A Small School Revolution:

The Benefits of Small Schools on Student Motivation and Engagement

Stuart Grauer
Feb 16 · 26 min read

Abstract

In an era of greater and greater school consolidation, this study provides data to support the notion that students in small high schools are more connected and engaged with their learning than their peers who attend medium and large-sized schools. Results from the 2015 High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE), which measures dimensions of school engagement and academic climate, are discussed. Overall, findings indicate students from small schools are more engaged, connected, and intrinsically motivated than students who attend larger schools. They are also more likely to see a connection between their experiences in school and their larger life purposes, allowing their learning to transcend the boundaries of the classroom. These and related findings on school safety, teacher staying power, and graduation rates have long been overlooked in school consolidation decisions and funding formulas. The authors offer possible explanations for the relative lack of small school research, as well as some implications of engagement on school safety and cost.

Keywords: small schools, engagement, connectedness, intrinsic motivation, safety

A Small School Revolution:
The Benefits of Small Schools on Student Motivation and Engagement

Our school’s “founding story” of creating a small college preparatory school focusing on relationship-based, compassionate, experiential teaching took place in an era of alarming rates of teenage obesity, depression, drug use, violence, school drop out, and suicide, all of which are much less prevalent in small schools (Cotton, 1996; Hill, 2001; Nathan & Thao, 2001; Oxley, 2007; Schoggen & Schoggen, 1988; US Department of Education, 1996–97; Wasley & Lear, 2001). Countless studies on school achievement and drop out rates were telling us that kids who feel confident, connected, and autonomous are more engaged in their schools and their learning, and do better academically than their isolated or disenfranchised peers (Anderman, 2002; Connell & Wellborn, 1991; Howley & Bickel, 2000; Skinner & Belmont 1993; Skinner, Wellborn, & Connell, 1990). Furthermore, feelings of belonging and relatedness may also support students’ intrinsic motivation (e.g., Deci, et al, 1991; Ryan & Deci, 2000), which includes an interest in a subject, an understanding of its relevance outside of the classroom, a sense of accomplishment when mastering it, and a “calling” to it (DeLong & Winter, 2002). Intrinsic motivation has long been linked to academic success.

So we set out to create an educational community that would foster students’ feelings of connectedness, belonging, and self-confidence, guided by research telling us that small schools are better equipped to foster these feelings. By creating greater opportunities to get to know their teachers and peers on a deep, interpersonal level, small schools can create a culture of connectedness, providing these most sought after characteristics of belonging, inclusion, and connectedness (Barker & Gump, 1964; Black, 2002; Cotton, 2006; Nathan & Thao, 2001).

To expand our mission, in 2009 the Small Schools Coalition (SSC) was created, amidst an age of metal detectors and school consolidations. The coalition began to develop what was to become the largest bank of articles about small schools in the world. Free of charge, SSC has been supplying references to schools and school leaders wishing to explain small schools benefits to teachers, parents, school boards, and community members. The coalition has helped many small schools and districts that are passionate about staying small as they fight against consolidation and for community-based education.

Our work and the coalition hit a setback when the Gates Foundation, which had taken up the cause of small schools, famously abandoned them. “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way,” Bill Gates said in 2009 (Forbes, 1/26/2009), and he dropped small schools funding. Gates’ abandonment seemed like an indictment of small schools, but the reality was that some of the popular Gates supported schools had grown larger and larger in size until their student bodies exceeded the size of true small schools, and, as the coalition could have predicted, they ceased to have the benefits of small schools.

The Small Schools Coalition scrambled to answer the question: How big is a small school? Although identifying the absolute size of a small school may seem impractical to many, it is of vital importance to the development of charter schools, alternative schools, parochial schools, home schools, and private independent schools. We created, for the first time anywhere, a paper that would determine the best size of a small school ( — , — , 2012).

Drawing on research in anthropology, organizational behavior, and social networking, we attempted to determine the size at which a school can be the most effective, efficient, and powerful. Gladwell, for example, in his book “The Tipping Point” cited research by anthropologist Robin Dunbar that indicated the maximum number of meaningful social connections that a human being can handle is between 100 and 230 (Gladwell, 2000). Dunbar created “the rule of 150” as the best size for a successful village. As we move beyond this number, according to Dunbar and others, we must resort to hierarchical schemes, stereotypes, and clique identities in order to make sense of so many people, their roles and relationships. Thus, high school environments that are intimate enough can minimize threats such as bullying, disunity, and social exclusion.


“A school should not be deemed small unless is has 250 or fewer students, and absolutely fewer than 400.”

In 1984, Deborah Meier, noted “founder” of the small schools movement, broke down schools in New York City and reported clear gains in safety and academic performance. She eventually defined “smallness” as 300 to 400 students (Meier, 1996). In 1997 the US Department of Education released a report defining “small” as fewer than 300 students, and found that principals from small schools reported far fewer discipline problems than principals from large schools. Furthermore, Lee and Loeb (2002) defined small schools as having fewer than 400 students, and found that teachers at these small schools take more responsibility for students’ academic and social development, and develop deeper personal relationships with them, which enhances their achievement. Reviews of scores of research studies (longitudinal studies, meta-studies, case studies, etc.) revealed that once a school hit 400 students, it could not be expected to have small schools attributes or benefits ( — , 2012). Gates schools had grown to 500 students. Hence, they were not small. From our review of the literature, we drew the conclusion, “A school should not be deemed small unless is has 250 or fewer students, and absolutely fewer than 400.” ( — , 2012c; — 2015). We have used this principle to continue to guide our ongoing efforts to identify the benefits of small schools and the unique characteristics that create them.

In 2012, the Center for Education & Evaluation Policy at the University of Indiana announced that they were developing a high school survey of student engagement, the “HSSSE,” that they would administer to students in public and private schools in the US and internationally, and we enrolled our high school students in the survey. In 2013, when the results of our first HSSSE came out, our “small school students” far exceeded national norms, which were generally much larger schools. While these results were exciting, we believed they would apply not just to our school, but to small schools in general.

To test this hypothesis, based upon six years of reviewing literature on small school benefits, in this study we grouped schools into three categories: small schools (ranging from 75 to 399 students), medium sized schools (ranging from 400 to 699 students), and large schools (over 700 students). By selecting fewer than 400 students as the small schools cut-off, we were able to test our hypothesis that small schools, defined that way, would show advantages in engagement, connectedness between and across groups, and various other benefits. (Achievement, which we also believe increases in small schools, was not measured in the HSSSE survey. As noted above, abundant research associates those advantages with subsequent achievement.) We left off schools of less than 75 students with the understanding that this category would not have adequate representation in the surveying and also that it would include experimental schools that might not be representative of small schools in general.

The present study utilizes data from the 2015 High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE), developed by the Center for Education & Evaluation Policy at Indiana University. The HSSSE is a comprehensive, 30-question, self-report measure of student engagement and school climate. Since 2003, the HSSSE has been used to measure the intellectual and social engagement of secondary school students, with more than 400,000 students in over 40 states completing the survey between 2006 and 2015. Student engagement items fall into three categories: Cognitive/Intellectual/Academic Engagement, Social/Behavioral/Participatory Engagement, and Emotional Engagement.

The Cognitive/Intellectual/Academic dimension measures students’ levels of effort (15 items), attitudes toward learning (eight items), goals (six items), and personal skill development (14 items). This dimension includes questions such as “I can be creative in classroom assignments and projects”, “In about how many classes have you put forth your maximum effort”, and “I enjoy working on tasks that require a lot of thinking and mental effort.” The minimum score on this dimension is 10.75 and the maximum is 43.

The Social/Behavioral/Participatory dimension (seven items) refers to students’ involvement in social, extracurricular, non-academic pursuits, including interactions with their peers. This dimension includes items such as “I go to school because of my friends” and “How many hours do you spend participating in school-sponsored activities.” The minimum score on this dimension is 1.75 and the maximum is 7.

Emotional engagement refers to students’ motivation for learning (nine items), emotional engagement with the school (nine items), positive relationships with adults in the school (five items), and positive relationships with other students (five items). This dimension includes questions such as: “I am motivated by my desire to learn”, “I care about this school”, I feel supported by my teachers”, and “I feel comfortable bing myself at this school.” The minimum score on this dimension is 7 and the maximum is 28.

Participants

In the spring of 2015, 12,555 students from 58 National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) member schools completed the HSSSE. Respondents included 9th through 12th graders from all regions of the US and two international schools. Participating schools were both day and boarding schools, and ranged in size from 18 to 2,107 students. For the purposes of our study, schools were grouped into three categories based on student population size: Small (75–399 students), Medium (400–699), and Large (700+). The number of schools and respondents that fell into each category are provided in Table 1.

Participants included 9th through 12th grade students in all three school size categories. All enrolled high school students participated in the study, and the average response rate for individual survey items was 98%. The majority of students were between the ages of 14 and 18 at the time of the study. Students were distributed across racial or ethnic backgrounds: 54–57% were white, 4–7% were African American, 8–13% were Asian, and 10–13% were multiracial. There were no significant differences in race/ethnic backgrounds between the three school size groups.

All three comparison groups — small, medium and large schools — were closely matched with respect to eligibility for free lunch in high school (less than 15%) and level of schooling of parents/guardians (80–89% had at least a four-year college degree). All groups claimed to achieve comparable grades in school (81–85% reported receiving mostly A’s and B’s or mostly A’s). Most students from all three groups expressed feeling good about being in high school (91–92%).

Procedure

Students completed the HSSSE either online or on paper in the spring of 2015. The survey, which takes 15–20 minutes to complete, consists of 30 questions. Depending on the question format, response choices range from 1 = “strongly disagree” to 4 = “strongly agree”, from 1 = “not at all” to 4 = “very much”, from 1 = never to 4 = often, or from 1 = one or less (hours per week) to 4 = 8 or more (hours per week)”. Engagement questions are grouped into three dimensions. Dimension 1: Cognitive/Intellectual/Academic Engagement consists of questions pertaining to cognitive growth through personal skill development, level of effort in academic pursuits, attitude toward learning, and cognitive engagement with academic goals, future plans, and aspirations. Dimension 2: Social/Behavioral/Participatory Engagement contains items concerning interpersonal relationships with teachers, parents, peers and other members of the community. Dimension 3: Emotional Engagement emphasizes students’ feelings of connection to their school and teachers, and includes items related to motivation for learning, emotional engagement with the school, positive relationships with adults in school, and positive relationships with other students.

Findings

Dimensions of Engagement

As predicted, despite great background and demographic similarities, we found that students in small schools developed profoundly different attitudes about their school and their education. In almost all categories of the HSSSE, students from small schools reported significantly higher levels of engagement and attitudes toward school than both medium and large schools. Means and standard deviations are reported in Table 2.

Students from small schools report significantly higher levels of cognitive engagement and academic effort than students from large schools (t = 4.04, p < .001, d = .10, and t = 6.20, p < .001, d = .14, for cognitive engagement and academic effort, respectively). They have more positive attitudes toward learning than both medium and large school students (t = 2.35, p < .05, d = .06, and t = 5.34, p < .001, d = .12, for medium and large school students, respectively), and higher engagement with academic goals and future aspirations than both other groups (t = 5.53, p < .001, d = .14, and t = 3.15, p < .01, d = .07, for medium and large school students, respectively). Students from small schools report that, overall, they are more emotionally engaged in school than medium and large school students (t = 3.40, p < .001, d = .09, and t = 7.26, p < .001, d = .17, for medium and large school students, respectively). Specifically, they express significantly higher levels of motivation for learning (t = 4.36, p < .001, d = .11, and t = 6.65, p < .001, d = .15 for medium and large school students, respectively), emotional engagement with the school (t = 2.35, p < .05, d = .06, and t = 6.18, p < .001, d = .14, for medium and large school students, respectively), and positive relationships with adults (t = 6.87, p < .001, d = .18, and t = 7.73, p < .001, d = .17, for medium and large school students, respectively). Students from small schools also show significantly more positive relationships with other students than kids from large schools (t = 3.64, p < .001, d = .08). Although the effect sizes are small, this is common in social science research (Cohen, 1988, 1992). Overall, students from small schools consistently express higher levels of cognitive, behavioral and emotional engagement.

Responses to specific questions

In looking at student responses to individual questions, several results support our hypotheses about the benefits of small schools. Students in small schools care more deeply about their school than students from large schools (t = 4.60, p < .001, d = .10). They are more excited about their classes than students in medium sized schools and in large schools (t = 6.85, p < .001, d = .18, and t = 6.91, p < .001, d = .15, for medium and large sized school students, respectively). They also feel more strongly that their teachers engage them in classroom discussions than students from large schools (t = 5.27, p < .001, d = .12). Students in small schools feel that they can be creative in classroom assignments and discussions more than those in medium and large schools (t = 4.06, p < .001, d = .10, and t = 5.87, p < .001, d = .13, for medium and large school students, respectively). Finally, small school students report that they to go to school because of their teachers (t = 8.68, p < .001, d = .22, and t = 10.14, p < .001, d = .22, for medium and large school students, respectively), and because they enjoy being in school (t = 6.51, p < .001, d = .17, and t = 7.72, p < .001, d = .17, for medium and large school students, respectively) more than students from medium and large schools. See Table 3 for a summary of these results.

Perceived support. In addition, students from small schools feel more supported by their teachers (t = 7.36, p < .001, d = .19, and t = 8.08, p < .001, d = .17, for medium and large schools students, respectively), administrators (t = 6.48, p < .001, d = .17, and t = 5.61, p < .001, d = .12, for medium and large schools students, respectively), counselors (t = 3.42, p < .001, d = .09, and t = 3.96, p < .001, d = .09, for medium and large schools students, respectively), and other adults at the school (t = 4.52, p < .001, d = .12, and t = 5.84, p < .001, d = .13, for medium and large schools students, respectively) than those from medium and large schools. They are also more likely to feel that their ideas and opinions are respected (t = 2.16, p < .05, d = .06, and t = 6.34, p < .001, d = .14, for medium and large school students, respectively). Finally, small size school students feel more comfortable being themselves at school than students from large sized schools (t = 5.97, p < .001, d .13). These findings are summarized in Table 4.

These are remarkable findings that are in keeping with our hypotheses. Students appear more engaged, more supported, more caring of their school, more excited, and more creative. In processing these results, our research group was still left wondering: “So what?” What are the Beyond Student Engagement

A few more small school distinctions enabled us to see deeper meaning behind the findings, so that we could assess the true consequences of small school education. Are there relationships among this student excitement, connections with teachers, and sense of respect that carry over beyond the classroom boundaries? The answer is yes.

Intrinsic motivation. One area in which small school students distinguish themselves is in their apparent intrinsic motivation for learning. For example, mean comparisons revealed that small school students are more likely to believe that experiences at school contribute to their understanding of themselves (t = 5.53, p < .001, d = .14, compared to medium sized school students, and t = 7.84, p < .001, d = .17, compared to large school students) and to the way they contribute to developing their personal beliefs and values (t = 2.51, p < .01, d = .06, and t = 4.46, p < .001, d = .10, for medium and large school students, respectively). Furthermore, small school students are more likely to read for personal interest (t = 8.43, p < .01, d = .22, and t = 7.24, p < .001, d = .16, for medium and large school students, respectively), and engage in creative writing (t = 5.73, p < .001, d = .15, and t = 9.07, p < .001, d = .20, for medium and large school students, respectively) than their medium and large school counterparts. While all three groups are motivated by their desire to get good grades, and to graduate and go to college, small school students are significantly more motivated by their own desire to learn (t = 5.10, p < .001, d = .13, and t = 6.62, p < .001, d = .14, for medium and large school students, respectively), and by teachers who encourage them (t = 7.04, p < .001, d = .18, and t = 9.16, p < .001, d = .20, for medium and large school students, respectively) than both medium and large school students. Refer to Table 5 for a summary of these results.

Small school students appear to learn for learning’s sake. For instance, small school students report that they “like discussions in which there are no clear answers” more than students from medium and large sized schools (t = 4.47, p < .001, d = .12, and t = 6.07, p < .001, d = .13, for medium and large schools students, respectively). Small school students claim they “enjoy working on tasks that require a lot of thinking and mental effort” (t = 3.87, p < .001, d = .10, and t = 4.80, p < .001, d = .11, for medium and large school students, respectively) and that “my school work makes me curious to learn other things” (t = 5.34, p < .001, d = .14, and t = 5.65, p < .001, d = .13, for medium and large school students, respectively) more than medium and large school students. Small school students agreed more with the statement that “I go to school because of what I learn,” than students from medium and large sized schools (t = 6.20, p < .001, d = .16, and t = 8.38, p < .001, d = .18, for medium and large schools students, respectively). Finally, mean comparisons showed small school students to be bored in class significantly less often than medium and large school students (t = -9.36, p < .001, d = -.24, and t = -13.60, p < .001, d = -.30, for medium and large school students, respectively).

Beyond the classroom. Another finding from the HSSSE survey was that small school students appear to be developing larger purposes for education, viewing their educational experiences as life purposes, and viewing the school walls as permeable. They are aware that their connections to their communities and to their personal futures are vital. For instance, small school students rate their schools slightly higher than other students in contributing to “applying school-based knowledge to everyday life” (t = 2.72, p < .01, d = .07, and t = 3.83, p < .001, d = .08, for medium and large school students, respectively) and considerably higher than both other groups regarding “learning what life is like for other people in your community outside of school” (t = 5.59, p < .001, d = .14, and t = 6.80, p < .001, d = .15, for medium and large school students, respectively). Likewise, small school students rated highest in “understanding why what you learn in school will be important for life after high school” (t = 6.70, p < .001, d = .17, and t = 5.41, p < .001, d = .12, for medium and large school students, respectively). Small school students agree more strongly with the statement that “I see how the work I am doing now will help me after high school” than students from medium and large sized schools (t = 6.54, p < .001, d = .17, and t = 6.29, p < .001, d = .14, for medium and large schools students, respectively). Overall, more small school students are motivated by a desire to succeed in the world outside of school.

Small school students feel that they “connect ideas or concepts from one class to another,” more often than students from large schools (t = 4.97, p < .001, d = .11). In one of the strongest findings about small schools, far more of their students discussed ideas from reading or classes with teachers and others outside of class (t = 6.38, p < .001, d = .16, and t = 6.36, p < .001, d = .14, for medium and large school students, respectively) and “talked to an adult in the school about career goals,” (t = 8.53, p < .001, d = .22, and t = 3.19, p < .001, d = .07, for medium and large school students, respectively) as well as about how to apply to college (t = 3.43, p < .001, d = .09, for medium sized school students). In sum, small schools are producing students with intrinsic purposes that spread to their inner and outer lives. See Table 6 for a summary of these results.

Additional Findings

Contrary to popular belief that students choose large schools because of prestigious, competitive athletic programs, in this study students who attend big schools do not agree more strongly with the statement: “I go to school to participate in athletics.” In fact, students from small schools agree more strongly with this statement than students from medium sized schools (t = 3.89, p < .001, d = .10).

In addition, students from small schools report that their schools emphasize “building positive relationships with students of different backgrounds” more than students from both larger sized schools (t = 7.55, p < .001, d = .19, and t = 6.38, p < .001, d = .14, for medium and large school students, respectively).

There are some areas in which students from small schools rate their schools lower than those from larger schools. These are questions that refer to what most would consider more “traditional” styles of teaching. For example, small school students report that their school places less of an emphasis on memorizing facts and figures for classes (t = -13.38, p < .001, d = -.34, and t = -10.15, p < .001, d = -.22, for medium and large school students, respectively)., and completing homework (t = -12.01, p < .001, d = -.31, and t = -6.68, p < .001, d = -.15, for medium and large school students, respectively). Small school students also report their school puts less of an emphasis on preparing for standardized tests than medium school students (t = -5.00, p < .001, d = -.13). Students from small schools are also significantly less likely to claim that they attend school because “it’s the law” (t = -7.67, p < .001, d = -.20, and t = -9.64, p < .001, d = -.22, for medium and large school students, respectively) or because of their parents (t = -7.80, p < .001, d = -.20, and t = -6.81, p < .001, d = -.15, for medium and large school students, respectively) than medium and large school kids. In this study, students from small schools are also less likely to report going to school because of their friends than kids from medium and large sized schools (t = -4.95, p < .001, d = -.13, and t = -3.24, p < .001, d = -.07, for medium and large school students, respectively). See Table 7 for a summary of these findings.

Discussion

As predicted, students in small schools reported significantly higher levels of engagement, effort, and attitudes toward school than both medium and large schools. They also reported higher levels of positive relationships with adults and other students than their large school counterparts. Research has shown us time and again that all of these characteristics have serious implications for achievement, violence, and school drop out (Anderman, 2002; Black, 2002; Bloom, & Unterman, 2012; Haller, 1992; Howley & Bickel, 2000; Nathan & Thao, 2007; US Department of Education, 1996–97, Walsey & Lear, 2001).

Furthermore, students from small schools appear to be more intrinsically motivated, which also relates to academic engagement, effort, and achievement. Fostering intrinsic motivation can be challenging, because it requires that teachers get to know their students and what drives them (DeLong & Winter, 2002). Teachers in small schools are better equipped to succeed, because they have greater opportunities to develop meaningful relationships with their students. In addition, small school students appear to be able to connect their learning in school to their larger life purposes, and develop an understanding of the value of education beyond the walls of the classroom. This finding was replicated on a much smaller scale in the spring of 2016 with our own small school students exceeding both other NAIS schools and public schools on “applying school based knowledge to everyday life. These results certainly warrant further research.

Another interesting finding was that students from large schools did not seem to be there for the athletics more than students from small schools. This is difficult to explain since small school sports offerings are generally not as extensive, or competitive. One can only speculate that, in small schools, there is a greater sense of inclusiveness, and higher levels of participation, for example through no-cut sports (Barker & Gump, 1964; Black, 2002). Deborah Meier, often considered the founder of the small schools movement, notes that “When we talk with school officials and local politicians about restructuring large high schools, the first thing they worry about is what will happen to the basketball or baseball teams… that the heart of the school, its capacity to educate, is missing, seems almost beside the point (Mitchell, 2000). Hopefully these results will help adjust their priorities.

Students from small schools reported that their teachers focused less on memorization, homework, and standardized tests. We would argue that the structure and climate of the small school, with its smaller class sizes and greater opportunities for authentic interactions, allow teachers to facilitate higher-level learning.

The finding that students from small schools are less likely to report going to school because of their friends is encouraging. From our literature reviews, we have seen repeatedly that small schools do not generate cliques to the same extent as schools of other sizes.

Diversity is a huge issue of concern, since Brown versus Board of Education ushered in an era of school consolidation resulting in growing school size. In the greatest irony perhaps in the history of US education, students of small (unconsolidated) schools believe that their school emphasizes building positive relationships with students from diverse backgrounds more than students from either larger school size group.

Conclusions

Our findings from the HSSSE survey, above, have turned up in scores of research studies (Anderman, 2002; — , 2012; Nathan & Thao, 2001; Walsey et al., 2001). Unfortunately, discoveries on the advantages of small schools are often overlooked, perhaps because they are of little benefit to educational funders, vendors and publishers, government officials, research-supported university think tanks, corporate contractors, and district and other mid-level bureaucrats who depend upon medium and large sized schools for their livelihoods.

The following text is from a story in the 2016 book, “Fearless Teaching,” and sums up not only the uncertainty we still face since Brown versus Board of Education (which accelerated consolidation with obviously, profoundly good intentions), but the imperative to face the school size issue once and for all:

Fifty years have gone by… Could it be that the United States government, however well intentioned, has spent trillions of dollars over the past 50 years to create large, comprehensive schools which were intended to integrate kids despite unclear and conflicting evidence showing how integration could or has occurred in them? The Public Policy Institute of California’s extensive, longitudinal research resulted in bigger questions than answers, such as: “Turning to the analysis of test scores, what do the generally insignificant effects of [school] choice on achievement imply for state and national policy?” ( — , 2016)

Our nation’s comprehensive schools have grown steadily in size for well over 100 years, for no reason having to do with health and student development. 50 years from now we will look back at this worn trend from a new mandate of progress and compassion. Meanwhile, quietly, all over the world, new forms of small schools are in growth mode but are unsupported by districts and governments. They include: learning centers, micro-schools, home schools, schools-within-schools, free schools, democratic schools, and community-based schools.

As schools the world over continue to consolidate and small school education is viewed as “lesser” in many respects, we hope small schools research will continue to promote a “new order” if, for no other reasons than student happiness and safety.

Further Research

Several areas of major concern were not measured by the HSSSE and we believe research on these areas would highlight the positive impacts of small schools. The areas include: academic achievement, safety and violence, drop out rates (in this study, small school kids were considerably less likely to consider dropping out of school), future career choices and successes, teacher satisfaction and durability in the field.

Also, the “agree” and “strongly agree” totals for all groups came out about even when students responded to the prompt, “I feel supported by other students.” Although students at all school sizes feel supported about the same by fellow students, small school students seem to get their support from a more diverse and “age-mixed” cross section of the school population (for example, from adults, as per our findings, above), and this needs further research.

Of course, our findings do not consider significant other perspectives: How do teachers and parents view the impact of small schools? What will the impact be in the long range? What other variables are at work that we were missing?

It also must be noted that this survey included independent schools across the nation, leaving out many alternative formats of schooling, such as national public systems. (Research in the field has long held that the lowest socioeconomic demographics benefit most from smaller schools, and this led to many initiatives such as former Mayor Blumberg’s small school network in New York City (Small Schools Work in New York, 2014; Students in Bloomberg’s Smaller Schools have Better On-Time Graduation Rates, 2013).) A far larger study would be advantageous, where in we could find if all forms of schools benefit from smaller sizes. However, since the 2015 HSSSE includes just independent schools, a great many other variables are controlled for.

Many school districts and school leaders will raise the issue of cost, and this is of course one of a few imperative areas to research. Our own extensive review of school costs has revealed to us that virtually all funding formulas leave out the following, enormous large-school added costs: drop out prevention programming; earnings differentials of students who drop out; the cost of new teacher training in light of the propensity of large school teachers to leave the profession; violence, school security, and violence prevention programming ( — , 2012a). Hence, the cost issue currently has more questions than answers, and needs further review. How can we compare costs of different school sizes and leave these critical issues out?

Our literature reviews lead us to believe clearly that small schools also offer: higher graduation rates; less crime and violence by far; higher scholastic achievement ( — , 2012b). We hope that, based upon the profound HSSSE results about small school advantages, our work will continue to stimulate serious research on our findings.

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Stuart Grauer

Written by

Founder/Head of School, The Grauer School. Author: Real Teachers (2011), Fearless Teaching (2016). Founder/Director Small Schools Coalition.