The Ultimate Education Reform? Make Schools Smaller


William Ayers, Gerald Bracey, and Greg Smith


Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation
School of Education
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
PO Box 413
Milwaukee WI 53201


December 14, 2000




The Ultimate Education Reform? Make SchoolsSmaller

By William Ayers, GeraldBracey, and Greg Smith

In 1957 the Soviet Unionshot Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into orbit around the earth, andwith it sent soaring American anxieties about the quality of education. Thenation responded with calls to train more engineers and increase defense spending.One less-noticed reaction was to consolidate schools, especially high schools,into ever larger complexes.

Franklin Keller hadrecommended such consolidation in his 1955 book, The Comprehensive HighSchool. James Bryant Conant picked up the call for comprehensive highschools in his study of high schools.1  Armed with these reports, policy makers such as Admiral Hyman Rickover stumpedthe nation, assuring us that comprehensive high schools could provide theprofessionals the country we needed to stave off the Communist threat.

What we’ve learned from the40-year experiment, however, is that while large high schools may offer a morediverse curriculum and more years of foreign language, math and science, theyhave their own set of negative consequences.  There is growing interest inreturning to small schools and mounting research that small schools functionbetter than big ones.

In large schools, bothteachers and students move about the building in anonymity.  In a smallschool, students can be known well.  And to be known and acknowledged byother human beings is essential to human psychological well-being and tolearning.

There’s sound evidence forthe quality that small schools offer.  A growing body of research showsthat small schools can:

n Raise studentachievement, especially for minority and low-income students.2

n Reduce incidents ofviolence and disruptive behavior.3

n Combat anonymity and isolationand, conversely, increase the sense of belonging.

n Reduce graffiti on schoolbuildings.

n Increase attendance andgraduation rates.4

n Elevate teachersatisfaction.5

n Improve school climate.6

n Operate cost-effectively.7

n Increase parent andcommunity involvement.

The Columbine massacre hasfocused attention on the alienation of students, but the typical reaction hasbeen to militarize the schools with more police in the buildings, more metaldetectors, video cameras, and “zero tolerance” policies.

Yet these approaches maybackfire because they increase the expectation that violence will happen.8 In small schools, by contrast, students fight less, feel safer, come to schoolmore frequently and report being more attached to their school.

Small schools are usuallydefined as those containing 300 to 400 students in elementary schools and 400to 800 at the secondary level.  But replacing our large schools with smallones doesn’t mean we have to demolish the larger buildings wholesale. A school buildingis not the same thing as a school.  We can carve up large school buildingsinto smaller areas that become separate schools.  At the same time, we canpreserve some of the advantages of large schools, such as they are, by treatingthe divided school as a single entity for activities such as band or athletics.

Dividing a large schoolinto small ones also offers an increase in parental choice without the use ofvouchers.  If a former large school contains, say, four smaller ones,parents can match the program offerings with what they think is best for theirchild.  This can also heighten parent involvement with the school. 

No education reform is apanacea.  Small schools are more vulnerable to changes in teachers orprincipals simply because they are small.  But in an era when someadvocate turning public school dollars over to private schools, it’s worthnoting that the elite private schools are mostly small ones, averaging fewerthan 300 pupils. Even larger ones have ways of reconstituting themselves assmaller units. In private schools, “teachers are responsible for far fewerstudents,” says  Arthur Powell formerly of the National Association ofIndependent Schools, who calls that “one of the most telling statistics inAmerican education.” 9

“Smallness is aprerequisite for the climate of and culture that we need to develop the habitsof heart and mind essential to a democracy,” Deborah Meier, principal of SevenHills School in Boston once said. “Small schools come as close to being apanacea for America’s educational ills as we're likely to get."

1 Conant, James B,   TheAmerican High School Today, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959


  Howley, C., Bickel,R. The Matthew Project: National Report. ERIC: ED433174. 1999

  Cotton, K.  SchoolSize, School Climate, and Student Performance. Portland, OR: NW RegionalLab. 1997

  Raywid, M.A. “SmallSchools: A Reform That Works,” Educational Leadership, 55:4December/January, 1997/’98.

  Friedkin, N. andNecochea, J. “School System Size and Performance: A Contingency Perspective,” EducationalEvaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol 10, No. 3, 1998, pp. 237-249.

  Huang, G. and Howley,C. “Mitigating Disadvantage: Effects of Small-Scale Schooling on Students'Achievement,”Alaska Journal of Research in Rural Education, Vol. 9,No.3, 1993, pp. 137-149.

3 See:

  Bailey, J. “The Casefor Small Schools,” Center for Rural Affairs Monthly Newsletter, 2000.

  Rossi, R. andDaugherty, S. “How Safe are the Public Schools: What Do Teachers Say?” Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, 1996

  Berreth, D.“Supporting Schools as True Communities of Character,” Testimony before theHouse Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families, 2000.

4 Farber, P. “Small Schools Work Bestfor Disadvantaged Students,” Harvard Education Letter, March/April,1998.

5 Hard, S. “Professional LearningCommunities:  What Are They and Why Are They Are Important,”  IssuesAbout Change, Vol. 6, No. 1.  Southwest Educational DevelopmentLaboratory, 1997

6 Fine, M. and Somerville, J. (eds.) Small Schools, Big Imaginations: A Creative Look at Urban Public Schools. Chicago: Cross-City Campaign for Urban School Reform. 

7 Steifel, L., Berne, R., Iatarola,P., Fruchter, N. “High School Size: Effects on Budgets and Performance in NewYork City,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 22, No. 1,Spring, 2000, pp. 22-39.

8 Devine, John, Maximum Security:The Culture of Violence in Inner City Schools, Chicago: University ofChicago Press, 1996

9 Powell, Arthur, Lessons FromPrivilege: The American Prep School Tradition, Cambridge, MA: HarvardUniversity Press, 1996; quoted in Wasley, P., et al, Small Schools, GreatStrides, New York: Bank Street College of education, p. 4

10. Meier, D., "The Big Benefits ofSmallness," Phi Delta Kappan, 78:1, September 1996, pp. 12-15.