Keep Small Schools Small

As schools in the world’s richest nation continue to rank far behind those of other nations with far fewer resources, one surprising trend stands out.  Small elementary and middle schools, and small classroom sizes, are becoming a thing of the past. One or two classes per grade, and fewer than 20 students in a classroom, are considered unsustainable in many communities, so smaller schools are closing and classroom sizes are increasing.

The research out there is mixed, but common sense tells us there are great advantages to small community schools and small classroom sizes.  Fewer students in a classroom means each student gets more attention and direct instruction from the teacher.  And fewer classrooms in a school means a tighter professional community and more accountable learning environment.  One would think, in an age when accountability is a massive buzz word and a priority in public schools, that a nice, tight-knit learning community would be sought after.  This is not usually the case.  Rather, school districts opt to build larger, consolidated schools that house more students coming from a wider geographical reach, then sometimes hiring fewer teachers to teach those students.

My two teaching team colleagues and I once lost our jobs this way.  It was my first employment experience as a public school teacher.  The small town middle school where we had taught for two years was replaced by a much bigger regional middle school, and combining schools meant increasing class sizes and eliminating positions.  The three of us had all joined the district together, and were the newest hires, so we were first to go.  I was devastated, but what made me angry was the explanation: “The district just can’t justify class sizes of 18 anymore.”  The new school would average out at 23 students per class.  I remember being told that studies had proven class size did not yield better academic results.  I thought, and still think, what a load of hogwash.  How disappointing to open a beautiful, expensive new school and have to compromise quality of instruction.

The notion that class size does not impact a child’s education seems counterintuitive. Indeed, research indicates otherwise, but even if there were studies that somehow indicated students in large classes learned every bit as well as students in small classes, they would be most necessarily flawed.  If I teach algebra to 15 children of equal ability, those students will receive more direct instruction from me than equal ability students in a class of, say, 23.  There will be a lesser likelihood of behavior outbreaks and class distractions with fewer students. There will be less student work to review, allowing me more time to consider and provide meaningful feedback to each student.  It will be that much less likely that any one student will “fall through the cracks,” as they say, and have their unique learning needs not met.  Smaller class sizes, as long as the instruction is effective, yields a greater potential for success in learning.  Assuming otherwise would be like a dentist telling you it is best practice to brush your teeth less often, or a politician campaigning for fewer votes as a tactic to win an election.  It just doesn’t make sense.

I have worked in K-5 elementary schools that range in size from 100 to 800.  On the low end of that range, there is about one teacher per grade, with sometimes less than 15 students per class.  In the higher end, there may be about six teachers per grade, with classes sometimes in excess of 25 students per class.  There are large elementary schools in Maine where the kindergarten classes had more than 30 students.

Of course, schools of any size, when under-resourced, can underperform.  Under-resourced public schools is a rampant but separate issue altogether which we have addressed in the past, so let’s take that out of the equation.  And likewise, a large school can be masterfully led and staffed with excellent teachers and yield excellent results.  There’s no doubt it can happen, but is it as likely?  And when you consider what it takes to hire masterful teachers and supply them all with adequate resources for exceptional instruction, is it any more sustainable?  That is debatable at best.

I’ve seen and worked in great schools, both large and small.  When I see the potential for learning in a small school, how much easier it is to create a professional environment conducive to excellence in teaching, and how much more attention each student receives to his or her academic and emotional growth, I am amazed that there ever could be a decision to close a small school in favor of opening a large one.  

There is no doubt in my mind the world’s richest nation can afford to maintain small neighborhood schools in urban districts and small rural schools in less populated areas.  

On most mornings as I drag myself out for a four or five mile run in the small town where I live, I pass an old restored one-room school house.  I can see it from about a half-mile away on those frigid, pre-dawn winter mornings, when the street light reflects off its windows.  I imagine what it must have been like 100 years ago, when one hearty, dedicated soul dragged herself (after the Civil War, most school teachers were women) out to the schoolhouse to get a fire going in anticipation of her students arriving.  That teacher had to do a lot!  There were many subjects to teach to students of different ages, no colleagues, and probably zero planning time during the day.  Even lunch was always with students.  But there is something special about a small community working and learning together.  Working conditions were probably bad in these old one-room school houses, and learning conditions were likely strict, but there was a tight learning community with few distractions.   

The other day, I walked into the teacher’s room at lunch time in one of the smaller schools at which I have the privilege to work.  Almost every teacher in the building sat at the table, and it was like a family dinner.  There was laughing, and no more than two conversations happening at once.  Everyone was relaxed and enjoying each other’s company.  Those teachers returned to their students refreshed, fed and relaxed after lunch.  Teaching afternoon lessons in Maine in September can be rough; no air conditioning, lots of carbon dioxide.  One thing that helps is a supportive, friendly, tight-knit professional environment.  It takes great leadership, professional commitment from all, and trust among colleagues.  Cultivating that sense of professionalism, intentionality and trust in any school is no easy task, but it tends to come naturally in a smaller community.  

Great schools come in all sizes, but we are likely limiting our potential by biggering and biggering.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.