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February 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 5

Small Classes, Small Schools: The Time Is Now

If classrooms and schools are to be places where students' personal and learning needs are met, they should be small.

For many years, educators have debated the effects of class size and school size on student learning. The class size debate centers on the number of students a teacher can work with effectively in any given class period. The school size issue focuses on whether smaller schools encourage optimal student learning and development—and how small a “small school” must be to produce such effects.
  • Why have issues of class and school size gained prominence?
  • What does the research say?
  • What does my experience lead me to believe about the impact of class and school size on teaching and learning?

Why Are Class and School Size Important?

Issues of class size and school size have resurfaced as important school improvement ideas for a variety of reasons. First, the standards movement has encouraged the resurgence of the class size and school size debates. All U.S. states but one have academic standards in place. Of those states with standards, 36 use or plan to use test results to make high-stakes decisions about students. Standards enable educators and the public to clarify what they believe students should know and be able to do before the students leave school.
The standards movement has highlighted the fact that schools are largely inequitable places. Students in schools with large populations of disadvantaged students perform least well on standardized assessments. Evidence also suggests that these schools often have the least-experienced teachers (NCTAF, 1996; Roza, 2001). In effect, having standards in place emphasizes that standards are necessary but insufficient in themselves to improve student performance. Unless we change students' learning opportunities, especially for students who are ill-served by their schools, standards alone are unlikely to influence student learning. Educators and policymakers are looking for strategies that will enable students to succeed on the new assessments (thereby supporting the standards movement) and, more important, that will enhance students' learning opportunities. Small classes and small schools may be two such strategies.
Second, class size and school size issues have resurfaced because of the increasing consensus among educators and the public that all students can learn. When I began teaching in the early 1970s, teachers generally accepted the notion that some students had an exceptional aptitude for learning and others did not. At that time, my colleagues and I believed that as long as one-fourth of the students in a class performed exceptionally well and another half of the class did reasonably well, we were fulfilling our responsibilities as educators—even if one-fourth of the students in a class failed to learn at an acceptable level. We had been taught that the normal distribution of scores (the “bell curve”) was what teachers should aim for and what we should accept as reasonable evidence of accomplishment. In the ensuing years, cognitive scientists, neurological biologists, and educators determined that all students have the capacity to learn. This new, convincing research means that no student should be left behind in the learning process. Educators need to examine all approaches to schooling to determine which strategies are most likely to return gains for students who typically have not done well in schools. Proponents of reduced class size and school size suggest that these factors contribute to the success of a broader swath of learners.
Third, following the events of September 11, educators have a renewed appreciation for the importance of the basic freedoms we enjoy and the advantages that a democracy provides its citizens. We know that a democratic citizenry must value differences among its participants. Schools should strive to develop in students the skills that they need to examine their differences productively and to coexist peacefully while protecting basic freedoms for all (Goodlad, Soder, & Sirotnik, 1990). Schools also have a central responsibility for helping students learn the basic skills of productive citizenry. Both class size and school size influence whether teachers are able to engage students in meaningful discussions of these issues and to help them build these crucial citizenship skills.
Renewed interest in class size and school size is broad-based and nationwide. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has dedicated more than $250 million to reducing the size of U.S. high schools. The U.S. Department of Education has committed $125 million to fund small-school initiatives. In Boston, Chicago, and New York, small-school initiatives are under way. Small-school collaboratives, designed to support the change from comprehensive high schools to smaller learning communities, are springing up everywhere and include New Visions for Learning in New York, the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago (Illinois), the Small Schools Project in Seattle (Washington), and the Bay Area Coalition of Essential Schools in Oakland (California).
Lawmakers in Kentucky, California, Georgia, and Washington have passed legislation to reduce class sizes, believing that teachers will be better able to help all students meet the standards when the teacher-student ratio is substantially reduced.

What Does Research Tell Us?

The United States has had large schools for a relatively short period of time. Until the middle of the 20th century, most U.S. schools were small. In 1930, 262,000 U.S. public schools served 26 million students; by l999, approximately 90,000 U.S. public schools served about 47 million students (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999). Responding to the recommendations of the Committee of Ten in l894 and the authors of the Conant Report in 1959, proponents of the school consolidation movement suggested that schools would be more efficient and effective if they were larger. Single plants housing 500–2,000 students presumably could offer greater variety in subject matter, would provide teachers with the opportunity to track their students according to ability, and might put less strain on community resources (Wasley & Fine, 2000).
Research conducted on the validity of the assertions favoring large schools has suggested that less-advantaged students end up in the largest classes, with the least-experienced teachers and the least-engaging curriculum and instructional strategies (Oakes, 1987; Wheelock, 1992). Further research suggests that schools are organized more for purposes of maintaining control than for promoting learning (McNeil, 1988).
Powell (1996) examined independent schools in the United States and learned that private preparatory schools value both small school and small class size as necessary conditions for student success. In 1998, the average private school class size was 16.6 at the elementary level and 11.6 at the high school level. By contrast, the average class size was 18.6 in public elementary schools and 14.2 in public high schools (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999).
Powell also determined that independent elementary schools tend to be small and independent high schools tend to be even smaller—in contrast to public schools, which tend to increase in size as the students they serve get older. In The Power of Their Ideas, Meier (1995) suggests that we abandon adolescents just at the time when they most often need to be in the company of trusted adults.
Finally, in this issue of Educational Leadership, Biddle and Berliner thoroughly examine the research on class size, including Tennessee's Project STAR study and the SAGE study of the impact of class size in Wisconsin (see pp. 12–23).

What Has My Experience Taught Me?

Over the years, I have taught students at nearly every level, from 3rd grade through graduate school. As a researcher, I have spent time gathering data on students at every level from preschool through 12th grade. My teaching and research experiences have provided me with data that convince me that both small classes and small schools are crucial to a teacher's ability to succeed with students.
One of my earliest teaching experiences was in a large comprehensive high school in Australia that included grades 7–10. I had more than 40 students in each of seven classes each day. During my second year, I taught Ray Campano. He was a quiet 10th grader who wasn't doing well in English. His parents, aware of his academic weaknesses, came to see me early in the first term. They asked that I keep them informed of the homework required and let them know if Ray was in danger of failing. They wanted to help and were supportive of my efforts on their son's behalf. In the ensuing weeks, I kept track of Ray's progress, but I gradually paid less attention to him. He was pleasant and quiet and well behaved, but there were other students in the class who were not. Other students demanded that I give them individual attention because they wanted to excel. These two groups of students—the rebellious and the demanding—absorbed most of my time, while Ray quietly slipped out of my attention. To be sure, I saw him each day and recorded whether his work was coming in, but I neglected to examine his performance in the midst of competing demands to plan, grade papers, and work with the needier or more demanding students.
When midterm reports came due, I was horrified to realize that I had neglected to keep my eye on Ray's performance, which was less than satisfactory. I met with his parents and explained that I had not kept my end of our bargain. They were angry—and rightly so—but they were fair. Ray's mother asked to come to class for a week to see what was going on. At the end of that week, she said that she thought the work I asked the students to do was appropriate and that I was relatively well organized and focused. Nevertheless, she couldn't imagine how a teacher could manage anything more than a cursory relationship with any given student in so large a classroom. Mrs. Campano confirmed my own experience, which suggested that really knowing all 40 students in each of seven classes was impossible. Despite parental involvement and teachers' good intentions, it is easy for students to get lost in large classes and in large schools.
As Dean of Bank Street College of Education in New York City several years ago, I team-taught 5th and 6th graders in the College's School for Children. We were looking for a course of study that would engage the students in making some contribution to the local community while simultaneously building their reading, computer, writing, and observation skills. After long deliberation and engagement in a number of exploratory activities, our 5th and 6th graders decided that they would tutor younger students in a neighborhood public school. One of the students cried, “How are we supposed to teach reading? We're only kids. We just learned to read ourselves a few years ago!” A heated discussion ensued, during which one of the girls ran up to the chalkboard and said, “I know. Let's map how each of us learned to read.”
The students made a chart of how old they were, where they were (home or school), with whom they were engaged in a reading activity, and what activity they were engaged in at the precise moment that they understood that they could read. Seventeen students in the classroom generated 14 different approaches to learning to read. I suggested that the students pick several of the most commonly used approaches and organize a seminar on each approach so that they could learn several methods for working with their reading buddies. They looked at me as if either I had lost my mind or I hadn't been listening. “We can't learn just three approaches, or we'll never learn to help all these kids learn to read! If we needed a bunch of different approaches to learn to read, why wouldn't they?”
This experience reinforced my belief that different students learn differently and that teachers need to build a repertoire of instructional strategies to reach individual students. Small class size is integral to this individualization: Teachers should be responsible for a smaller number of students so that they can get to know each student and his or her learning preferences. It takes time to get to know one's students and to individualize the learning experience, and doing so requires concentration. In a classroom with a large number of students, such attention simply isn't an option.
Colleagues and I recently conducted a study of small schools in Chicago. Part of our time was spent in a small school-within-a-school with eight teachers. Because they were few, they could meet together every day for an hour, work toward common agreements and understandings, and accept shared responsibility for their students. They discussed the curriculum in all subjects, agreed on instructional approaches, and tried to build as much coherence in the curriculum as they could manage. In the larger school, which had some 70 faculty members, a common agenda simply wasn't possible.
The school-within-a-school teachers spent an enormous amount of time talking about their 300 students. They argued about students, challenged one another to see individual students differently, and agreed to work together to communicate to students that math or English or science was important for everyone. By the end of the first year, students in the smaller school-within-a-school had outperformed their peers on a number of measures: More of the smaller-school students had stayed in school, completed their courses, and received higher grades than had students in the host school. For example, between September 1998 and September 1999, approximately 11.1 percent of school-within-a-school students dropped out of school. By contrast, about 19.8 percent of their host-school peers dropped out during the same period (Wasley et al., 2000).
When we asked the school-within-a-school students why they thought they had achieved such results, they said that their teachers “dog us every day. They're relentless. They call our parents. They really care whether we get our work done. There's no hiding in this school!”
The time is ripe for educators to make the case for what research suggests and what our own experience has been telling us for years: Students do best in places where they can't slip through the cracks, where they are known by their teachers, and where their improved learning becomes the collective mission of a number of trusted adults. We have the resources to ensure that every student gets a good education, and we know what conditions best support their success. It is time to do what is right.

Goodlad, J. I., Soder, R., & Sirotnik, K. A. (Eds.). (1990). The moral dimensions of teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McNeil, L. M. (1988). Contradictions of control: School structure and school knowledge. New York: Routledge.

Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas: Lessons for America from a small school in Harlem. Boston: Beacon Press.

Snyder, T. D. (2000). Digest of education statistics, 1999. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. (1996). What matters most: Teaching for America's future. New York: Author.

Oakes, J. (1987). Improving inner-city schools: Current directions in urban district reform. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Powell, A. G. (1996). Lessons from privilege: The American prep school tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Roza, M. (2001). The challenge for Title I. Education Week, 20(29), 56, 38.

Wasley, P. A., & Fine, M. (2000). Small schools and the issue of scale. New York: Bank Street College of Education.

Wasley, P. A., Fine, M., Gladden, M., Holland, N. E., King, S. P., Mosak, E., & Powell, L. C. (2000). Small schools: Great strides. New York: Bank Street College of Education.

Wheelock, A. (1992). Crossing the tracks: How untracking can save America's schools. New York: The New Press.

End Notes

1 The low average class size of public high schools obscures the fact that upper division courses in math and science and Advanced Placement courses are typically smaller, whereas many lower-track courses have more than 30 students.

Patricia A. Wasley has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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