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Lesson 5.11

Small Schools:
Oops, We Shrunk the Schools!

Grants inspired a boom in “small” schools. Here’s what happened.

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Getting "lost" in school

The largest schools in California enroll thousands of children. These complex organizations are larger than many corporations.

At their best, these large schools offer diverse course options, robust athletic programs and specialized arts programs. For students with an edge, these large schools can work well.

For many students, however, it is very easy to get “lost” in a big school, especially at the secondary level. If each course is taught by a different teacher and classes are randomly “mixed,” a student in such a school might interact with upwards of 150 students daily. In the course of a day, a teacher might be expected to sustain close to 200 relationships.

Shrinking the schools helped, some.

In the 1990’s, education reform organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation focused on data showing that large schools are systematically less effective than small ones at retaining students and advancing their academic progress.

The Gates’ leadership prompted a wave of “small-schools” reforms, partly aligned with the movement to create charter schools. This movement, with strong backing from the Gates Foundation and enthusiastic support from many small studies, led to the creation of thousands of small schools all over America. (“Small” in this context is usually defined as a school with about 100 students per grade level or fewer.) In some cases, large schools were converted into multiple small schools sharing a campus, sometimes referred to as "schools within a school" models.

Some of these small schools, particularly newly founded schools, became important models for how to create an effective school culture.

In schools of
a smallish size
students can't
avoid your eyes

In a candid letter in 2009, however, Bill Gates conceded that many of the schools they invested in “did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.” Making a school smaller, on its own, did not make as big a difference as hoped.

But he may have spoken too soon. A series of three follow-on studies by MRDC in New York City showed graduation rates are higher by 10 percentage points or more in the city’s Small Schools of Choice (SSCs) than in other local high schools. In 2015 a further study led by Leanna Stiefel of NYU independently reinforced the MRDC finding: the movement to create new small schools probably boosted student outcomes in New York City.

"Rigor and Relationships"

But why did these reforms work, and for whom? The third MRDC report, published in 2013, notes that “Principals and teachers at the 25 SSCs with the strongest evidence of effectiveness believe that academic rigor and personal relationships with students contribute to the effectiveness of their schools. They also believe that these attributes derive from their schools’ small organizational structures and from the commitment, knowledge, dedication, and adaptability of their teachers.”

Even if teachers are adaptable, however, there are always tradeoffs. For example, it is impractical for a small school on its own to offer the range of courses and extracurricular activities possible at a large school. Small schools may be able to offer students access to specialized learning opportunities through partnerships and external programs, but managing such partnerships isn't free or automatic.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of small schools is who will lead them. As discussed in Lesson 5.8, a principal can make or break a school, and principals are in short supply, especially in California. Making schools smaller implies finding more leaders. The tradeoffs are real.

Lesson 5.12 examines the ultimate small-school model: learning at home.

Updated July 2017, Dec 2018


"Small" high schools are often defined as those with 100 or fewer students per grade level (or 400 in all). Which of the following has NOT been shown to be true about small schools?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Robert Crowell May 4, 2018 at 9:16 am
As in all aspects of life, it is about relationships. If students feel valued, and part of a community they will do better.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder September 17, 2017 at 12:24 am
Oakland has many small schools. Too many for its good, argues Gloria Lee of
user avatar
Angelica Manriquez February 29, 2016 at 5:14 pm
The school size doesn't matter what matters is the amount of students per classrooms and teachers per classroom.
user avatar
trckrnnr April 15, 2015 at 9:09 am
The school size would be fine if they staffed it better. 800 kids with a part time AP and no full time mental helper to deal with issue with students makes it very hard. I see student in the office sitting because their busted for something and the Sec are watching them and that is not with union rules
user avatar
Veli Waller April 8, 2015 at 4:46 pm
The elementary school that my sons attend has over 800 students. There is one principal and a vice principal for 3 days a week. It's too big! But, at the elementary level at least the teacher still has a relationship with the students. I fear what it will be like at our large middle and high schools.
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