Bigger not always better

June 29, 2004

According to a researcher at Marshall University, there is no good research that shows whether it costs more to operate a small school than a big one. And, says Michael Hicks, how big or small a school is has no impact on student performance.

We beg to differ. A 1996 study by the University of Michigan found that how big or small a high school is does have an effect on how well students do.

This week the state School Building Authority was scheduled to discuss Hicks' report on "School Consolidation and Educational Performance: An economic analysis of West Virginia Schools."

Hicks discussed the report with The Associated Press, saying that while so-called "economies of scale" may be there, he hasn't seen a study that makes a good case for them.


His study also found how old a high school was didn't impact students' scores on standardized tests, although students in rural areas didn't do as well as those in more urban areas.

Hicks has a point when he says that because the state school-funding formula is based on the number of students enrolled and not on how efficiently the system serves them, it makes no sense to try to pass a law mandating efficiency.

But when Hicks said there's no study linking student performance to school size, he's in error.

In 1996, the University of Michigan released a study that looked at that very issue.

This was no small-sample look at school performance, but a nine-year study that tracked student progress on standard achievement tests at 800 schools across the U.S.

Students in schools with between 600 and 900 students showed the greatest progress in reading and math, no matter what their family's income was. In schools with a student body smaller or larger than the ideal, scores declined, with minority and low-income students experiencing the worst declines.

Hicks' conclusion is that more research is needed. We agree. Before state officials mandate consolidated schools with thousands of students because they feel it will save money, someone should look beyond the state's borders for other information on the link between school size and students' performance.

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