When It Comes to School, Does Size Matter?

School hallway
Big school v. small school: Does it matter?

For years, the conventional wisdom has been that smaller schools are better for kids an idea apparently given new attention in the forthcoming movie “Waiting for Superman.” But a school in Massachusetts that is the largest in its state and among the largest in the nation is prompting some people to question the smaller-is-better orthodoxy.

A decade ago, Brockton High School, which is attended by 4,100 students, had abysmal test scores and embarrassingly high dropout rates; administrators and educators had all but given up when a group of teachers persuaded school leaders to let them make a concerted effort to improve matters. They “organized a schoolwide campaign that involved reading and writing lessons into every class in all subjects, including gym,” the New York Times reports. The group worked to educate and support their fellow teachers, enlisting them all in a common goal, scheduling regular meetings dedicated to teacher training. Lo and behold, scores improved, as did students’ self-esteem and commitment to learning — and teachers’ regard for their pupils’ capabilties. Things continued to get better, and for the past couple of years, the huge, extremely diverse school has performed in the top 10 percent of all Massachusetts high schools.

“It had become dogma that smaller was better, but there was no evidence,” David P. Driscoll, the state’s former education commissioner who now heads the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees federal testing, told the Times. “In schools, no matter the size — and Brockton is one of the biggest — what matters is uniting people behind a common purpose, setting high expectations, and sticking with it.”

As the graduate of a huge, and stellar, public high school (there were 1,067 students in my graduating class) who has enrolled her two small children in a huge, extremely diverse public elementary school (1,251 students, spread across two separate buildings, with something like 26 different languages spoken at home), I personally have never bought into the thinking that smaller schools are necessarily better. But I have plenty of friends who disagree with me, and especially at the elementary school level, worry about their children getting lost at a larger school.

What do you think? Does size matter when it comes to schools? Or are vision, purpose and clear, high expectations and follow-through the most important elements in a school’s success?

Photo: dave_mcmt