Friday, December 02, 2005

In education, is bigger better?

Jay Mathews, a Washington Post Education Reporter, recently had an article about issues of very large high schools. These are high schools with more than four thousand students. The article covers some of the pluses and minuses of having such large groups of children.

I don't have a strong opinion about what is the ideal size for a high school. I do think when there are enough students, it should be bigger than 50, and 5,000 is too many. I went to a high school of about 2,200 students. I knew a number of students who felt overwhelmed or a bit lost. It is clearly useful to have some scale, but at some point really large groups become very hard to manage and deal with. I don't remember ever talking with the principal, and only talking with a guidance councilor once or twice.

Malcolm Gladwell in "The Tipping Point" (page 179) talks about how biologically there seems to be a nature size of people for an individual to know:
"The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with
whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that
goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us."

If it is important for the principal to know all the students at his school, then maybe schools should only have about 200. It seem like a high school with 4000 or more students is too big.

All of this is for setting the groundwork for an article about the size of school districts, the next level up. CampusReportOnline has a column by Lindalyn Kakadelis about the problems with mammoth school districts. A school district in Miami-Dade County has more than 360,000 students!!!

Here are some of the points made in the column:

1) "larger systems disenfranchise parents and students by weakening local control over schools"
2) "An accumulating pile of data indicates that these enormous districts actually cost more than they save, both financially and academically"
3) "Mike Antonucci, in an Alexis de Tocqueville Institution study, found that as district size increases, the percentage spent on teachers, books, and teaching materials actually goes down."

The column goes on to say that many parents are starting to push to for smaller school districts. This does seem like a very good idea. A school district with hundreds of thousands of students is way too big to manage.

Update I (5 Dec 05)

EdWonk has a post and a link to an article about some school district consolidation in Maine. Currently the average school district is 734 students versus a national average of 3,177. Interesting contrast to school districts of hundreds of thousands of students.

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