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Most effective high schools have 600 to 900 students

By Jeffrey Starkweather
Posted Monday, February 14, 2011

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Pittsboro, NC - I agree with Meg Miller that we should work to improve all our high schools so that every child has an equal opportunity to receive the education they need to compete for a good paying job and a quality life. I also believe that excellent schools make our county a place where companies with high paying jobs want to locate.

I am a passionate believer in public schools and my own children received an excellent education and graduated from Northwood High School. I also strongly support the "common school" values that form the basis for our county's unique system of free public schools.

As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."

My statement to the county commissioners about school size was based on "empirical evidence" that anyone can find through a search on the internet. Ms. Miller's assertion that small high schools are more expensive to run is not generally backed up by that evidence, as cited below. Obviously transportation costs are dramatically increased when students living in a rural county have to travel a greater distances to one high school. Moreover, the research consistently demonstrates that the cost per high school graduate is significantly greater for larger high schools.

Moreover, if Ms. Miller is correct, she is suggesting that Jordan Matthews and Chatham Central, with just 731 and 449 students, respectively, are significantly inferior schools than Northwood, with 973 students. I do not believe student performance and parent opinion, would support such a contention.

Of course, by far the most important school "product" we all care about is student performance. Here, the studies listed below make clear it isn't even close. Student performance is enhanced in small high schools.

But, instead of two lay persons debating this critical issues, let us hear from an expert who has actually studied real facts on the ground. Valarie Lee, Professor of Education, University of Michigan, led a four-year study involving over 10,000 high school students in 789 public and private high schools. Here is what she found:

In my research using data from a nationally representative sample of U.S. high schools and controlling for prior academic ability as well as other characteristics like social background, we found that there is an ideal size for high schools; ideal in terms of students learning more in mathematics over the four years of high school.

The most effective high schools have 600 to 900 students.

Students learned more in schools enrolling 600 to 900 students, and less in either larger or smaller schools. The relationship between school size and student learning is, thus, not linear.

We felt that high schools with 600 to 900 students were large enough to offer a full and solid curriculum, but small enough so students were known well by their teachers and didn't get lost in the cracks. Our sample included both public and private schools.

We also found that the effect of school size on learning is even more important for less advantaged students (either those with lower-socioeconomic status or minority students). These findings should be a consideration for districts that consolidate schools for budget reasons, particularly because the expected savings of operating fewer schools in many cases (given higher transportation costs, and the need for a denser administrative staff in the large school, for example) may not fully materialize.

The major cost of operating schools is staff. Consolidating two schools into one, if they serve the same number of students, would probably not result in staff reductions.

Below are links to a several other research documents that support small high schools. Page numbers for discussion of cost effectiveness are cited below for each study. You can review many more similar studies with the same findings at the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, Schools Size, Small Schools Resource list.

Smaller, Safer, Saner Successful Schools, Center for School Change, National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, by Joe Nathan and Sheena Thao, 2007, pages12-13.

High School Size Does Matter, Study of High School Restructuring, The University of Texas Department of Educational Administration, by Thu Suong Thi Nguyen, pages 4-5.

Are Small Schools Better: Student Size considerations for Safety and Learning, West Ed Policy Brief, 2001, pages 2-3.

Small Schools: Tackling the Dropout Crisis While Saving Taxpayer Dollars, Think New Mexico, Fall 2008, pages 19-20, see chart on page 19.

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Most effective high schools have 600 to 900 students

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