools doesn’t rest just on emotional rhetoric and bloody TV footage. Recent studies have shown that simply reducing the size of a school can “create small, supportive learning environments that give students a sense of connection,” as Richard Riley, U.S. secretary of education, puts it. And it’s not just a feel-good environment for students. Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, writing in The Progressive Populist (Oct. 1, 2000), reports that students in urban, rural, and suburban small schools (300 to 400 students for elementary schools, 400 to 600 for middle schools, and 400 to 800 for high schools) outdo their big-school peers in grades and test scores, have far fewer discipline problems and lower dropout rates, and log more years in postsecondary education.

Buoyed by these and other findings, the U.S. Department of Education in October awarded grants to 354 schools in 39 states to help create smaller, more personalized “learning communities,” including “schools within schools” in large high schools. Meanwhile, state education officials around the country are finally beginning to see the value of the small schools that survived the consolidation trend of recent decades.

All of this elates Deborah Meier, whose pioneer small schools in Harlem helped inspire a boom in New York City–which now boasts more than 100 small schools–and nationwide. “It’s not even their particular approach to curriculum and pedagogy that makes them work,” writes Meier in The Nation (June 5, 2000). “It’s that the schools are organized to maximize the power of the adults who know the kids best, the strength of their ties with kids and families, and their ability to put together a coherent schoolwide pedagogy and curriculum.” And, she adds, “all of this can happen inside the public sector, without charters, vouchers, or privatization.”

Still, Meier doubts that the “bigger is better” ethos that sprang up during the 1950s will soon disappear. From 1940 to 1990, 200,000 schools were consolidated into some 62,000, despite a 70 percent rise in the nation’s population. Average enrollment skyrocketed, and now it’s not uncommon for a single school to house 5,000 students. As Philip Langdon notes in the conservative journal The American Enterprise (Jan. 2000), many educators, parents, and students still believe big schools are better able to offer modern equipment and advanced curriculums.

Yet small-school proponents can poke holes in just about every bigger-is-better argument. Small schools may not offer as many classes, they argue, but their teachers generally have more flexibility to incorporate sophisticated material as well as the freedom to use innovative teaching methods such as multi-age classrooms, Mitchell notes in The Progressive Populist. And while big schools can offer deluxe sports facilities and busy extracurricular rosters, smaller schools have a higher participation rate, meaning that more students will get the leadership training and improved academic standing often associated with such activities. Parent participation, too, is higher in small schools.

The trump card played by big-school advocates is money: Small schools cost more because they don’t benefit from centralized efficiency, they say. And though it’s true that smaller schools have higher per-pupil costs, their much higher graduation rates and lower dropout rates can bring the total cost per student to less than that of big schools.

But, as Meier tells Langdon in The American Enterprise, such evidence seldom outweighs more pedestrian concerns. “When we talk with school officials and local politicians about restructuring large high schools, the first thing they worry about is what will happen to the basketball or baseball teams, the after-school program, and other sideshows,” she says. “That the heart of the school, its capacity to educate, is missing seems almost beside the point.”

For more information on the small-school movement, visit

Discuss the power of small schools in the Education conference in Cafe Utne:

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.