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February 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 5

A Public Agenda Survey / Do Communities Want Small Schools?

Advocates believe that reducing school size is of paramount importance, but few parents or teachers have given the idea much serious consideration.

“We're not saying every large school is terrible and every small school is great,” says small schools proponent Joe Nathan. “We're saying, overall, kids do better in smaller schools.” A recent study by Nathan's Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota joins a growing pool of research suggesting that students typically fare better academically and socially in smaller schools (Shah, 2001).
Reorganizing the nation's large high schools into smaller, more manageable units is an idea whose time has come. Such prominent leadership groups as the National Association of Secondary School Principals have endorsed the idea. The academic research in support of small schools seems compelling. And management experts outside the field of education have suggested that smaller organizations—whether in business, government, or elsewhere—tend to have better morale, stronger accountability, and more focus and resourcefulness than larger ones.

Will It Play in Peoria?

Although the small schools movement has gathered steam among top education officials and researchers, many wonder whether most parents and teachers are receptive to the idea. Headlines suggest that school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, and elsewhere have sparked public concern about large suburban high schools. Is reducing school size an idea that can attract broad community support?
To answer this question, Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and education organization, took an in-depth look at what teachers and parents think about small schools. Public Agenda's study, conducted with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is based on surveys of 920 public high school teachers and 801 parents of high school students.

Advantages of Small High Schools

At first glance, Public Agenda's findings seem to offer good news for advocates of smaller schools. Strong majorities of parents (80 percent) and teachers (85 percent) say that smaller high schools make it easier to spot troubled students. Most also say that smaller schools are more likely to have small class sizes (parents, 70 percent; teachers, 64 percent), a strong sense of community (parents, 66 percent; teachers, 79 percent), teachers who take a personal interest in students (parents, 70 percent; teachers, 56 percent), low dropout rates (parents, 55 percent; teachers, 65 percent), and high parental involvement (parents, 53 percent; teachers, 52 percent).
Not only do parents and teachers associate positive traits with smaller schools, but they also associate some problems with larger schools. About 7 in 10 parents (68 percent) and teachers (70 percent) say that larger schools are more likely to have discipline problems, and majorities (parents, 56 percent; teachers, 62 percent) say that such schools are more likely to have students who are isolated. In fact, both groups say that smaller high schools offer particular advantages for teens with behavior problems (parents, 71 percent; teachers, 77 percent) or those in urban settings (parents, 65 percent; teachers, 71 percent).

More Pressing Issues

The positive associations that parents and teachers make with small schools—as strong and real as they are—do not mean, however, that typical parents and teachers are just waiting for a green light to reduce the size of their neighborhood schools. To advocates, reducing school size is a breakthrough idea, a concrete step that makes meeting other goals more possible. But most parents and teachers simply don't think of it that way. Relatively few see reducing school size as a priority, and, among parents especially, few seem to have given this idea much thought.
Just 32 percent of parents say that they have given “a lot of thought” to the idea that size is important to the quality of a school. Of parents who had a choice as to where their own child would attend high school, more than half (55 percent) say that the size of the school was not an important factor in their decision.
What's more, many parents and teachers currently see other issues as more crucial. Seven in 10 teachers say that small class size is more important to student achievement than small school size. Asked to choose among four different proposals for improving schools, relatively few parents or teachers leap to the idea of making schools smaller. Just 20 percent of parents and 14 percent of teachers say that this is the best idea of the four. More parents and teachers opt for stronger discipline or reduced class size. About one in five parents (18 percent) and teachers (23 percent) say that improving teacher pay is the best first step (see figure 1).
Figure 1. Rating School Reform Ideas
Here are four different suggestions for improving high schools. Which of the four sounds most promising to you?

A Public Agenda Survey / Do Communities Want Small Schools? - table 1

Percent responding

School Reform SuggestionsParents (n = 801)Teachers (n = 920)
Raising teacher salaries1823
Making discipline policies stronger2632
Reducing class size2729
Breaking up large high schools into small ones2014
Don't know/Not sure82

No Escaping Debate

Public Agenda's research also suggests that proposals to break up large high schools could prompt considerable local debate. Pluralities—48 percent of parents and 44 percent of teachers—say that they would support their district if officials moved to split up a large high school. Yet, 27 percent of parents and 23 percent of teachers say that they would oppose such a proposal, and many say that they would neither support nor oppose it or that they are not sure (see figure 2). Half of both groups (parents, 52 percent; teachers, 50 percent) think that breaking up large schools into smaller ones would be too expensive and impractical. Nearly half of teachers (48 percent) say that a proposal like this would generate widespread community opposition, although just 38 percent of parents expect a broad negative reaction.
Figure 2. How Parents and Teachers Would React

A Public Agenda Survey / Do Communities Want Small Schools? - table 2

Percent responding

ReactionParents (n = 796)Teachers (n = 754)
To support it4844
To oppose it2723
Neither support nor oppose it1916
[Volunteer] My school has fewer than 500 students4-
Don't know/Not sure317
There's another land mine for advocates of smaller schools: People define the word “small” differently. Studies have often focused on schools with fewer than 500 students, and this is the number that Public Agenda used in its questionnaire. One well-respected study, however, suggested that the ideal high school size is between 600 and 900 students (Viadero & Drummond, 1996). Public Agenda's research suggests that teachers and parents readily accept larger schools. Parents, for example, don't favor high schools larger than 2,000, but most (61 percent) say that a high school with 1,500 students is acceptable—assuming that it's not overcrowded.
What do the results of this survey suggest for leaders who believe that their district should consider creating smaller schools? Here are some key points:
A different starting point. Discussions about reducing school size are common among decision makers, and the idea is, at its core, a managerial one: Managers in many fields believe that it is easier to set goals, lift morale, and generally keep an eye on things in a smaller setting. Teachers have given some thought to the idea that reduced school size might be a boon—61 percent say that school size would be an important consideration for them if they were looking for a new job. But the concept is new to most parents. In focus groups conducted for this study, parents often suggested better discipline, higher standards, smaller classes, more money, or increased parental involvement as ways to improve schools, but the idea of smaller schools almost never emerged spontaneously. Even when moderators raised the issue, parents often assumed that school size was relevant only if their schools were conspicuously overcrowded.
Too big too fast. Although relatively few parents or teachers see reducing school size as a top priority right now, participants in focus groups conducted for this study expressed anxiety that schools are getting too big too fast, especially in the suburbs. Respondents often volunteered concerns about overcrowded schools, packed hallways, and soaring local enrollments. Some spoke of times when the local high school was a smaller, more intimate, more community-connected place. This sentiment may not mesh precisely with what small schools advocates envision, but it does suggest that, in many communities, the notion that bigger is better has gone by the wayside.
Making the connections. Advocates believe that smaller schools enhance morale and accountability among teachers and students alike, and Public Agenda's research suggests that teachers and parents tend to agree. But those who propose reducing school size should explain precisely how their approach affects the education issues people are already thinking about: lack of discipline; unmotivated, disrespectful students; uninvolved parents; and kids who “slip through the cracks.” Rather than assuming that the connection between these issues and school size is obvious, advocates must show, specifically and concretely, how smaller schools might help address these existing concerns.
Smaller classes a more pressing concern. For teachers, class size is of far greater concern than school size. Indeed, surveys by Public Agenda and others routinely show class size at or near the top of teacher concerns. Parents often worry about class size, too. In focus groups, many parents began discussing smaller classes even when moderators asked about smaller schools—simply because the class size issue is so dominant in their thinking. Leaders who attempt to reduce school size without first addressing class size concerns could face resistance, especially among teachers. Even in districts blessed with smaller classes, leaders may need to reassure teachers and parents that reorganization won't inadvertently swell class size.
Breaking up is hard to do. Change is difficult for everyone but often proves exceptionally difficult for some, no matter how broad the general consensus on the need for change may be. Parents and students typically form a strong attachment to their current school, whether large or small. Consequently, it may be harder to build support for breaking up an existing large school than for starting a new, smaller school from scratch. Leaders will have to wrestle with their district's financial and practical realities, but they may find it useful to introduce change gradually, consider parent and teacher choice, and allow “grandfather clauses” that permit students to graduate from their current school.
We need to talk. Leaders have a responsibility to propose ideas that aren't necessarily foremost in the minds of community members—and, if they are leaders, they won't wait until polls show that an idea is 100 percent politically safe. Those who believe that students in their district would benefit from smaller schools are obligated to propose their ideas. Likewise, those who believe that the small schools movement is distracting or ill-advised have an equal responsibility to speak out. But presenting and promoting plans to reduce school size may not be enough. School reorganization and redistricting are notoriously difficult, and proposals to break up large schools are unlikely to escape controversy. Before implementing such a proposal, school leaders may decide to embark on a concerted public engagement effort, listening to and acting on community members' concerns and offering them a genuine say in their schools' futures.

Shah, A. (2001, September 10). Smaller schools, bigger payoff? The Star Tribune, p. 1A.

Viadero, D., & Drummond, S. (1996, April 24). Ideal high school size found to be 600 to 900. Education Week, 15(31), 10.

End Notes

1 The national Public Agenda telephone survey was conducted in May and June 2001. The margin of error for both surveys is +/−3 percent. For purposes of the survey, a “small high school” was defined as one with fewer than 500 students.

Jean Johnson has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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