A historical overview of the literature on high school size, 1900-1980
Miletto, Steven Robert
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This study systematically examined the literature on high school size from 1900 to 1980 to determine the issues of high school size during that era, to identify the methods in which the educators addressed those issues, to reveal the findings from research related to high school size, and to ascertain the relevance of past practices for today’s educators. Prior to 1900, few children attended public high schools and in the 1980s the small schools movement began therefore the study focused on the era from 1900 to 1980. From the early 1900s to 1980, high school size was an important issue in secondary school reform efforts. Research sought to identify the effects that school size had on students and hoped to identify an optimal size for a high school. Yet, throughout this literature, no universal definition for small, large, and optimum size high schools emerged in the first 50 years of the 20th century. The numbers of high schools with fewer than 100 students dominated the United States. These high schools became the target of efficiency and cost-effectiveness experts as prevalent opinion celebrated the large high school. The view was that larger high schools had the resources to offer a varied comprehensive curriculum, whereas small high schools wasted financial resources. Small schools were associated with problems of teacher retention, teacher quality, curriculum composition, curriculum quality, number of extra-curriculum offerings, adequacy of equipment, adequacy of facilities, budgeting constraints, impact of school size on student/teacher relationships, and the impact of school size on college achievement. Educators addressed these problems by reorganizing and consolidating schools and districts to overcome budget shortfalls. Additional financial assistance from state and federal governments assisted schools and districts with paying the costs of operating schools. Larger schools tended to have access to more resources and better equipment and facilities. Larger schools attracted certified teachers from all areas because they paid more and offered better opportunities for teaching and promotion. Small schools shared teachers with other schools and districts, used the principal as a teacher, and hired non-certified teachers. Larger schools usually had the resources to offer a comprehensive curriculum and extra-curricular offerings while smaller schools became creative with the schedule, looked to hire teachers with multiple certifications, and primarily offered a college preparatory selection. Research found that the smaller the school, the greater the costs and that too many variables influenced achievement other than size, which meant that arriving at an optimal size high school remained elusive. The same issues of school size that the educators of 1900 to 1980 addressed are still concerns. An examination of past problems related to high school size and how educators resolved them can hopefully add perspective and even identify promising practices for addressing such problems today.
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