Is Smaller Better When it Comes to School Learning Environments?

Small high schools don’t necessarily provide better learning environments than large schools, finds a new study from the Institute for Education and Social Policy published online in Economics of Education Review.

“Our results challenge the conventional wisdom that the higher academic performance of students in small schools is driven by a better learning environment,” said Leanna Stiefel, professor of economics at NYU Wagner and Steinhardt and associate director of the Institute for Education and Social Policy.

Over the past two decades, high school reform has been characterized by a belief that “smaller is better.” Behind the link between school size and academic outcomes is the belief that small schools provide a better learning environment than large schools, promoting safety, motivation, and a sense of connectedness that fosters student learning.

However, there is little evidence showing that small schools lead to better learning environments. Moreover, recent studies in New York City have shown that students attending newly created small schools do better academically relative to students attending both large and older established small schools.

In their study, the researchers explored the impact of attending large versus small high schools on students’ learning environments, considering the differences between small New York City high schools formed in two different eras with different missions and resources.

The researchers use a unique data set of school and student-level data from New York City public high school students entering ninth grade in 2008-09 and 2009-10 to examine students’ attitudes about school learning environments along three dimensions: interpersonal relationships, academic expectations and support, and social behavior and safety.

Results show that a better learning environment may not be an inevitable by-product of small school size. The researchers found that students who attend small schools – both old and new – perceive better learning environments than students at large schools. However, using distance from a school to understand school attendance, the findings suggest that those positive perceptions are driven by students choosing certain high schools. As a result, the researchers found no statistically significant difference between small and large schools.

“Our findings are consistent with the possibility that small schools may simply attract students who have higher regard for their learning environments or are predisposed to report satisfaction with their schools,” said Amy Ellen Schwartz, director of the NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan Chair in Public Affairs at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

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