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The Truth About Small Schools?


Small schools may seem more manageable and less threatening than the stereotypical "blackboard jungle." But without quality controls, small schools are not nearly as effective as they may seem, argues David C. Bloomfield in this Education Week Commentary.

While some have achieved astounding results, Bloomfield writes, research indicates that small schools do not consistently show improvement in student achievement. In addition, Bloomfield points out that downsizing failing large schools frequently creates nothing more than overcrowding in nearby schools.

Are the benefits of small schools being oversold?


The small school experience I work in, and see for the children involved, is a golden setting for learning. A K-8 school w/105 students. Parents feel their children are understood, safe, get close attention from teachers for core subjects and experience a host of enrichment opportunities. State test scores are high and increasing every year. If every child had a school like this, the world would be a better place! "Small has it all" these days!

I teach in relatively small school--950 students--but I went through my grade school and high school education in an extremely small school district. I graduated high school with 51 classmates. While I agree that teachers have a better chance of knowing all the students and that administrators have an easier time with discipline issues, those few benefits do not compensate for the drawbacks of such a small school. We were a very secluded community with little outside influence. I was 15 before I ever spoke to someone of a different ethnicity. Electives in high school? What are those? I have 4 math classes, 4 English classes, 4 history classes, 4 sciences, 1 shop class (with nothing much to do because we had no machines), 1 PE class, no family or consumer science, no computers, 2 sports, one food for lunch...you get the picture. I lived half a mile outside of a district that had electives, multiple sports, choices at lunch...I would have sold a body part to go to that school. I was out of classes by my senior year--I had 2 books that year, but we didn't have Co-op or early release or early graduation (unless you were pregnant and I wasn't that desperate), so I just sat in studyhalls and took shop, double PE, math, and English. I was limited by the smallness. Small schools just do not have the resources to offer a range of needed and welcomed classes for their students. These students are disadvantaged when they go on to further education levels. Small schools should pool their resources by consolidating. People need to weigh the pros and cons before jumping on the small school bandwagon.

I love the small school atmosphere. So the choices of extra classes is a little limited. That is what clubs, sports, libraries, internet are for. And whatever happened to parent involvement in extra activities? It means more to me to be able to talk with the teacher and not feel like just another number among many. The smaller class size gives the students a better chance at getting the help they need and more opportunities for doing hands-on activities with lessons. Having gone to many schools, some large and some small, and having gone to 2 colleges, one a big university and 1 a community college, from a student perspective I also prefer the smaller school system. I learned more at the smaller schools despite the lack of extra classes.

Like so many other education connected concepts(block scheduling, cooperative learning, integrated curriculum and the like), the small school has the potential to be wonderful as well as the potential to be horrible. When staffed with a strong leader and good teachers, a small school provide students with experiences that are probably not possible in larger schools. When it works, it works very well. When it doesn't work, it is probably does more damage. It is harder to hide poor teaching in a small school.

Here! Here! Small or large, a school that is filled with immature, undeveloped, or undedicated teachers under the leadership of poor management will not be successful. The advantage of small (and small is a word that requires definition, but in the research of Kathleen Cotton small is defined at high school as 500 students)is that students and teachers are able to connect in a mentoring setting, teachers and teachers are able to connect in a collaborative setting, and parents and the school connect in a supportive setting. But, if poor leadership is at the helm, everything on down the ladder will fall apart. Small cannot fix big problems; it just temporarily covers up the inadequacies of the school leader or staff.

Small schools only make a difference if the class size is considerably smaller! There are 30 or more students in a class, how can students receive attention with so many students?? The mayor needs to meet with the UFT person and set better class sizes; at the middle school level where most of the problems lie, the class size should not be more than 22 students to 1 teacher. Elementary schools definitely need smaller class sizes. I have my child in Columbia grammar where the class size is 22 students and 3 fulltime teachers, why don't the public schools get this!!!!

I taught at a small school K-6 (80-90 students & eight staff) for five years. Our students scored considerably higher on state tests than any of the traditional grade schools in the district. The students were well behaved because all of the staff knew the students. Each teacher had two grade split (1/2, 3/4/& 5/6). Unfortunately, the district threatens to close the school every year because it's not cost effective. It's sad when something actually works well that the district has to mess with it.

Bloomfield's criticism should be directed at small schools developed out of formerly large schools. It does not apply to schools where the enrollment remains constant and where the existing students are now organized into learning communities. I work at a school, now in its fifth year of that reorganization, and while there are challenges, we see across-the-board improvements in student achievement, behavior, attendance, and staff retention. Small may not be the total there, but large is certainly not even on the horizon.

I teach in a K-5 school with 195 students. My own children also attend this school. It has been valuable for me, as a teacher, to have the ability to get to know the smaller number of students. I am able to have more contact with parents to discuss possible problems as well as celebrate achievements. Our scores on state tests have always been high, and they have increased each year for the past 4 years. With the smaller student body, we are able to look through the scoring reports of our class and see what specific areas each student needs to improve in to move from meeting standards to exceeding standards. My own children have also been able to have experiences they would have never had in a larger district. They have been able to participate in any extra-curricular activity they chose rather than having to try out for these activities. Given the choice, I would choose a small school in which to teach as well as for my own children.


What the hell's wrong with you'all...of course small school are NOT over-sold...if a small school does not work, then the staff have no idea what small schools are about...and that's relatiponships with students--if they can't relate to students, get to know them, help them discover their passion(s, share classroom/school decions with them, get rid of the once size fits all mentality...if small schools don't work as they were created to, I don't see much hope for public education.

Mr. Bloomfield's comments, I would have to say, need more context for me to make an assessment of the value of the insight he is suggesting his comments offer. Specifically, is Mr. Bloomfield suggesting that the small school model lacks "quality controls?" That they are inadequate? That they are not aligned to the desired results/outcomes of the model? Although I agree with the position that quality controls need to be in place to assess the efficacy of any program, the fact that I am unable to determine what exactly Mr. Bloomfield's comment attempts to evaluate or critique lends them a concerning lack of credibility. Additionally, whose "research" is it that "indicates that small schools do not consistently show improvement in student achievement?" And, is there ANY model that lays claim to doing that? Finally, what "overcrowdig at nearby schools" is he referring to when positing that "downsizing failing large schools frequently creates nothing more than overcrowding in nearby schools?" The statistics are still being compiled. The data is still preliminary. Hard and fast assessments "debunking" the value of small schools as one of many alternatives needed to fill the diverse "bill" we have as a society when it comes to our children's educational needs, seems just a bit overly anticipatory and lacks a longitudinal and reality-based appreciation of the needs of our contemporary society--no longer is there (nor was there ever) a "one size" that "fits all." And, no, it is certainly not "oversold."

Mr. Bloomfield's critique of small schools is really not about small schools at all. It's about school-change, restructuring and transformation of a vital public institution. Gates Foundation problems aside, school size is in fact, one of the most over-researched topics in education and there is plenty of compelling evidence that smaller is better, especially when you look at the impact of school size on poor kids. However, small schools are not a panacea. They are often the launch pad (not the rocket) for badly-needed reforms, especially in large, comprehensive high schools, which were never intended to educate all children. As others have already pointed out, without democratic content, without good teachers in schools where they are needed most, without leadership and strong community engagement, without adequate supports for needy kids, all reform plans will have limited impact. There are also big problems with top-down or most foundation-driven reforms, as well intentioned as they might be. Small schools, like any other reform, can be turned into a meaningless cliche or worse--into another way to track and sort kids or to recreate our two-tiered system of education. But the risk, it seems to me, is worth taking.

The problem with the Gates Foundation and most school reformers, is they think they have all the answers. They come up with a model and then they use their money to schools and teachers to put it in play. When it comes out wrong as Mr. Bloomfield says, they cover up and bash the teachers. It's not "quality controls" we need. Its real support for teachers and kids. There's nothing wrong with creating smaller schools. We've been doing that for years in New York.

Practice, history and research demonstrates that rural small schools in Nebraska are educational treasures, when adequately funded. That good small schools trump poverty, help students with limited English proficiency, and have high levels of participation by parents and community residents. The problem is that state policy makers mis-use or don't use research to establish an adequate school funding system that supports good small schools. Rather, education funding policy decisions are justified on old-school cost efficiency models. "Quality control" in rural small schools comes from the parents, the community, educators, the school board, and state accreditation requirements. Where's the "quality control" for an adequate system of state education funding?

I recently taught at a small high school funded by the Gates Foundation. I left after one semester due to the increasingly and diverse demands of the position. The school district was intent on making the school a success and proposed giving course credits for limited work. I had very little or no planning time during the day and was expected to tutor every afternoon. There was also mandated professional development in which teachers had no choice in the topics. Leadership and district support was definitely a problem.

I also participated in one of the Gates evaluations with a group of educators. I felt that I could not give complete and detailed answers to the interviewers' questions due to the presence of district administrators. When I left this position and went to another school district, I was not asked as to the reasons for my resignation. I wonder if the next Gates Foundation evaluation will reflect this. My guess is probably not. I, too, believe the students at these small schools are part of an experiment that is being defined along the way. I would like to see definitive research and analysis on each and every school being funded.

Small schools do a better job at tending to the human needs that are precursors for learning, but if only small could be good then big high schools and universities could never be good. We know that is not true. Both can be good. The more critical issue is choice. When students and families have to commit to a school culture that demands high effort along with behavioral and intellectual reach or they can't stay, that is the formula for success. Help pull the wagon or go elsewhere.

Bloomfield's complaints seem to be more about the residual effects of a small schools transformation than small schools themselves. And are these effects a result of the "funders" imposed requirements, or are these negative side-effects caused by poor planning on the part of the whole system for the changes required in moving to small schools?

Employing incomplete and inadequate evidence and a very broad brush, indeed, David Bloomfield continues his public attack on significant public education reform in New York City (“Commentary: Come Clean on Small Schools,” January 25, 2006). Legitimately, he criticizes the failure to release immediately a private study of the first two years of the New Century High School Initiative, but he then uses that as the basis for an ill-informed assault on the small schools themselves. It is a classic example of attacking form rather than substance and may well explain the reluctance to release a report which provides a nuanced and objective consideration in a highly charged environment.

Nowhere does Mr. Bloomfield refer in depth to the schools which are being replaced by the small schools. Nowhere does he mention the generations upon generations of young people – mainly poor and of color – who have been victims of educational neglect. Nowhere does he mention the thousands upon thousands of teachers who have found themselves intolerably overburdened by students loads (often 170 students a term, 340 a year) while, at the same time controlled and restricted by antiquated educational structures patterned on a 19th century factory model. Nowhere does he mention that many of these traditional large schools were “zoned” and had become schools of last resort for the least academically prepared students in the city, while the most prepared were admitted to specialized schools and programs. Nowhere does he state that many of these “zoned” high schools were (and still are) graduating 25% or less of their entering students in four years (such as Bushwick, Prospect Heights, Robeson, Walton, Evander, Stevenson).

Mr. Bloomfield quotes highly selectively from a New York Times article on the private study (November 4, 2005). He claims that the study accuses the small schools of “cherry-picking students and teachers,” failing to “innovate instructionally,” lacking “promised community partnerships,” and showing “no improvement in student achievement.” He fails to note, of course, that the study dealt only with the first two years of twelve schools out of more than 150 which have been created during the past three plus years. He fails to disclose that the study researchers, according to The Times, “concluded that the small schools were mostly doing well,” and that “one of the chief authors of the report” said “They have got a positive story to tell.” This kind of selective quotation and research by Mr. Bloomfield makes his “commentary” and conclusions highly suspect. Yet he expects us to accept his conclusion that: “I have found that reducing enrollment and establishing small schools in a dozen or more buildings deleteriously impacts tens of thousands of the system’s students.” The only evidence he provides for this widespread assertion is that some larger schools have seen an increase in enrollment and that a few of these have had an increase in “violent incidents.” I want to be very clear. I do not minimize the results of overcrowding schools, but let us place the blame where it fairly lies. New York City needs a massive public school construction program. The funds for that should come either from the millions which should come to the city as a result of the Court decision in the Committee for Fiscal Equity suit, or from other public sources, but it must come. Government in New York, as in other parts of the country, has failed its citizens by refusing to provide adequate funding for equitable education. Mr. Bloomfield and others should be directing their fire at the Governor and legislative leaders rather than at educational reform efforts which are seeking to bring some equity to the system.

There is clear evidence to refute most of Mr. Bloomfield’s allegations. The new small schools have not “cherry-picked” students and staff, and the private report does not say this. Students are chosen to be admitted on a random basis by computer from among all those who have applied. It is true that knowledgeable parents and students, as has always been the case, are more likely to apply to what are perceived to be the “best” schools. It is interesting that the new small schools are increasingly considered among these. Most of these schools have tried to deal with this reality by sending representatives into low performing middle schools to encourage students to apply. They have asked only that students who apply know for what they are applying – that they understand what the school is about and what their responsibilities will be. It has been an unprecedented effort and one which has been rewarded richly by a huge number of applications. Two years ago, all the new Bronx schools joined together to hold two major “information meetings” for prospective students throughout the borough – one on a weekday night and one on a Saturday. There were presentations by all the schools. Some 15,000 Bronx residents attended.

Staff members are chosen for these schools on a strictly contractual basis. There are Personnel Committees for each school which always include representatives of the United Federation of Teachers. There are stated and approved staffing criteria for each school. Preference is given to those teachers who have been excessed as a result of school closings. Although these schools, as a result of their innovative programs, have attracted some new teachers from organizations such as the Peace Corps, they are most widely staffed by those who have been serving in the existing system. Mr. Bloomfield then criticizes these teachers for not being sufficiently “innovative.” Coming out of a system which has often destroyed creativity and innovative efforts, it is no wonder that it will take some time to rebuild these immensely important characteristics. Every one of these new schools has been created on the basis of a plan which will incorporate thoughtful innovative practice. It is reasonable to criticize any inability to fulfill their plans, but the more important question is what they are doing to achieve their ultimate goals.

Each new school is created with a community partnership. The report suggests that many of the community partners are not involved in the “day-to-day” operation of their schools, but that does not at all mean that they are not full partners. Many take charge of extended day programs. Many provide additional services to students and staff members. Almost all serve actively on School Leadership teams.There is an unprecedented degree of involvement of these schools within their communities and with community organizations. It is not perfect, but it is a remarkable advance which has brought great benefit to the education of thousands of young people.

Mr. Bloomfield criticizes the earlier Annenberg Challenge for failing to achieve a “noticeable systemwide impact on student performance,” and uses that as a springboard somehow to suggest that the current effort to “reform high schools by reorganizing them into small learning communities” has had results that are “mixed at best, and fail to tell the story of whole systems – hundreds of thousands of students – disrupted by this ill-planned venture.” He should be celebrating the fact that this reform is, indeed, having a “systemwide impact.” These are not “small learning communities” which have been established, but autonomous small schools – and there is a world of difference. In the Bronx, which has led this effort and has seen the development of more than fifty schools, some 40% of the high school population is now in these schools and a majority will be in them within the next year or so. The “Autonomy Zone” has been created for the system as a whole and within the next year close to 200 schools will be a part of that. Many small schools have chosen to join this extraordinary opportunity to exercise real control over their educational programs while being fully accountable for effective student performance. The consequence of failing to provide an effective educational program in these schools, within a relatively short, specified period of time, is the closing of the school.

Generalities about academic success or a lack of it now should give way to serious consideration of the facts. Some of the new schools will have their first graduating classes in June. Preliminary data indicates that in areas such as attendance, retention, class passing rates, movement from one grade to another, and parental and community involvement, the new small schools, as a whole, are doing well. Soon graduation and college acceptance rates can be added. Instead of polemics, perhaps we will see some serious scholarly work.

I taught for 29 years in traditional, large schools in New York City and then spent another dozen years working in and with small schools in the city before retiring almost two years ago. I helped to develop many of the fifty new schools in the Bronx. It would have been nice to have had the construction of many more school buildings before the reform began. It would have been helpful to have had more time to work with potential school leaders, teachers, and community partners. But it would have been unconscionable to have sentenced additional generations of young people to inadequate educational opportunities and particularly so when we had the benefit of many years of success in the development of small schools. There have been and will be setbacks along the way, but there are thousands upon thousands of young people who will now experience academic and social success who would have been denied these opportunities if this movement had not begun four years ago. It is time to center on what we have learned and particularly on what is good and valuable.

Peter Steinberg, Ph.D.
Former Director of the Department of Education Region 2 Office of New and Small Schools

It seems that the movement towards small schools and the existence of rural small schools has become confused by some observers.

Rural small schools don't necessarily have the funding to offer full schedules and in many ways students miss out on some of the things that would help them in going ot college or in whatever thier career choices were.

The movement towards small schools is a different situation all together. In this situation the concept is to break down a large school into smaller communities. These smaller communities, as so many have mentioned, have proven to be very effective. The law of 150 is a good law to follow.

The problems mentioned in the article regarding misplaced students are something else. I'm afraid I don't know enough to know if these facts are correct, but if so then naturally something should be done about it, but that does not mean throwing away a good idea because there is something that needs to be fixed. The answers to improving education are going to be long term, and as such will take time to work out the bugs.

The problem is not if the school is small or large, but how it is run and who you're trying to teach. Of course there are not-so-good small schools, social experiments gone wrong or not quite thought out enough. All schools should have to meet the same educational standards. But big schools fail all the time for all the reasons the small school movement got started: for being impersonal, unmanageable, disorganized, and failing to meet student needs.

But class size is not the primary issue in saving education. Teachers can work with larger class sizes if the students are truly interested in learning. Watch a PBS special on education in some third world country and you'll see kids walking for miles to sit on a dirt floor swatting flies to learn how to read. If we had that kind of student dedication as the norm, nobody'd be complaining about the quality of education in America...But the norm, at least for me, is kids who complain that school is a waste of time and thinking makes their head hurt.

Given the problems of educating reluctant learners, I'd rather be in a small school with a small class and be able to get to know each student in order to turn these complaints around. Only by forming some kind of personal connection can I hope to overcome the resistance to learning that plagues a majority of students I've encountered over the years.

Want to fix the schools? Start by building a popular culture which values learning! Stop with the movies and TV shows glorifying drugs, violence and getting over on everybody. Erase the music video image of success as represented by gold-chained pimps grabbing their genitals. Take a really good look at the cultural images our nation is producing and exporting and simply declare enough is enough.

Instead, let's put together a culture which values things like harmony, honesty, education, and positive social attitudes. If you think I'm a little too conservative sounding, think again. It has been my experience that people are slowly becoming cynical and negative without really thinking about it. It's like we've given up on the traditional values of the past without taking the time to build up a workable replacement. We are surrounded by negativity in our culture, and so swamped by it and turned around by it that gentle and positive images stand out as annoying. I have what I call the "Barney" scale: the more you hate the purple dinosaur, the more likely you are to be a victim of the negative social structure which has our nation in a choke hold. Take an informal survey of folks, young and old, around you. Ask them what they think of Barney. You will likely be surprised. People tend to reject what they don't understand, and as a nation we don't seem to understand the need for positive social values. Instead, we want a quick fix, a lottery ticket to the Big Time. Nose to the grind-stone and The Little Engine That Could are definitely out of style.

As a teacher, I know that I can teach anything to a willing audience, large or small. The key is in cultivating that willingness. It can't be done overnight. It has to be nurtured in the home, on the streets, through the media, and in the schools as a community/national effort. You can't blame the teachers if the kids arrive at school not caring about getting an education (and wearing a "Kill Barney" t-shirt).

What you can do, and what small community schools often become very good at, is take values to the students and forge a connection that changes perspectives and turns lives around. If I had six or seven classes of 35 or more students each over the course of a school day, I would hardly know the student's names, much less their backgrounds, special needs, hopes, dreams, and individual challenges. The students who survive large, less-personal schools (at any level) would probably survive anywhere. It's the ones that need support that I'm worried about! Small schools, run right, rule!

Regarding the Gates Foundation small schools initiative, it isn't small schools that count, it's small classes with good teachers, damn it.

The Gates Foundation giving is like dropping a 500 lb. bomb. It makes a big impact but it totally lacks nuance and finesse. This point was verified over and over by Prof. Bloomfield's commentary.

In Oakland, CA, where the Gates initiative is also taking place, we have McClymonds High School, already a small school of 800 students, being broken up into three small schools with three principals, administrators, etc., but the same class sizes.

The breakup is so severe that there was a shortage of teachers and one principal had to teach several classes. She is a hero for doing so and deserves a raise, which isn't coming.

There are a lot of very dedicated teachers who need and deserve support. Maybe someday...

Bill Somerville, President
Philanthropic Ventures Foundation,
a funder in public education

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Recent Comments

  • Bill Somerville, Pres. Philanthropic Ventures Foundation: Regarding the Gates Foundation small schools initiative, it isn't small read more
  • Carol McLeod, Special Education Teacher: The problem is not if the school is small or read more
  • Alisa Hunt - Grad Student: It seems that the movement towards small schools and the read more
  • Peter Steinberg/Former Director New York Department of Education Region 2 Office of New & Small Scho: Employing incomplete and inadequate evidence and a very broad brush, read more
  • George Reid: Bloomfield's complaints seem to be more about the residual effects read more




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