Press Room




Tom Vander Ark - Testimony for the House Appropriations Committee

May 22, 2001
Remarks by Tom Vander Ark, former executive director, Education

Small Schools
The standards movement has created a sense of urgency and focus for educators across the United States. Standards have helped define what students need to know and be able to do, tests help measure progress, and accountability systems ensure continuous improvement. But no part of this movement has addressed the conditions that are most conducive for student learning – that is, what makes a good school – particularly at the high school level.

While much attention has been given to elementary and middle schools, high schools have been largely left behind in the education reform movement. Today's high school students go through school with little adult contact and often no guidance. Many schools lack high expectations or only challenge the top 10 percent, leaving most students wandering aimlessly in a general track. Those that graduate are not prepared for higher education or for the challenges of the new society. But a growing number of schools are bucking this trend and they all have one thing in common: they are small.

Fatal Flaws of Large Comprehensive High Schools
The size of the average American high school has doubled since most of us were in school. Otherwise, they operate much as they have for over 50 years. The rapid change in our society has rendered our schools, especially our large comprehensive high schools obsolete. They simply do not work for most students. Economically disadvantaged minority students attending urban high schools are as likely to drop out as they are to graduate. And many of those that graduate find themselves ill-prepared to get and keep a family wage job. As former governor Jim Hunt put it, "This is an area where we have made terrible mistakes in America… Too many schools are just too big."1 Today over 60 percent of this country's high school students attend schools with more than 1000 students.2

Large comprehensive high schools have two fatal flaws – they are large and comprehensive. Large factory schools render teachers and students anonymous and anonymity is the enemy of community and learning. Students in large schools are less likely to connect with a teacher or with a content area in which they can deeply explore a subject. Comprehensive schools attempt to be everything to everyone. Students, with little adult contact, are expected to have the insight and perseverance to navigate a complex course catalog toward a desired future. Most take the path of least resistance, accumulating points and credits toward graduation with little sense of where they are headed or how anything they learn will apply to life after high school.

Another Way: Small Schools
Decades of research have shown that high schools with fewer than 400 students (no more than 100 per grade level) provide the most benefits to students. These benefits include higher student attendance, motivation, graduation rates, and college attendance; improved school climate and safety; greater parent and community involvement; and higher staff satisfaction.3 The benefits of a more intimate environment are most significant for economically disadvantaged students. It's no accident that elite private schools limit their enrollment to 400 students. If we are serious about helping all students achieve, it is time that we provide the benefits enjoyed by private schools students to our neediest young people.

Small schools can operate effectively on the same per pupil allocation as large schools (and with a much lower cost per graduate), but the funding must be streamlined and flexible. Large schools can broken up into small schools with little or no capital investment. It does, however, take shared motivation, outside expertise, community engagement, and time and resources to make the difficult conversion. The Department of Education, the Carnegie Corporation, Open Society Institute, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have been the leading outside funders of this important work.

Small size is necessary but not sufficient to create a great school. Schools that help all students achieve exhibit a common set of characteristics:

  • Staff and students are focused on a few important goals.
  • Staff has high expectations for all students and a shared vision of good teaching.
  • Staff has time to collaborate to improve instruction and meet shared challenges.
  • Instruction and promotion are based on demonstrated learning.
  • Every student has an advocate at school.
  • The school environment promotes respect and responsibility.
  • Technology is used as an effective teaching and learning tool.
There are hundreds of great small schools around the country that embody these attributes. Some communities and school districts have even adopted small schools policies (Oakland, CA) or have actively encouraged the creation of small schools (New York City, Chicago). Most charter schools are small and many share these attributes.

Schools that Work
The Julia Richman High School in mid-town Manhattan used to have a graduation rate of 25 percent. Built in 1923 as an all-girl's commercial high school and named for one of the pioneers in American public education, the school was closed about 10 years ago and redesigned to better meet the needs of all students. The school, now named the Julia Richman Education Complex, houses four small, focused high schools, one K-8 school, a school for autistic children, and a day care center. Graduation rates hover around 90 percent with an equal number of students continuing in higher education. The center works because each school is autonomous, focused and able to give students individual attention. And by sharing one large facility, the small schools have access to all of the amenities of a big school: two gyms, performing arts facilities, a pool, a big library, etc.

In rural Minnesota a different small school model has attracted national attention. The Minnesota New Country School, serving students grades 7-12, was created seven years ago by a group of educators and parents. This education-community coalition believed a personalized, technology-infused, project-based secondary school model could create a stronger teaching and learning environment where every student excels. Every student has his or her own workstation and a teacher advisor who provides guidance and direction to that student over the course of the student's time at the school. No student is anonymous. It is one of only seven schools in southern Minnesota whose entire senior class passed the state's basic skills requirement before graduating.

Mountlake Terrace High School, a suburban school north of Seattle with almost 1,900 students, began conversations about redesign with help from a Department of Education Smaller Learning Communities grant. With two different start times, three lunch periods and such a large student population that few staff know all their students' names, students often get lost and feel no connection to the school. Even staff complain that they don't even know each other. The school is now preparing to break itself into academies (possibly including an academy of performing arts; fine arts and humanities; and math, science and technology), and within each academy students will be grouped in cohorts of about 300 students. The school is on the path to becoming a multiplex, with high expectations and improved personalized learning opportunities for all students.

Small schools are not all cut of the same cloth. We find good small schools in New York sharing a larger structure, in rural areas standing alone, in suburbia beginning the conversion process, and others are focused on serving special populations, each with a unique pedagogical, thematic, or occupational focus. But we still find too few, especially for the most disadvantaged students in society.

High Schools: Focus of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has decided to focus its education work at the high school level because high schools are the largest, least effective and most intransigent schools in our system. With a two-pronged approach of creating new small high schools and breaking up big ineffective schools, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation hopes to build on the momentum of the growing "small schools movement."

This movement has spawned hundreds of exceptional small schools around the country in the last five years. Small schools work better for most students, especially economically disadvantaged students and students of color. While still largely unnoticed by practitioners and school boards, the evidence of these schools' success is overwhelming and growing every month.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed more than $250 million to help schools around the country redesign using the principles described above. The goal is nothing less than the transformation of our secondary schools. Grants are given in the following areas:

Washington State School Grants: About 100 grants will be made to Washington state schools. At a select number of the high schools engaged in serious reform, students will be eligible for full college scholarships.
District Grants: Grants to promote redesign efforts throughout school districts and to promote supportive district infrastructure have been made to 10 districts and a Catholic diocese in Washington state, two districts in Rhode Island and six districts in Alaska.
Networks of Schools: Grants were made to eight promising organizations for the development of networks of high achieving, small schools.
Urban High School Grants: Grants were made in Cincinnati, St. Paul, Oakland, New York, and Denver to promote new small schools and the transformation of large comprehensive schools into small effective schools.
Schools in each of these programs typically spend the first year planning (grants are typically five-year grants) including site visits, research reviews, and public outreach. Teachers work together to adopt or develop a coherent and effective design. Guided by trained consultants, the staff develops a comprehensive, multi-year plan. Subsequent grant years are spent implementing this plan. The foundation uses national and local firms to conduct a thorough evaluation including various measures of student achievement, perception surveys, self- reporting, and direct observation.

Looking Forward
America's high schools have gone neglected for far too long. There is no panacea for improving them, but there is a conclusive body of research that provides good direction. Size matters. We are losing too many students, students who start high school as freshmen and drop-out, or skate by gaining few skills and little knowledge. Creating smaller, more personalized learning environments where every student is held to high expectations works. Students stay in school, are more motivated and achieve at higher levels.

Changing an American tradition is not easy. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with a number of other private philanthropies, has dedicated considerable resources to this challenge, but it will take collaboration across many sectors to affect real change. Private dollars are not the solution but can help both to leverage public investments and to be an impetus for change. There is growing consensus that our public high schools are not working; it is time for us to recognize this injustice and support true redesign efforts.

1First in America: An Education Governor Challenges North Carolina, James B. Hunt, Jr., 2001.

2 US Department of Education (1998).

3 Findings from the following recent studies are referenced. Small Schools, Great Strides, Bank Street College of Education(6/00): A comprehensive study of Chicago's small schools, found that students in these small schools had higher grade point averages, significantly lower dropout rates, and better attendance rates than their peers in larger urban schools.

Results of Four-State Study: Smaller Schools Reduce Harmful Impact of Poverty on Student Achievement, Rural Schools and Community Trust (2/00): Researchers found small schools can combat the negative effects of poverty on student achievement and help narrow the achievement gap that separates poor students from their affluent peers.

Affective and social benefits of small-scale schooling, Cotton, K. (1996, December). ERIC Digest, Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. EDO-RC-96-5. Available:

This digest outlines characteristics of the body of research on school size, including research on: feelings and attitudes, social behavior, "why smaller is better", school size and educational equity, and school-within-a-school plans.
Effects on Budgets and Performance in New York City, the American Education Research Association (spring 2000): Study finds that small academic and large high schools are similar in terms of budgets per graduate. Because the literature on school size indicates that small high schools are more effective for minority and poor students, the similarity in cost for small and large high schools suggests that policymakers might do well to support the creation of more small high schools.
American Education Research Association  

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