, Gloucester, MA

January 8, 2013

My View: Why smaller schools are best

My View
Richard Safier

---- — On Wednesday evening, the School Committee will consider deeming the Fuller School surplus.

The basis for such a decision rests, largely, on the implementation of the Plan for Effective Learning Communities, established in 2007, which maintains that small schools are better environments for educating young students rather than larger schools (250-300 students vs. 800 students).

There seems to remain a number of opinions about Fuller and its future role. Some opinions include keeping Fuller as a large elementary school.

The decision on the part of the School Committee, however, should be based less on opinion, and more on empirical evidence. There are a number of comprehensive studies which conclude that smaller elementary schools, not large elementary schools, are advantageous for educating young children. And although cost is not discussed in this column—but will be in future columns—research in comparing smaller versus larger schools on that issue is open for debate as well.

Among the studies on the subject of smaller versus larger elementary schools, we can include the following: “A Review of Empirical Evidence About School Size Effects: A Policy Perspective”, written by Kenneth Leithwood and Doris Jantzi, and published by the American Education Research Association (2009); a report by the Pennsylvania School Board Association Education Research and Policy Center ( August 2011 ); a West Ed. Policy Brief, Oct. 2001 (West Ed. is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research, development, and service agency working with education and other communities to promote excellence and equity); and a fairly recent report on the topic by the U.S. Department of Education.

I will limit this My View to one of the most comprehensive studies. In “A Review of Empirical Evidence About School Size Effects: A Policy Perspective”, 57 different studies (each with large samples) were reviewed on a variety of student and organizational outcomes. In the Executive Summary, the authors state, categorically, “The weight of evidence provided by this research clearly favors smaller schools.”

On student achievement, the authors conclude that, “The studies consistently found that smaller elementary schools benefit the academic achievement of their students.” Studies looked at effects of elementary school size on issues such as achievement in math and language, as well as average daily attendance. In those areas, students in small schools had significantly greater gains in achievement than students in either medium or large schools.

With respect to socioeconomic status, the studies reviewed showed better outcomes for low-income students who attend smaller schools. At the same time, smaller schools have no negative effects for students who are not low-income. In one of these studies, involving 367 elementary schools, results showed that small school size is good for the performance of low-income students and does no harm to the achievement of advantaged students.

This is critical, in that, the Gloucester Public School District’s has 42.5 percent of students on free and reduced lunch programs. Two of our elementary schools have percentages of 57.9 and 70.5, respectively. Smaller schools represent an equity issue where we seek to maximize the potential for growth for all of our students.

Other important empirical determinations are reported in this study as well. Misbehavior is reduced in smaller schools. On the issue of student engagement, school size effects “… provide entirely consistent evidence in support of the claim that smaller schools are associated with greater student engagement.”

If we turn to teachers, studies in the paper indicate a relationship between size and teachers’ positive work-related attitudes. Studies found that teachers in small schools were more satisfied with their schools’ programs, relations among staff in their schools, and the manner in which conflicts in their schools were addressed. Lastly, greater parent involvement is more likely in small schools as well.

The theoretical case for small schools rests on such grounds as it is easier to develop relationships with other students in small schools and that there is a better chance of staff knowing students well. Small schools are thought to encourage teachers to take more responsibility for student learning and offer students a better chance to be known by someone; they increase the connection between student and community. Small schools, it is claimed, engender better teaching strategies and likely also diminish the need for costly monitoring and supervision.

To such theoretical statements, we can add empirical evidence from studies, which have consistently found that smaller elementary schools benefit students.

My recommendation to the School Committee is that they cannot ignore such evidence when making decisions.

Richard Safier is superintendent of the Gloucester Public Schools.