Research: Small Schools

Kathleen Cotton, “School Size, School Climate, and Student Performance.” NWREL, 1996.

Research has repeatedly found small schools to be superior to large schools on most measures and equal to them on the rest. This holds true for both elementary and secondary students of all ability levels and in all kinds of settings.


Stanford University Evaluation of Oakland’s New Small Schools. Powerpoint Presentation, School Board Meeting, October 1, 2008

An evaluation of Oakland Unified School District’s Small Schools, conducted by a team led by Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, finds that new small schools have “added value” to student achievement in Oakland, which means they improve student learning at a higher rate than existing schools at all levels, and especially at the high school level. Results vary by school, but more mature schools add more value than newer schools.

Key findings from the report include:

On Student Learning:

  • New small schools get better over time. New schools become more effective and more “productive” (are better able to accelerate achievement) as they mature.
  • Small school design features such as personalization (smaller classes, block scheduling, home visits), project-based learning, career-technical education, advisories, and interdisciplinary courses are critical to increased achievement.
  • Flexibility in instruction, including modified uses of the Open Court literacy curriculum in elementary schools, yielded higher achievement.
  • Community outreach and collaboration play a significant role in school success.

On District Policies and Practices:

  • Results Based Budgeting provides an effective means for schools to decide how resources will be allocated, allowing them to spend funds on what students need most.
  • The district new school “Incubator” was instrumental for supporting the creation of both “turnaround” schools and new small schools.
  • Network Executive Officer support for entrepreneurial and innovative principals is key.
  • High teacher turnover rates and high percentages of first and second-year teachers negatively impact student achievement. OUSD should expand efforts to recruit, retain, and support teachers.

On School Closures:

  • Schools should be evaluated based on their “return on investment,” how much student achievement is produced for the money that is spent, and on the cost of student failure. This should be a consideration in addition to immediate fiscal costs.
  • Schools that are working for students should be developed and expanded. If they are too small, the district should work with staff and community members to increase enrollment to “target” level.
  • The district must have a thoughtful strategy if they choose to merge schools, which includes consideration of such important factors as school culture, design, and curricular focus. Failure to consider these factors will hurt achievement.

The bottom line: The report confirms that small schools are working. Achievement is on the rise, thanks to dedicated staff and parents who have designed schools that meet the academic and personal needs of their students. Autonomies like Results Based Budgeting, teacher-centered professional development, and curricular flexibility have been key to achieving academic goals.


An Evaluation of the Oakland New Small School Initiative. Strategic Measurement & Evaluation, Inc. September 2007.

In October 2007 the Oakland Unified School District released an external evaluation that demonstrates that the new small schools supported by the National Equity Project have accelerated student learning as measured by California Standards Tests. The evaluation also showed that graduation rates have increased greatly, and that students, parents, and teachers are more satisfied with new small schools than with other schools.