Study Details Benefits of Smaller Schools

Published December 1, 2001

Smaller schools can provide higher student achievement in a safer and more disciplined environment–and they can do so cost-effectively–according to a new study produced for the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities by the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.

Nevertheless, a recent Public Agenda survey found that a majority of parents and teachers did not regard reducing school size as a pressing education reform, even though more than 80 percent agreed smaller schools are better at spotting troubled students.

“Families want safe, nurturing, challenging, and effective schools for their children,” write the study’s authors, Joe Nathan and Karen Febey of the Center for School Change. Noting that U.S. communities will spend an estimated $84 billion on school buildings over the next two years, they say “it is vital to talk about how that money is being used.”

“The research we share questions the tendency over the last 20 years to build even larger schools,” report Nathan and Febey, adding that “tragedies like Columbine High School showed there are problems, as well as strengths, when communities create huge schools.”

In their study, Smaller, Safer, Saner, Successful Schools, Nathan and Febey draw on case studies of 22 public school buildings in 12 states, representing both district-run and charter public schools in urban, suburban, and rural communities. They also provide a research summary showing how educators and community members created those schools.

The study concludes that, on average, smaller schools can provide the following benefits:

  • fewer discipline problems;

  • greater safety for students;

  • much greater satisfaction for families, teachers, and students;

  • a more positive, challenging environment; and

  • higher achievement and higher graduation rates.

In addition, schools that share facilities with other organizations make more efficient use of tax dollars and can offer broader learning opportunities for students, higher student achievement, and better graduation rates.

“This is not a report about educational theory,” stress the authors. “It is a study about how real, existing schools can help the nation offer saner, safer, smarter, better public education.”

While economies of scale frequently are used to justify the creation and operation of larger schools, Anthony Bryk of the Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago concluded in a 1994 study that the envisioned economies of scale “are actually quite elusive” after examining the relationship between school size, cost, and quality.

“[W]hatever marginal efficiencies may be extracted is dwarfed by the overall ineffectiveness of these institutions,” wrote Bryk. In fact, he added, “the reality is one of a dis-economy of scale.”

Smaller Is Better

According to the Public Agenda survey, released in September, high school teachers and the parents of high school children both see a number of advantages to smaller high schools, plus some serious drawbacks to larger ones.

Large majorities of parents (80 percent) and teachers (85 percent) say smaller high schools are better at spotting troubled students. More than two-thirds (69 percent in both cases) say smaller schools also are better at spotting bad teachers.

Parents and teachers cite a number of advantages for smaller high schools, including:

  • Smaller high schools offer a better sense of belonging and community (parents, 66 percent; teachers, 79 percent).

  • Smaller high schools are more likely to tailor instruction to meet individual needs (parents, 76 percent; teachers, 65 percent).

  • Smaller school would be better at helping students in large urban districts (parents, 65 percent; teachers, 71 percent).

  • Larger schools are more likely to have a lot of discipline problems (parents, 68 percent; teachers, 70 percent).

  • Larger high schools are more likely to have students who are alienated or socially isolated (parents, 56 percent; teachers, 62 percent).

But less than one-third of the parents surveyed (32 percent) say they have given a lot of thought to the idea of reducing school size, and many teachers and parents regard other education reforms–such as smaller classes, stronger discipline, and higher teacher pay–as more pressing. Such reforms have been promoted widely in the public arena for some time, unlike the idea of smaller schools, which has largely been confined to discussion among public policy analysts and education researchers.

“People in leadership circles have been talking about reducing school size for years, but for parents especially, this is basically a new idea for improving schools,” said Steve Farkas, senior vice president and director of research, Public Agenda. “They actually haven’t given it that much thought.”

The Public Agenda survey, which polled 801 parents with children in high school and 920 public high school teachers, was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and is the first phase of a larger study of different aspects of school size. The Gates Foundation supports smaller high schools and has provided funding to help effective small schools replicate themselves and to help school districts redesign large high schools. Public Agenda is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research and public opinion organization.

For more information . . . The 64-page September 2001 report by Joe Nathan and Karen Febey, Smaller, Safer, Saner, Successful Schools, is available on the Web site of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities at, or for $10 from NCEF at 888/552-0624. The study is also available through PolicyBot, The Heartland Institute’s free online research service. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot link, and search for document #2110412.

The NCEF site also contains a resource list of links, books, and journal articles examining research and standards for K-12 school and classroom sizes.

Further information on the Public Agenda survey, including the September 26, 2001 news release and accompanying charts and tables, is available at Public Agenda Online,