Numerous studies have documented that small schools effectively boost student achievement, especially among at-risk students. A new research report published this month summarizes the vast research literature that explains just why small works in schooling.
The report, The Hobbit Effect: Why Small Works in Public Schools from the Rural School and Community Trust in the United States, identifies a number of research-based attributes of small schools that are proven to have a positive impact on students and their learning. These elements are either normally found in most small schools or are more common in smaller schools than in larger schools.
Among the key attributes identified are: greater participation in extra-curricular activities, increased school safety, and a greater sense of belonging. The report explores the evidence of each attribute’s impact and why it confers advantages on children.
A feature of the research findings is that a higher percentage of students in smaller schools participate in extra-curricular activities and in a wider variety of activities than students in larger schools. Extra-curricular participation is associated with several positive outcomes for students: they have more positive attitudes about their school experience and learning and they have higher self-esteem.
Another common finding of school size research is that smaller schools tend to be safer environments than larger schools. Small schools exhibit fewer violent incidents and experience less vandalism, theft, truancy, substance abuse, and gang participation. Large-scale national surveys, for example, show that reports of violence and discipline problems decrease with smaller school size.
An environment free from violence, threats, and bullying are prerequisites for effective learning/schooling. Students in safe settings learn more, are more focused, and feel more positively about school, subject matter, and learning in general. The report shows that smaller schools are safer because their climate fosters closer relationships between the adults and students, and among the students themselves. As a result, students feel more engaged with the school community and these close relationships are accompanied by greater mutual respect.
The author of the report, Lorna Jimerson, says the research evidence clearly documents that efforts underway in some US states to consolidate small schools (and small districts) are unnecessary, irrational, and imprudent. Far from improving student learning, these actions will divert energy and focus from effective school reform and will wrench children from community-centred schools that have the most likelihood of meeting their needs. “Rather than eradicating small schools, policymakers would be wise to invest in small schools and elements that make them effective and recognize that smallness is not a curse, but a blessing,” says Jimerson.
In addition, small schools are frequently the glue that binds together small communities, serving as their economic and social hub. Communities that lose their schools lose more than a building—they lose their collective cultural and civic centre.