5.11 Small Schools
The largest schools in California enroll thousands of children. These complex organizations are larger than most 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 work well.
For most 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. In the 1990’s, education reform organizations including 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, created 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.
Some of these small schools, particularly newly founded schools, became important models for how to create an effective school culture.
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. A follow-on study by MRDC in New York City suggested that small school size may have been a factor in a small increase in graduation rates. Breaking up megaschools may have helped somewhat, but it failed the magic bullet test.
If reducing school size from thousands to hundreds fails to produce large learning gains, does that mean school size is unimportant? Or was the experiment too timid? Post 5.12 examines the ultimate small-school model: learning at home.