"How much of our academic talent can we afford to waste? If the answer
is 'none,' then ... the elimination of the small high school through
district reorganization and consolidation should have top priority."
--James Conant, president of Harvard University, 1959
"One of the key issues that I believe affects safety and the whole
educational enterprise is the size of our schools. This is an area where
we have made terrible mistakes.... Too many schools are just too big."
--James Hunt, governor of North Carolina, 2001
How times change. Small schools, once derided as relics of the education system and obstacles to national progress, now lie at the heart of one of America's most popular reform strategies. After decades on the endangered species list, small schools have become the next big thing in education.
The idea behind small schools is simple: having fewer students in each school should create a more nurturing environment where all kids can receive the attention they need--and none fall through the cracks that may develop at a larger school. Among its followers, the small-schools movement includes some of the heaviest hitters in the education world, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, and the New York City school system. For several years, reformers in New York City have been carving large comprehensive high schools into several smaller "learning academies" or "schools within a school" housed within the same building. Now the goal is to create 200 small high schools citywide--an effort that the Gates Foundation is supporting with a $51 million grant awarded in September 2003. Gates awarded another big-city district, San Diego, with $11 million to turn three large high schools into 18 smaller academies.
Support for small schools also comes from some advocates of charter schools and school vouchers. To justify the push for smaller schools, some proponents point to the fact that, on average, private schools are a third smaller than public schools, an indication that the private sector is responding to the market's demand for smaller schools.
Yet there has not been enough rigorous research examining the effects of school size on student achievement. The basic problem researchers face is that families make educational and residential choices that determine the schools their children attend. If small schools attract unusual students to begin with, then it will be hard to know whether differences in achievement between students in small and large schools have anything to do with the schools themselves or are merely reflecting preexisting differences between the students. However, the sudden growth in the size of the average school during the mid-20th century created a kind of natural experiment that enabled me to address this issue without many of the drawbacks that have hindered earlier research.
The United States was once a nation of small schools. In fact, as late as the 1930s, most American schools employed just one teacher. Over the ensuing decades, however, the number of schools declined rapidly, from a peak of 271,000 in 1920 to a low of around 83,000 schools in the late 1980s (since then, about 10,000 schools have been added nationwide). Meanwhile, public school attendance roughly doubled between 1929 and 1969, the period of most rapid consolidation. The combination of consolidation and rising attendance produced a five-fold increase in school size during this short time, with average daily attendance per school rising from 87 to 440 students (see Figure 1). Schools employing just one teacher all but disappeared from the landscape; just 400 one-teacher schools remained as of 2000.
The movement to consolidate schools must be seen as part of the larger 20th-century effort to "professionalize" education. To the reformers known today as history's Progressives, putting schools in the hands of professional educators was seen as a cure for both the corruption of urban school systems and the parochialism of rural systems. …