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The size of a school-does it matter?

An analysis of size vs performance

· Opinion

A common argument put forth by those who oppose a Lakeland high school centers around the size of a school. The argument goes as follows: since Lakeland will only service about 600-900 students, its small size would not be able to offer the same academic opportunities and benefits of a larger school such as Arlington High. Therefore, by building a smaller high school we are doing a disservice to our children by offering less of an academic environment than what they are enrolled in currently. So, they argue, what is the benefit of a Lakeland high school?

For this piece, we will not go into the benefits of local autonomy with curriculum, start times, staff, etc. We will focus solely on the question of whether or not there are benefits or disadvantages of a smaller school size vs. a large school using expert analysis and peer-reviewed studies. We will look at the effects of size on academics and achievement, culture, costs, drop out rates and special needs.

An analysis of articles and state sponsored studies via Google Scholar, PubMed and the ERIC Institute of Education Sciences database was done using search terms “academic performance” and “school size.” Results of this search were analyzed for the specific traits described above as well as the country of origin. Peer reviewed journals and state-sponsored studies were given preference for inquiry. Those that were not peer reviewed were considered based on references contained in the study and if they were from peer reviewed articles.

The results of this search provided somewhat of a clear picture. Though most agreed that the size of a school impacted performance, they were quick to point to other circumstances that were just as important such as class size, parental participation and the socioeconomic profile of the student body. However, though these studies pointed out the various reasons for higher or lower academic performance, no study found a positive correlation between a school of a large size and higher performance. Even to the question of a large school being cheaper to run than a smaller school, Mckenzie (1983) provided a mathematical representation of the relationship of cost vs. size as a U-shape where cost per pupil declines as enrollment increases to a point where it bottoms out and then rises with continued growth. This was attributed to the higher costs of a larger staff needed to control a larger student body.

As for academics, ERN (2000) showed that research done in the Chicago area connecting achievement gains and the size of schools. They showed that “achievement gains in both math and reading were largest in schools with 600-900 students. Schools enrolling more than 2,000 students scored lower than all smaller schools.” Also, Cotton (1996) said “whereas the research finds that small schools produce equal or superior achievement for students in general, the effects of small schools on the achievement of ethnic minority students and students of low socioeconomic status are the most positive of all.” Lee and Smith (1997) also showed that the “...ideal school, defined in terms of effectiveness (i.e. learning), enrolls between 600 and 900 students. In schools smaller than this, students learn less; those in large high schools (especially over 2100) learn considerably less." Fowler (1992) found that “all though large schools offer greater curricular variety, only a small percentage of students take advantage” of these courses. In contrast, smaller schools encourage teachers to innovate and for students to participate and this leads to a greater commitment from both groups. The more positive attitudes and higher satisfaction result in higher grades, higher test scores, improved attendance and lower drop out rates. Learning is more equitable in very small schools, with equity defined by the relationship between learning and student socioeconomic status.” So, these studies suggest that smaller schools not only preform better academically, but also seems better equipped to spread achievement more over the socioeconomic spectrum.

Culturally, ERN found that as schools become larger, they become more specialized as well as increasingly impersonal. Teachers tend to have fewer personal relationships with students and even tend to have fewer professional relationships with other teachers. The teacher’s sense of responsibility for a student’s progress seems to decline. Wood, et al (2017) showed that school size had a direct impact on the drop out rate-as school size increases, so does the drop out rate. The smaller school size with its more frequent student-teacher interactions and relationships tends to have a positive influence on those children at risk of dropping out. It should be noted that once again, there is a socioeconomic component to this idea as well as many large schools are located in larger cities where the socioeconomic gap is wider and parental involvement is lessened. Another important population group in any school is the special needs children encompassing the disabled, those with learning disabilities, ESL students and others. The needs of this population are met by both types of institutions but in varying ways. According to Irmsher (1997), “Large schools offer more specialized programs for disadvantaged and disabled youth, but these programs are more likely to feel cut off from the school culture.” Whereas small schools operate more as a community and these students are more integrated into the overall school culture. Other cultural advantages of small schools are: governance-as communication is easier, safety-as strangers are more easily identified resulting in a quicker response time, accountability-as it is easier to track progress of students and teachers, belonging-as every student is part of a community and parental involvement-as parents are more likely to form bonds with teachers who know their children and care about their progress.

As noted earlier, recent research has gone away from school size having a large impact on academic achievement, but all have agreed that it does have an impact nonetheless. It is widely agreed that a smaller size school of 600-900 students has a much more positive impact on achievement than a school with a higher population, especially in lower socioeconomic groups and special needs groups. Despite this drift away from size, there is very little evidence that a larger school has any true advantages over a smaller school. It is easy to look at a large institution and believe that its advantages are immense, but the data does not support this perception. Clearly if we are truly to do the right thing for our children, a smaller school of the size that is proposed by our School Board is truly superior to the alternative.


McKenzie, P. The Distribution of School Size: Some Cost Implications. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, April 1983 (ED 232 256)

“School Size in Chicago Elementary Schools: Effects on Teachers’ Attitudes and Student Achievement”American Educational Research Journal Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2000 Pp 3-31. Published in ERN December/January 2001 Volume 14 Number 1

Cotton, K. School Size, School Climate, and Student Performance. Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory 1996

Lee, V. E., and Smith, J. B. (1996). High School Size: Which Works Best, and For Whom? Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (p. 51). New York, NY: American Educational Research Association

Fowler, W. J., Jr., and Walberg, H. J. "School Size, Characteristics, and Outcomes." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 13/2 (Summer 1991): 189-202

Wood L, et al. Predicting dropout using student-and school-level factors: An ecological perspective. Sch Psychol Q. 2017 Mar;32(1):35-49.

Irshmer, K. School Size. ERIC Digest 113 July 1997.