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Research Talking Points on Small Schools

What do we mean when we talk about "small schools?"

"Small schools" is the expression used for a concept for restructuring schools -- particularly high schools -- and the human relationships inside them. The optimum size for small schools varies, with many recent definitions calling for not more than 500 students, but, based on the most frequently cited research (Lee & Smith, 1997), they are defined as schools with enrollments that range between 600-900 students.

In some cases, large high schools that cannot be physically broken into smaller units are organized into small "learning communities" (see section on schools-within-schools listed below) in order to obtain the benefits associated with small schools. Although there is much ongoing research associated with such efforts, to date we do not have a comprehensive or conclusive set of evidence to determine if smaller learning communities produce the same effects as small schools.

What are the benefits of small schools?

An extensive amount of research indicates that there may be many benefits from smaller learning communities (Supovitz & Christman, 2005; Howley, et al., 2000). The most important benefits include:

  • Faised student achievement
  • Increased attendance
  • Elevated teacher satisfaction,
  • Improved school climate

Smaller schools may be especially important for disadvantaged students by more individualized attention and teachers being able to address different learning styles. Also, smaller schools may promote substantially improved achievement and higher graduation rates (Howley, et al., 2000).

Do they work better than large schools?

In addition to the benefits listed above, research indicates that there may be improved instructional quality and working conditions. These factors also play a role in greater job satisfaction for the small school faculty (Darling-Hammond 2002).

A small school offers an environment in which students may be more visible. Student-teacher relationships improve, allowing teachers to more easily identify individual talents and unique needs of each student, which offers a more personalized educational experience. Teachers are able to interact more with their faculty administrators. A small school staff size allows more opportunity for teachers to know each other well, more easily share information about their students, collaborate to solve problems, and generally support one another.

Further, according to a recent report (Lawrence 2002) small schools can be more cost effective than large schools. Although, cost per-pupil is more effective for larger schools, on a cost per-graduate basis, small schools have been shown to be more efficient. While small schools alone are not the solution, they can prove to be a useful platform for improved student achievement.

What are "schools-within-schools"?

Schools within schools are large schools (in most cases high schools) that have been divided into smaller learning communities. Each school within the larger school functions autonomously, while at times sharing resources of the larger facility (Walcott, et. al, 2005). Research suggests that transitioning into effective schools-within-schools can present challenges. Some problems that will need to be taken into consideration are Labor Agreement issues, uniting faculty, students and community around change and coordinating sharing resources ( Allen & Steinberg, 2005). It is imperative that diligent preparations and strong leadership are in place to be prepared to address challenges that will arise.

How widely available are small schools?

There are several states who are implementing small school initiatives (ECS 2005): Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Washington.

In addition, a large-scale research project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has poured more than $700 million into helping to establish and study small schools across the country. The American Institutes for Research is conducting a multi-year evaluation of these initiatives.


American Institutes for Research.
National Evaluation of the Early College High School Initiative

Allen, L. & Steinberg, A. (2005). Big Buildings, Small Schools: Using a Small Schools Strategy for High School Reform. Jobs for the Future and the Education Alliance at Brown University.

Darling-Hammond, L., Ancess, J., & Wichterle Ort, S. (Fall 2002). Reinventing High School: Outcomes of the Coalition Campus Schools Project. American Educational Research Journal, 39(3), 639.

Education Commission on the States.

Howley, C., Strange, M., & Bickel, R. (2000). Research about school size and school performance in impoverished communities. (Report No. EDO-RC-00-01).

Lawrence, Barbara Kent, et al. (2002)
Dollars & Sense: The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools. (pdfsmall.gif PDF, 44 pp) The Small Schools Project.

Lee, V.E., & Smith, J.B. (1997). High school size: Which works best and for whom? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 19(3), 205-227.

National Education Association (2003) Resolution C-17, 2005-2006 NEA Resolutions, page 48.

Supovitz, J.A. & Christman, J.B. (2005). Small Learning Communities That Actually Learn: Lessons for School Leaders, Phi Delta Kappan, 86(9), 649-651.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Walcott, Owens-West and Makkonen (2005). High School Reform: National and State Trends. California Teachers Association/WestED.

Small School Workshop
Resource site sponsored by a group of University of South Florida educators, organizers and researchers for public schools and school districts who are engaged in restructuring and whole-school improvement. The Workshop brings experience and expertise in elementary and secondary school redesign, curricular focus and building professional teams by providing guidance and professional development to large public schools that are in the process of restructuring into smaller learning environments.

                                                                                                                                                                      - Tiffany Cain, NEA Research
                                                                                                                                                                                               November 2005