Skip Navigation
archived information

Ask a REL Response

Research on Small Schools — February 2021


Can you provide research on the pros and cons of small schools?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and resources on the pros and cons of small schools. The sources we searched included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Access to the full articles is free unless indicated otherwise.

Research References

Bloom, H. S., Unterman, R., Zhu, P., & Reardon, S. F. (2020). Lessons from New York City’s small schools of choice about high school features that promote graduation for disadvantaged students. Journal of Policy Analysis & Management, 39(3), 740–771. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “The present paper uses a rich dataset based on naturally-occurring lotteries for 68 new small non-selective high schools in New York City, which we refer to as small schools of choice (SSCs), to address two related questions: (1) What high school features are promising levers for increasing graduation rates for disadvantaged students? and (2) What high school features helped to produce SSCs’ positive impacts on graduation rates? Our findings provide suggestive evidence that school leadership quality, teacher empowerment, teacher mutual support, teacher evaluation and feedback, teacher professional development, data-driven instruction, teacher/parent communication, academic rigor, personalized learning, and teacher/student respect are promising levers for increasing graduation rates for disadvantaged students. Our findings also provide suggestive evidence that many of these school features explain part of the total average SSCs effect on graduation rates, although most of this average effect remains unexplained. Lastly, our findings indicate that SSCs are clearly distinguishable from their counterfactual counterparts in terms of school features that were emphasized by SSCs funders.”

Edmunds, J. A., Unlu, F., Glennie, E., Bernstein, L., Fesler, L., Furey, J., & Arshavsky, N. (2017). Smoothing the transition to postsecondary education: The impact of the early college model. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 10(2), 297–325. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Developed in response to concerns that too few students were enrolling and succeeding in postsecondary education, early college high schools are small schools that blur the line between high school and college. This article presents results from a longitudinal experimental study comparing outcomes for students accepted to an early college through a lottery process with outcomes for students who were not accepted through the lottery and enrolled in high school elsewhere. Results show that treatment students attained significantly more college credits while in high school, and graduated from high school, enrolled in postsecondary education, and received postsecondary credentials at higher rates. Results for subgroups are included.”

REL West note: Because the early college school model discussed in the article is also considered a type of small school, we include it here because of its relevance to the request.

Hughes, R., Silver, D., Thompson, S., & Unterman, R. (2012). Linking research and practice in New York: A New York City small schools of choice case study. Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Over the last decade, New York City (NYC) has been the site of a systemwide high school reform effort that is unprecedented in its scope and pace. Since 2002, the school district has closed more than 20 failing high schools, opened more than 200 new secondary schools, and implemented a centralized high school admission process in which approximately 80,000 students a year indicate their school preferences from a wide-ranging choice of programs. At the heart of these reforms lie the new schools that are often referred to as ‘small schools of choice’ (SSCs)—small, academically nonselective, public high schools that were opened between 2002 and 2008. Serving approximately 100 students per grade in grades 9 through 12 and open to students at all levels of academic achievement, the SSCs were created to serve the district’s most disadvantaged and historically underserved students. By taking advantage of a naturally-occurring lotteries in the NYC Department of Education’s high school application process, MDRC researchers are able to estimate the effects of enrolling in SSCs on students’ future academic outcomes using a sample of over 20,000 students. In this proposed panel, Rebecca Unterman, an author on MDRC’s small schools of choice studies, will share the project’s most recent findings and discuss the team’s experiences working to bridge the gap between policy and practice in New York. The other panelists, experienced policymakers in NYC, will provide their perspective on the effects of the study (and other research) on their practice.”

Kahne, J.E., Sporte, S.E., de la Torre, M., Easton, J.Q. (2008). Small high schools on a larger scale: The impact of school conversions in Chicago. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 30(3), 281-315. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: This study examines 4 years of small school reform in Chicago, focusing on schools formed by converting large traditional high schools into small autonomous ones. Analyzing systemwide survey and outcome data, the authors assess the assumptions embedded in the reform’s theory of change. They find that these schools are characterized by more collegial and committed teacher contexts and more academically and personally supportive student contexts. There is some evidence of decreased dropout rates and increased graduation rates for the first cohort of students but not for the second cohort. The authors do not find stronger instruction, nor do they find student achievement has improved. They discuss implications for reformers and policy makers who are interested in small schools in particular and high school reform in general.

Kohler, E. A., Onwuegbuzie, A. J., Combs, J. P., Bustamante, R. M., & Edmonson, S. L. (2015). School size and incidents of violence among Texas middle schools. Journal of Educational Issues, 1(1), 151–163. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Although many studies have been conducted regarding (a) school violence in middle schools and (b) the size of schools, to date, no researcher appears to have examined the role that the size of the middle school plays in determining incidents of violence specifically fighting, assaults, and aggravated assaults. Thus, the purpose of this study was to examine the relationship between the incidents of school violence, specifically fighting, assaults, and aggravated assaults, and the size of middle schools in the state of Texas for 3 school years. All 842 middle schools in Texas were included in this study. Compared to small schools, medium schools, and large schools, very small schools had a statistically significantly lower proportion of students involved in assaults, proportion of students involved in aggravated assaults, proportion of incidents of assaults, and proportion of incidents of aggravated assaults. Further, very small schools had a statistically significantly lower proportion of students involved in fights and proportion of incidents of fights than did large schools. A trend emerged across the 4 school sizes for all 6 indicators of school violence, which, in every case, reflected a sharp increase from very small schools to small schools—peaking at small schools. Thus, very small schools appear to be at a greater advantage than are other types of schools with respect to incidents of school violence. Implications of the findings are discussed.”

Muir, E. (2001). Smaller schools: How much more than a fad? American Educator, 24(4), 40–46. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “The movement back to smaller schools is not just another fad, but there are many questions about the effects of school size that need to be addressed (e.g., the effect of school size on student achievement; the importance networking between students, parents, and teachers; cost differences; and long-term social benefits for students).”

REL West note: Although this article was published in 2001, we include it here because of its relevance to the request.

Raywid, M. A. (1997). Small schools: A reform that works. Educational Leadership, 55, 34–39. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “Part of a special section on equity in education. Large-scale studies comparing student performance in large and small schools have consistently found that small schools improve student achievement, especially the performance of disadvantaged students. In small schools, minority and lower-achieving students seem to do better, as marginal or at-risk students are much more likely to become involved, to make an effort, and to achieve. Small schools are also far more likely to be violence-free, have better behaved students, and have less students drop out. The characteristics of successful small schools are small size, an organizational structure that departs significantly from the conventional, a setting that operates more like a community than a bureaucracy, and a logical progression taking the school that is adequately supported from one item on the reform agenda to the next. Small schools offer a promising strategy for realizing a number of the goals of current reformers.”

REL West note: Although this article was published in 1997, we include it here because of its relevance to the request.

Rodgers, K. (2014). With liberty and justice for some: A philosophical argument in opposition to the small schools movement in New York City. Philosophical Studies in Education, 45, 125–135. Full text available from

From the abstract: “The small school movement originated in the democratic ideology of Deborah Meier, who sought to create schools that gave students, parents, teachers, and all stakeholders in the communities they served a voice in education. In New York City, Meier’s vision was implemented haphazardly by a group of business and political elites able to pour millions of dollars into an initiative without carefully considering the complex interests involved in creating new small schools. According to this author, this lack of forethought placed students and parents at an even greater disadvantage than had existed previously. It was thought that the creation of small schools of choice would provide students, parents, and families the most appropriate education for their children, and that free market practices would create an environment of increased accountability and transparency, which would improve educational outcomes for all students. The author argues that these measures failed to improve educational equity and opportunities for students, and that they also placed students most in-need at an even greater disadvantage, thus hurting the very children these laws were created to help. She supports this argument using a critique of neoliberalism in the context of education as defined by Michael Apple, John Rawls’s original position, and the application of Rawls’s position in an educational context by Barry Bull.”

Slate, J. R., & Jones, C. H. (2005). Effects of school size: A review of the literature with recommendations. Essays in Education, 13, 1–24. Full text available from

From the abstract: “A literature review on the effects of school size on educational quality is presented. The research on the effects of school size has yielded results that are contrary, that is different, rather than contradictory. This reflects the fact that the effects of school size are complex and vary depending upon a number of factors. Nonetheless, the research does show that both very small and very large schools are negatively related to school quality as, in both cases, the school will lack the appropriate resources to serve students effectively. Recommendations for researchers and for school boards and administrators are provided.”

REL West note: Although this article was published in 2005, we include it here because of its relevance to the request.

Stiefel, L., Schwartz, A. E., & Wiswall, M. (2015). Does small high school reform lift urban districts? Evidence from New York City. Educational Researcher, 44(3), 161–172. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Research finds thatsmall high schools deliver better outcomes than large high schools for urban students. An important outstanding question is whether this better performance is gained at the expense of losses elsewhere: Does small school reform lift the whole district? We explore New York City’s small high school reform in which hundreds of new small high schools were built in less than a decade. We use rich individual student data on four cohorts of New York City high school students and estimate effects of schools on student outcomes. Our results suggest that the introduction of small schools improved outcomes for students in all types of schools: large, small, continuously operating, and new. Small school reform lifted all boats.”

Unlu, F., Edmunds, J., Fesler, L., & Glennie, B. (2015). A preliminary assessment of the cost and benefit of the North Carolina’s early college high school model and its impact on postsecondary enrollment and earned college credit. Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness. Full text available from

From the abstract: “The changing nature of the U.S. economy has fostered concerns that too few students are successfully completing postsecondary education (Achieve, 2004). Three quarters of those who enter high school graduate within four years, with approximately 70 percent of those graduates enrolling immediately in some form of postsecondary education (Ross et al., 2012). Of those who do attend, insufficient numbers complete a degree with only a little less than half (49%) of beginning postsecondary students attaining some sort of a postsecondary credential within six years of enrolling (Ross et al., 2012). As a result, there have been numerous initiatives to increase the number of students who graduate from high school prepared to enroll and progress in postsecondary education. One approach is the Early College High School (ECHS or early college) model, small schools that blur the line between high school and college. The primary goal of the early college model is to increase the number of students who graduate from high school and who continue on to and succeed in college. This paper presents results from a longitudinal experimental study that is examining the impact of early colleges on students’ outcomes in high school and in postsecondary (PS) education, specifically on postsecondary enrollment and college credit accrual during and after high school. Early results from this study show that the Early College High School model is increasing students’ enrollment in postsecondary education, primarily by the required exposure in high school. The results show that, as is inherent in its design, the program is successful in providing early access to college. This paper also reports results from a detailed cost and benefit analysis of the early college model.”

REL West note: Because the early college school model discussed in the article is also considered a type of small school, we include it here because of its relevance to the request.

Unterman, R., & Haider, Z. (2019). New York City’s small schools of choice: A first look at effects on postsecondary persistence and labor market outcomes. MDRC. Full text available from

From the abstract: “In 2002, the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) launched a bold set of education reforms designed to transform the educational experiences of all high school students: They instituted a district-wide high school choice process that assigned all rising ninth-graders to specific high schools; they closed large, low-performing high schools; and they created over 100 new small schools to serve students in the lowest-income areas of the city. Because these small schools are located in the communities they intended to serve, do not screen students based on their prior academic achievement, and thus represent a realistic small school option for many students who previously did not have one, MDRC researchers call these new schools Small Schools of Choice (SSCs). This brief examines whether the positive effects of SSCs translate into impacts on students’ postsecondary degree attainment and performance in the labor market. While nonexperimental research suggests that high school graduates are employed at higher rates and earn more than those who do not graduate, few experimental studies have followed students from high school into postsecondary education and the labor market, and it is unclear how far an effective four-year high school intervention can reach. Findings from the few studies that have been conducted are mixed. Some show that, after students leave high school, any effects on postsecondary education quickly begin to fade; others show that after a reasonable length of time—eight years or more—high school interventions can improve students’ future labor market performance.”

Wasley, P. A., Fine, M., Gladden, M., Holland, N. E., King, S. P., Mosak, E., & Powell, L. C. (2000). Small schools: Great strides. A study of new schools in Chicago. Bank Street College of Education. Full text available from

Book description: “This book documents a two-year study and analysis of small schools in Chicago. Using a mixed-method study, gathering both quantitative and qualitative data, the research serves to compare results to previous studies of small urban schools. The study examines the effects of small schools on students, parents, teachers, and community members. Both previous and current research suggest that small school size is correlated with an increase in student attendance, performance, and better sense of community overall.”

REL West note: Although this article was published in 2000, we include it here because of its relevance to the request.

Additional Organization to Consult

Academy for Educational Development (AED) –

From the website: “The Academy for Educational Development (AED) (1961–2011), was a nonprofit organization that focused on education, health, and economic development for the ‘least advantaged in the United States and developing countries throughout the world.’ AED operated more than 250 programs in the United States and in 150 other countries around the world.”

REL West note: AED has one resource that is relevant to this request:

Fancsali, C., Jaffe-Walter, R., Mitchell-McKnight, V., Nevarez, N., Orellana, E. W. R. L., & Academy for Educational Development. (2010). Small high schools at work: A case study of six Gates-funded schools in New York City. A report to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Academy for Educational Development. Full text available from

Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy –

From the website: “A nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, the Coalition seeks to increase government effectiveness through the use of rigorous evidence about what works. In the field of medicine, public policies based on scientifically-rigorous evidence have produced extraordinary advances in health over the past 50 years. By contrast, in most areas of social policy – such as education, poverty reduction, and crime prevention – government programs often are implemented with little regard to evidence, costing billions of dollars yet failing to address critical social problems. However, rigorous studies have identified a few highly-effective program models and strategies (‘interventions’), suggesting that a concerted government effort to build the number of these proven interventions, and spur their widespread use, could bring rapid progress to social policy similar to that which transformed medicine. ”

REL West note: The Coalition has one resource that is relevant to this request:

Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy. (2015). Evidence summary for New York City’s small schools of choice. Author. Full text available from

Community Works Institute (CWI) –

From the website: “At CWI, we believe that all students should have learning opportunities—centered on the local community—that inform and empower them as inquisitive, empathetic, and well informed citizens prepared to lead rewarding and successful lives as active contributing members of their community. We build educators’ capacity to design and guide experiential learning projects that provide students with opportunities to use knowledge and essential skills to become involved with, understand, and contribute to the people and needs of their community.”

REL West note: CWI has one resource that is relevant to this request:

Brooks, J. (2016). Small schools: The myths, reality, and potential of small schools. Community Works Institute. Full text available from

GreatSchools –

From the website: “GreatSchools is the leading national nonprofit empowering parents to unlock educational opportunities for their children. We provide school information and parenting resources to help millions of American families choose the right school, support learning at home, and guide their children to great futures. ”

REL West note: GreatSchools has one resource that is relevant to this request:

GreatSchools. (2012). How important is school size? Which is better? Big or small? It all depends on what’s a good fit for your child. Author. Full text available from

Research Alliance for New York City Schools –

From the website: “The Research Alliance for New York City Schools conducts rigorous studies on topics that matter to the City’s public schools. We strive to advance equity and excellence in education by providing nonpartisan evidence about policies and practices that promote students’ development and academic success.”

REL West note: The Research Alliance for New York City Schools has one resource that is relevant to this request:

Villavicencio, A., & Marinell, W. H. (2014). Inside success: Strategies of 25 effective small high schools in NYC. Research Alliance for New York City Schools. Abstract available from and full text available from


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used:

[(“Small schools”) AND (pros OR cons OR benefits OR challenges) AND (research)]

Databases and Resources

We searched Google Scholar and ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2006 to present, were included in the search and review. However, three studies that were published before that date were included because of their relevance to the request.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.