High School Size and the Education of All Students in 9-12: What the Research Suggests
by Sandra Stotsky
For reasons that go beyond rational thinking, the size of American high schools has suddenly become a major educational issue. On the basis of size alone, it seems, American high schools have been declared obsolete and dysfunctional for all students. What is strikingly absent from these declarations, often by people who have never taught at the high school level, is evidence. There is no evidence that size is a systemic problem independent of the student body in a high school—or that the difficulty many students have in doing high school level work is a function of the high school curriculum.
Many large urban high schools with a generally low achieving student body and a high drop-out rate are dysfunctional. But some large urban high schools have a high-achieving student body and almost no drop-outs. In 2004-2005, examination schools in New York City, for example, ranged from Bronx High School of Science with 2617 students and Stuyvesant High School with 3059 students to Brooklyn Technical High School with 4062 students, with similar numbers at other very high performing (but not examination) high schools, such as Benjamin Cardozo High School with 3972 students and James Madison High School with 3978 students. New York City parents clearly do not think these large high schools are dysfunctional; this past spring almost 30, 000 students took the entrance test for the fewer than 8,000 available seats in the examination schools. Moreover, according to a New York Times article on November 18, 2005, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is now proposing to build more examination high schools in New York City, among other kinds of schools; at present the mayor's plan includes seven new selective high schools, including one to be called Brooklyn Latin and another to be a math and science school affiliated with Columbia University. So far the mayor has not specified that they must be tiny. Clearly, large high schools may or may not be dysfunctional.
Our high schools enroll students with different interests, abilities, and learning paces. Public priorities should ensure that all high schools, large or small, offer all students coursework based on demanding academic standards and taught by academically qualified teachers. Except for students who need small, therapeutic environments for learning, size should matter only when a high school is too small to offer a full curriculum for all its students, as are many rural high schools, or too large for community feeling and effective administration, as are many of the urban high schools that enroll large numbers of students with poor reading, writing, and mathematics skills and little interest in academic coursework. Although we are regularly told by a group I call Educators Without Evidence, an informal organization with virtually monopolistic access to the media, that high schools should enroll no more than 300 to 400 students, the empirical evidence so far suggests otherwise.
I. “Ideal” Size in Research Studies
Similar numbers for the “ideal” size of a high school—and similar trends—turned up in a 2002 study conducted by a group of researchers at the National Foundation for Educational Research in England. Controlling for background variables and using a secondary national value-added data set from almost 3000 high schools throughout England, the researchers analyzed the relationship between student achievement and single-sex education as well as size. They found that student outcomes improved with size up to a certain point and then declined. Best results were obtained in medium-sized schools with a cohort of about 180 to 200 students per grade, and the worst in the very small or very large schools. Boys and girls also did better in single-sex schools, especially girls in single-sex comprehensive schools.
Two studies that are still useful for details on what is desirable in a high school curriculum were published almost a half century ago but, interestingly, come up with a similar number. For two landmark reports, The American High School Today, published in 1957, and The Comprehensive High School, published in 1967, James B. Conant used a long list of specific criteria for judging the adequacy of a high school’s curriculum at a time when test data on student outcomes were unavailable. Criteria ranged from instruction in calculus, the offering of four years of one modern foreign language, and instruction in music and art to courses for slow-learners. Based on visits to or surveys of 2000 schools, Conant concluded that “an excellent comprehensive high school can be developed in any school district provided the high school enrolls at least 750 students and sufficient funds are available” (1967, p. 2). At the time, Conant was Chairman of a Committee of the National Association of Secondary School Principals on a Study of the American Secondary School, and he and his committee wanted to address the full range of student abilities and interests in our public high schools, not just those at risk or those who lacked the opportunity to take Advanced Placement coursework.
Another very recent empirical study deserves mention because of its comprehensiveness, even though it didn’t come up with an “ideal” size. Michael Hicks and Viktoriya Rusalkina of Marshall University conducted a study of the relationship between school consolidation and student achievement for the West Virginia School Building Authority in 2004. Their analysis of all West Virginia high schools, consolidated and single, found a tendency for higher achievement in larger, not smaller, schools. In fact, they found that both teacher education and larger schools “correlated with higher test scores among certain groups” (p. 30).
Finally, the results of a survey on school size reported by Public Agenda in March 2002 should be noted. According to Public Agenda, the survey results suggest that, for now, “neither teachers nor parents see reducing school size as a priority.”
II. Benefits of a Larger Size for Different Groups of Students
Larger high schools can also benefit students with learning disabilities or underachieving students who are potential drop-outs by providing the intensive help with reading and mathematics these students need, as well as a choice of career-oriented curricula and academic coursework at their level of skill. This is what an award-winning vocational/technical high school in Massachusetts does. It enrolls over 900 students, a large number of whom are special education students or are well below grade level in reading and mathematics for other reasons; it has almost a 100% pass rate on the state’s grade 10 high stakes tests and an attrition rate of less than 1%; and it sends about half of its graduates on to some form of post-secondary education (see the range of offerings of the Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School at www.valleytech.k12.ma.us).
Finally, larger high schools may provide more challenging academic coursework than tiny high schools for the broad middle range of students who now graduate from high school but learn much less than they can. About 50% of these students now take remedial courses in reading and mathematics at the post-secondary level. Small high schools tend to offer a one-size-fits-all curriculum, which can make sense only if students have chosen to attend these high schools.
III. Features of useful research on high school size
IV. Ideas for Structural/Curricular Reforms
To enable schools to take advantage of positive incentives, they should be encouraged to be flexible in ways they group students and in the materials they use and to give teachers a greater voice in these matters. Concern about the lack of significant growth in the percent of grade 8 students performing at the two highest levels on the state’s grade 8 mathematics tests led the Massachusetts Department of Education to fund a study that gathered information from a random sample of administrators and teachers throughout the state in 2003. A significantly higher number of teachers in schools that both increased the percent of grade 8 students performing at the two highest performance levels and simultaneously decreased the percent of grade 8 students performing at the lowest performance level reported having a voice in choosing their instructional materials and using accelerated and leveled algebra I classes to address the needs of above grade students (http://www.npe.ednews.org/Review/Articles/v1n1/v1n1.pdf).
Second, we need a strong discipline-based academic curriculum for grades 5-8, with each subject taught by a content specialist. The KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools are outstanding models of what is needed at the middle school level. According to a recent evaluation, these schools produce a higher level of achievement than demographically similar schools.
Structurally, the middle grades might be attached to a high school but in a separate wing, or as part of small neighborhood K-8 elementary schools, some of which might be single sex. But however the physical structures are configured, the curriculum in grades 5-8 should be clearly connected to a discipline-based 9-12 curriculum, not to the self-contained inter-disciplinary curriculum in K-4 classrooms. A middle school curriculum that is little more than a glorified elementary curriculum is what should be declared obsolete.
Finally, grade 9 should provide an intensive, transition-year program to students with serious limitations in reading, writing, and mathematics. In addition, all graduating grade 8 students should be able to choose the academic or technical/vocational school program they wish to pursue in high school, as well as to attend either a co-ed high school or a single-sex high school. Boys’ schools should be staffed chiefly by male teachers. No matter what curriculum a student pursues in grades 9 to 12, however, all students should be required to study the four core subjects of English, history/geography/U.S. government, science, and mathematics and take end-of-course tests in these courses. All high schools should also provide leveled courses in each core subject in one time block to permit acceleration or remediation (as does Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School), with summer school courses available to facilitate acceleration or remediation. Such requirements will allow students to transfer from one high school to another, if they so choose, and to qualify for post-secondary study no matter what high school they have attended.
Conant, James. B. The American High School Today (a first report to interested citizens). New York: McGraw-Hill, 1957.
Conant, James B. The Comprehensive High School (a second report to interested citizens). New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.
Educational Policy Institute. Focus on results: an academic impact analysis of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). A research paper prepared for the KIPP Foundation. August 2005.
Hicks, Michael J. & Rusalkina, Viktoriya. School Consolidation and Educational Performance. A monograph prepared for the West Virginia School Building Authority. Huntington, West Virginia: Center for Business and Economic Research at Marshall University, May 2004.
Lee, Valerie E. & Smith, J.B. “High School Size: Which Works Best and for Whom?” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 1997, Fall, 19 (3), 205-227.
Lee. Valerie E. “Effects of High-School Size on Student Outcomes: Response to Howley and Howley.” Education Policy Analysis Archives, Vol. 12, No. 53, September 24, 2004. “…equity without excellence is not something we should encourage in schools” (p. 4).
Ravitch, D. “Downsize High Schools? Not Too Far.” Washington Post, Sunday, November 6, 2005, page B07.
Spielhofer, T., O’Donnell, L., Benton, T., Schagen, S. & Schagen, I. The Impact of School Size and Single-Sex Education on Performance. Local Government Association Research Report 33. Slough, England: National Foundation for Educational Research, July 2002.
Stotsky, S., Bradley, R, & Warren, E. “School-Related Influences on Grade 8 Mathematics Performance in Massachusetts.” Nonpartisan Education Review, March 24, 2005, 1(1). Retrieved 10/5/05 from http://www.npe.ednews.org/Review/Articles/v1n1.pdf
Public Agenda. Sizing Things Up: what Parents, Teachers, and Students think about Large and Small High Schools. March 2002.