Small High Schools Get Thumbs Up From Parents

But teachers less enthused with schools large or small


NEW YORK -- Parents whose children attend small high schools are generally more satisfied with their public education experience than the parents of students enrolled in larger high schools. But high school teachers take a significantly dimmer view of the academic and social performance of schools regardless of size.

The results are contained in an indepth, nonpartisan survey of 801 parents of high schoolers nationwide regarding their personal experiences with large and small high schools that was released today by Public Agenda, a nonprofit organization. Parents of children in smaller high schools (500 or fewer students) report a better learning environment in many regards than those with children in schools with 1,500 or more students.

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the study is believed to be the first nationwide survey to weigh the experiences of parents, teachers, and students regarding the performance of large and small high schools. In New York, Chicago, Seattle, Oakland and other cities, the creation of small high schools has become an element of education reform.

Of the three groups we surveyed, parents were most enthusiastic about the small high school experience, said Deborah Wadsworth, Public Agenda's president. Small school parents are considerably happier on issues ranging from academic performance to student alienation. High school teachers, however, did not in many instances share a similarly positive reaction.

The results from this study demonstrate the value of small schools, said Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Parents with students in small schools are more satisfied with their school's academic rigor and the support their children receive. Small schools create safer and more respectful environments in which parents and teachers work together to help all students achieve.

In describing their own experiences with their local high schools, the parents of students attending smaller schools were more satisfied in a number of areas:

  • Small high schools were credited by 68 percent of their parents with setting high academic standards and pushing students to achieve, versus about half (53 percent) of large school parents;
  • Small school parents were happier with the number of students who score high on achievement tests (56-41 percent) and who learn to speak and write well (64-47 percent);
  • Three quarters of parents with students in small high schools were confident teachers identify and help struggling students; less than half (48 percent) of large school parents expressed such confidence;
  • Large school parents cited problems more frequently with students falling through the cracks (55-30 percent) and high dropout rates (43-21 percent);
  • Problems with overcrowding in classrooms, hallways and schools overall were cited more than twice as frequently by large school parents than small high school parents.

Advocates of small high schools contend that smaller schools offer a more close-knit environment, enhancing communication between students and with teachers. The experience of parents in the survey lends supporting evidence.

  • Nearly half (49 percent) of small high school parents believe students are respectful and civil towards one another, whereas 36 percent of large school parents report that is the case;
  • Student alienation and isolation was seen as less of a problem (23 percent) among small high school parents than large school parents (40 percent);
  • Bullying and harassment were reported more frequently (41-27 percent) by large school parents;
  • By a 44-21 percent margin, small school parents more often say they are very active in their schools.

A Different View from Teachers

The rosy view from small school parents, however, was not shared in many instances by teachers. In fact, regardless of school size, teachers generally rated conditions in their schools lower than parents.

For instance, while 80 percent of small school parents say their school spirit is strong, only 19 percent of teachers in small schools concur. In large schools, the gap between parents and teachers is 59-18 percent.

The view of 64 percent of small high school parents that students learn to speak and write well was shared by only 19 percent of teachers in small high schools; a 47-21 percent parent-teacher gap emerged in large high schools. In high schools large and small, only 24 percent of teachers said their students score high on achievement tests.

On the social front, just 22 percent of teachers in small high schools and 16 percent in large schools said students are respectful towards one another.

Students in the survey made few distinctions between small and large high schools, and most made clear they were happy with the existing size of their schools.

Parents and students were generally more upbeat about their schools and academic expectations, especially the parents with youngsters in small high schools, said Wadsworth. Teachers, on the other hand, were far more critical regarding the academic performance of their charges, and some of their complaints are quite unsettling given the drive to improve standards in our schools is now entering a second decade.

Not Ready for Primetime?

The survey results suggest that, for now, neither teachers nor parents see reducing school size as a top priority. Other reforms, such as reducing class size, instilling better discipline and increasing teacher pay, are equally valid and promising to both groups. Seven of 10 teachers surveyed said small classes are more important than small schools. Among parents, 47 percent said smaller classes are more important, while 43 percent said class and school size are equally important.

Public Agenda's research suggests that very few people outside the circle of reformers have yet to be really exposed to this idea, said Wadsworth. Small indeed may be attractive both intuitively and in actual experience. But neither parents nor teachers in this study have yet to identify large schools as their most serious concern.

Such a blank slate on this issue, however, can offer an opportunity for sober discussion at the local level for incorporating small schools as part of a menu for school reform, she added.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 70 percent of high school students attend schools with more than 1,000 students. Numerous cities have been actively pursuing initiatives to reverse the trend towards large high schools and the federal government has offered financial support to schools in 39 states through the Smaller Learning Communities Program.

The Public Agenda survey, which did not focus on model small schools, was conducted last year of parents, teachers and students selected randomly from across the country. Most of the respondents for smaller high schools reside in rural areas; most in large high schools come from cities or the suburbs.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation supports the development of new, small focused high schools and the transformation of large struggling schools into smaller, personalized learning communities. Public Agenda, a nonprofit organization with a 25-year history of conducting nonpartisan public opinion research, takes no position on the small schools issue and exercised complete discretion in undertaking its research. Public Agenda takes full responsibility for the study results.

Public Agenda's Web site ( includes a summary of the findings, data charts and other information related to the report. A complete copy of the report can be downloaded from the site at no charge until March 13, 2002. A print copy of the report is also available from Public Agenda for $10, plus $2 shipping and handling.

Sizing Things Up: What Parents, Teachers and Students Think about Large and Small High Schools, by Jean Johnson, Ann Duffett, Steve Farkas and Kathleen Collins, is based on three nationwide surveys with 801 parents of children in public high schools, 920 public high school teachers and 1,008 public high school students. The surveys of parents and teachers were conducted in spring 2001, and the survey of students was conducted in fall 2001. In preparation for the fielding of the surveys, Public Agenda conducted 11 focus groups, a thorough literature review and a series of in-depth interviews with education experts. The margin of error for each of the parent, teacher and student samples was plus or minus three percentage points.

Public Agenda is a national nonpartisan, nonprofit public opinion research organization, located in New York City, and is well respected for its influential public opinion polls and its balanced citizen education materials. Founded in 1975 by Cyrus R. Vance, the former U.S. secretary of state, and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, its mission is to inform leaders about the public's views and to inform citizens about government policy.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is dedicated to improving people's lives by sharing advances in health and learning with the global community. Led by Bill Gates' father, William H. Gates, Sr., and Patty Stonesifer, the Seattle-based foundation has an asset base of $24.2 billion.

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