The small schools myth

Did Bill Gates waste $1 billion because he didn’t understand standard deviation? Marginal Revolution links to Howard Wainer’s  Picturing the Uncertain World, which argues that small schools look better than they really are.

The problem is that because small school don’t have a lot of students, scores are much more variable.  If for random reasons a few geniuses happen to enroll one year in a small school scores jump up and if a few extra dullards enroll the next year scores fall.

Thus, for purely random reasons we would expect small schools to be among the best performing schools in any givenyear.  Of course we would also expect small schools to be among the worst performing schools in any given year!  And in fact, once we look at all the data this is exactly what we see.

. . . States like North Carolina which reward schools for big performance gains without correcting for size end up rewarding small schools for random reasons.  Worst yet, the focus on small schools may actually be counter-productive because large schools do have important advantages such as being able to offer more advanced classes and better facilities.

The Gates Foundation noticed that breaking large schools into smaller schools didn’t produce the hoped-for results and switched its focus to improving teaching.  Yet many people think small schools (with good teachers and well-designed curricula) can reach students who’d drift in a big, impersonal high school.

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  1. I am a Principal of a small High School in Iowa. This post is right on as one year we were tops in our classification with ACT scores and a mere three years later we were much further down.

    In the first instance I had an interview with a newspaper columnist in Des Moines and was quoted on what we did. We did nothing out of the ordinary, and as one Math teacher jokingly put it, “Did you tell them that the reason was we had a bunch of really smart kids take the test?”

    The Gates Foundation is accurate in their push for smaller schools, just misguided in the reasoning. We know our kids, we accommodate, intervene, modify and personalize education for struggling students. We can move quicker to change a course of action and CAM High School looks at the needs of all students, high performing down to those that struggle.

    We have to eliminate the focus on the test scores so we can have real discussions on education.

  2. I disagree. The public secondary school I attended had 500 students 7-12 and it offered plenty of advanced courses in a personalized setting. We didn’t have as many varsity sports as the nearby regionalized high schools but the purpose of school is academics, not to function as an excuse for a football team.

    I can’t fathom attending a high school with 2000 or more students as is common where I live now in CA. Talk about being just another face in the crowd!

  3. superdestroyer says:

    The main push of the small school movement was the desire to create more administrative jobs for teachers. Smaller schools create more jobs for principals, counselors, and administrators.

    The only want that smaller schools would really improve education would be to allow tracking among the small schools. Putting all of the smart students into one small school and all of the trouble makers into a different small school would help the smart students. However, the last thing that most schools want to do is help the smart (read white and Asian students) instead of helping themselves.

  4. I think one of the problems is defining what a small school is. Where I live it means anything from fewer than 100 students (in 4 grades) to about 1000 students. I see a lot of benefit in a high school that has 300-500 students, not so much in a school where the graduating class is less than 30.

  5. SD, do you have evidence of your assertion? And by “evidence” I mean real data, rather than something you pulled out of thin air in support of your prejudices.

  6. superdestroyer says:

    Looked who pushed hardest for small schools: It was the teachers unions and their supporters. Parents did not really push for small schools. The general public could not have cared less.

    Also, look at who the biggest opponents of ability tracking are. The schools of education and the teachers unions. Since teachers unions are maximum employment unions (more jobs are lower pay instead of fewer jobs and higher pay) small schools create more jobs.

  7. CarolineSF says:

    It would seem intuitive that small schools provide more personal attention, which would lead to higher achievement. But reality doesn’t bear that out, as Bill Gates learned. Here in San Francisco Unified, our largest high schools are consistently the highest-achieving, and our supposed showcase Small School by Design high school, June Jordan School for Equity, is persistently our lowest-achieving high school*, and dropping year by year. It just shows that intuition isn’t a basis for pouring millions of dollars into whims and fads.

    *Except for specialty schools that teach troubled or non-English-speaking students exclusively