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School organization: Full report

How do educators define engagement? Clearly, the notion of engagement is slippery. We each have our individual (perhaps even collective) understandings of what it entails—intrinsic motivation, joy of learning, teachers who make children love school—all elements that add up to schooling that excites and satisfies children’s natural curiosity. But when the rubber hits the road, as they say, everyone tends to look at school success as achieving adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

In an era when success is judged by the quantitative measures outlined in No Child Left Behind (NCLB), how much value should researchers place on trying to define engagement? Further, can the way a school is organized impact student engagement? There are many different ways that schools can be organized, from large, comprehensive schools to small or even one-grade structures—but which, if any, is the best for maximizing student engagement?

Engagement does have a presence in the quantitative pieces that contribute to AYP. Factors such as attendance and graduation rates may be indicators of student engagement; therefore, some research studies that include these factors are included in this review of literature.

Michael Cohen, in a 2001 report for Jobs for the Future and the Aspen Institute, lamented the state of high schools in this country. “Most high schools—in the face of dramatic changes in their external environments, their student bodies, and in societal expectations for the results they must produce—continue to use instructional approaches and organizational arrangements better suited for their old mission of sorting students for college or work, thinking or doing."

Although Cohen’s report focused on high schools, much of what it said can be easily transferred to elementary and middle schools. Cohen proposed a three-pronged approach for improvement: accelerating reform processes, making corrections to state standards and graduation requirements, and laying the groundwork for transformation. Many, even most, of the proposed actions were already being discussed and implemented in various places, but this report “packaged” them in a useful format.

Some of the actions proposed in Cohen’s report have clear connections to student engagement—mobilize community resources to support at-risk youth, create additional pathways that permit young people to learn at their own pace, and review standards to ensure they reflect the real-world application of knowledge. Other actions may have indirect impacts on student engagement, such as providing high-quality professional development for educators and aligning state standards with postsecondary admissions requirements.

As this review explores types of school organization and how various factors impact student engagement, it will touch on many policy and reform issues with indirect relationships to student engagement. In many cases, what we can learn about student engagement appears almost as an aside in studies about achievement; for example, when mentions of motivation and boredom appear, they seem likely to be indicators of engagement, or lack thereof.

So, with the caveat that scientifically based research about student engagement per se is thin, we begin by discussing various types of school organization.

Organizational approaches: What are they?

When the decisions for this literature review were being made, the question of whether a strategy was pedagogical or organizational arose more than once. No doubt some readers’ opinions will differ from the authors’, but the goal was to identify two types of organizational approaches: ones that have become established (and, therefore, may have been studied) and ones that are emerging, for watching these may offer solutions that education leaders and policymakers may want to adopt.

Small learning communities. Several variations on the theme of small learning communities have been implemented over recent years. All aim to provide more personalized attention to students than is possible to provide in large, comprehensive schools.

From 1995-1997, researchers Lee, Smith, and Croninger conducted several investigations of how the structure of secondary schools affects learning. Studies in 1995 and 1996 looked at schools that were restructuring; the researchers found positive effects related to student engagement and achievement, as well as the social (equitable) distribution of these outcomes. The authors extended the study using a longitudinal data source (NELS:88, which includes data on the same students as 8th, 10th, and 12th graders) to explore whether the positive effects persisted throughout high school and to discover which organizational attributes contributed to the effects. Methods used included hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) to analyze test scores of 9,570 seniors in 789 high schools, which were classified by structural practices. Among the variables included in the HLM models was one for school social organization, specifically collective responsibility for learning. Under academic organization, the researchers included academic press, which incorporates information about the morale of teachers and students. The findings from these areas showed school size emerging consistently as a factor that affected student outcomes. When Lee and Smith (1997) used a two-level model to analyze the same NELS data as used in earlier studies, the researchers found clear relationships between size and student achievement, with the optimal high school size being in the 600- to 900-student range. They suggest that, academically, this size is large enough for a varied curriculum but not so large that the curriculum becomes differentiated (i.e., tracked) and students don’t have equal access to learning. (Remember, however, that this work was done before distance learning became widely accessible. It would be interesting to see how or if the results of new research would vary.) Socially, say Lee and Smith, the optimal-size schools are advantaged by their ability to support collegial relationships among teachers and personalized learning environments for students.

The notion of downsizing has been part of school restructuring for many years. In 1996, Mary Anne Raywid reviewed 35 years of literature on small schools. She discussed reasons for downsizing and described types of small school interventions. Generally, the rationale for smaller units has been to better accommodate and support individual students, although other reasons have included better administrative coordination, disciplinary control, governance changes, curriculum reorganization, teacher teaming, and advisement. In some cases, the goal has been to accommodate particular populations, such as the most at-risk or the most academically talented. Whatever the initiating impulse, she found many studies that reported results from small school organizations that indicate advantages to student engagement. These include students who are “more satisfied” (Lindsay, 1982; Burke, 1987), more academically productive (Lee and Smith, 1993, 1994; Lee, Smith, and Croninger, 1995), more likely to participate in school activities (Barker and Gump, 1964; Lindsay, 1982), better behaved (Gottfredson, 1985), and less likely to drop out (Pittman and Haughwout, 1987)” (Raywid, p. 5). Increased equity is another goal or advantage ascribed to small schools, where, especially at the middle school level, the organization into smaller units supports detracking. In such cases, interest-based grouping and interdisciplinary curricula can enable heterogeneous grouping. Raywid acknowledges that downsizing “is not the fail-safe magic bullet which reform seekers continue to hope for." She concludes that “downsizing stimulates the move toward personalized ‘communal’ schools, which result in independent benefits with respect to enhancing student engagement and achievement."

In the 10 years following Raywid’s comprehensive review, Fouts and Associates conducted and reviewed research on small learning communities in high schools, much of which was supported by a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation initiative. According to the Fouts et al. report (2006), this research “found affective differences in the school environments but no clear impact on student learning." As one of the lessons learned, the report notes that structural changes that lead to small learning communities do not necessarily affect instruction or student outcomes. The small learning community must be a means to an end, not an end itself.

Ways to organize smaller schools. As leaders of large schools—mainly high schools—have looked for ways to establish smaller structures, a variety of strategies have been employed. These include schools-within-schools and separate smaller schools. The former approach, say some researchers (Lee and Smith, 1997; Allen and Steinberg, 2004), can produce good results for students in the smaller school but may ultimately result in “boutique” schools that leave many young people—often those who most need extra support—in the least desirable large schools. Converting large high schools into several smaller schools (within the same building), rather than nesting one small school within a large school, is an approach that has been tried in several places. In this approach, the original building becomes a “campus” and the former large bureaucracy is dissolved and replaced by smaller governing structures. Depending on the local plans, these smaller structures may vary in their degrees of autonomy.

As educators plan and implement smaller school strategies, they may take one of two approaches to the launch—what Allen and Steinberg (2004) call incremental and “big bang.” Both approaches have the same end goal—multiple small schools in place of one large school—they just take different amounts of time to reach that goal. And, along the way, the two approaches entail different growing (or, rather, shrinking) pains. When Allen and Steinberg reviewed the methods used by schools and districts from New York City to Sacramento, they found a great variety of local contexts that affected educators’ decisions. And, as one might guess, neither incremental nor “big bang” could be named the approach of choice; both had advantages, drawbacks, and trade-offs to consider.

Apart from launch time, another variation in small school design has to do with locus of control. The heavy lifting of making decisions about everything from staffing to instructional approach to specialization or theme (if there is to be one) may fall to state and district leaders alone or may involve intermediary organizations, such as a charter-management group. Yet a third possibility is a partnership between a district and community organizations. Allen and Steinberg (2004) discovered that the question of “inside” or “outside” control resembles the incremental vs. “big bang” question—neither approach is without its problems. If, say, an “outside” group has the freedom to hire staff who embrace a particular philosophy, there is less likely to be tension between the school’s veteran and new teachers. However, there is a greater likelihood of labor relations problems. The partnership strategy, too, can present quandaries. For example, community partners may bring much-needed strengths to the education setting, but it may be hard to clarify their roles and prevent their marginalization.

Educators in Baltimore and New York City have introduced various organizational structures for small high schools. Baltimore created two structures: (a) innovation schools, which are new, independent small schools with an outside locus of control; and (b) neighborhood schools, which were created by breaking up existing large high schools and retaining an inside locus of control. In New York, the city’s Office of Multiple Pathways to Graduation created two types of small schools to serve overage, under-credited students: (a) Transfer high schools, independent schools that enroll only students from the targeted population; and (b) Young Adult Borough Centers, which are hosted by other high schools but operate in the evening. More about the small schools in these cities appears later in this review.

Grade-span configurations/transition effects

While much of the recent research and innovation related to small schools has been centered on high schools, grade-span configurations and transition effects relate more strongly to middle school—at both the entry point from elementary school and the departure point for high school. In the 35 years since middle schools evolved, their fortunes have come and gone more than once. Over the past 10 to 15 years, many middle schools have reconfigured to K-8 schools, but the traditional configuration of 6-8 remains very common.

Several researchers have looked at the relationship between student outcomes and school grade spans, as well as how outcomes are affected by transitions between schools. With or without a change of schools, research has found changes in student achievement and behavior between eighth and ninth grades. When school transitions are factored in, some research (Alspaugh, 1999) shows that high school dropout rates rise as the grade level of the transition rises. Research on grade configuration (Franklin and Glascock, 1998) shows that students in K-12 schools tend to do better on measures of achievement and behavior than their peers in elementary and middle/junior high schools. These researchers note that K-12 schools tend to be small schools, with fewer students per grade than traditional schools.

Ninth-grade academies to help at-risk students make the transition from middle school to high school have been around for several years. One model that incorporates this structural element is the Talent Development High School, created by Johns Hopkins University. The model employs a Ninth Grade Success Academy that includes a freshman seminar and double-dose reading and math courses. This academy is a school-within-a-school, housed in its own area of the building and taught by interdisciplinary teams of teachers. Other components of the high school model are small teacher teams for all grades, block scheduling, extra help courses, an alternative Twilight School, on-site coaches and professional development for teachers, and an on-site facilitator to assist the school’s administrative team. In 1999, five large, high-poverty high schools in Philadelphia adopted the model. After 2 years of implementation (Philadelphia Education Fund, n.d.), suspensions in the Talent Development schools had declined by more than 40%. In the five schools, the number of arrests and fires were significantly lower than at other high schools in the city, making the Talent Development schools apparently safer than others. A later evaluation (Kemple, Herlihy, and Smith, 2005) followed cohorts through their high school years; the earliest cohorts were followed until graduation. Researchers also separated first-time ninth graders from repeating ninth graders and compared the academy’s effects on those students. When attendance rates for first-time ninth graders at the five Talent Development schools were compared to attendance rates of students at six other city schools, the percentage of students at the Talent Development with attendance rates of 90% or better increased by an average of nearly 8 percentage points. At the comparison schools, average attendance rates declined. Promotion rates for Talent Development students improved by an average of 8 percentage points, as compared to 2 percentage points at other schools. Although Talent Development schools graduated a higher percentage of students than comparison schools, only about a third of students graduated on time.

Some interesting recent research has examined the possibility of identifying disengaged students as early as sixth grade (Balfanz, Herzog, and Mac Iver, 2007). The researchers created a set of four predictor variables that help to identify sixth-grade students who are at risk of dropping out before high school graduation. The predictors are academic performance, indicators of misbehavior, attendance, and status variables (e.g., special education, English as a second language, overage). Once these students are identified, they can be supported in various ways. Beyond academic supports, school structure can provide small learning communities, teacher teams, and vertical looping to encourage strong teacher-student relationships. Interventions can focus on improving behavior and attendance and might include modeling of positive behavior and attendance, consistent responses to misbehavior, and teams of adults who look at data and work toward solutions. Simple shepherding—daily contacts with students to build relationships and provide feedback—can also be effective.

Early college high schools

Today’s early college high schools evolved from the middle college high school movement that began in the 1970s. The two organizational types share the goal of smoothing the transition between high school and college for at-risk students. While middle colleges have been located on college campuses and have concentrated on preparing underserved students for higher education, they have not always included dual enrollment as a feature of the curriculum. In middle colleges, students might attend a traditional 4-year high school program, then continue in the school for another 2 years while they take college courses. Early college high schools, however, give students the opportunity to earn up to 2 years of college credit as they complete their high school diplomas (Husted and Cavalluzzo, 2001; Jordan, Cavalluzzo, and Corallo, 2006).

In many ways, early college high schools (ECHSs) constitute a specialized part of the small schools movement. In recent years. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has underwritten various types of small school innovations, and the Early College High School Initiative is one; it includes as a Core Principle that school size should be small, about 100 students per grade. Working through intermediary organizations as grantors, and with Jobs for the Future as national overseer and facilitator, the Gates Foundation has provided funding for dozens of early college high schools. A national evaluation of the Gates initiative began in 2002 and continues through 2009. A March 2005 report by American Institutes for Research (AIR) and SRI International included data collected between January 2003 and October 2004 at 22 ECHSs around the United States. This discussion draws on that report and a series of evaluative case studies by Chadwick and colleagues on the initiative in Ohio (Chadwick, Hughes-Webb, O’Connor, Samanta, Howley, D’Brot, Hammer, and Hunter, 2008).

An ECHS may be a brand new autonomous school, a conversion of an existing school, or a school-within-a-school, though the latter is the least common organizational type. For any of these, physical location is an important consideration, and one that may be mandated by the intermediary organization. About half of the Gates-funded ECHSs are located on the campuses of their higher education partners, with the remaining high schools occupying their own off-campus buildings or sharing space with another high school. These organizational structures have their proponents and objectors. On the side of sharing the higher education campus are several arguments, many of which come from students: for example, spending all day on a college campus (even though many of the classrooms and courses are for high school content only) helps students become comfortable with the social aspects of college and helps them picture themselves continuing with college after high school. Although many ECHSs housed in district facilities send students to the partner college campus to attend college classes, a small subset of them have college instructors—or even high school teachers acting as college adjuncts—deliver college classes on the high school campus. In this situation, high school students have no opportunity to experience college life on even a part-time level, something the students say causes them anxiety about their ability to succeed in college.

ECHS students clearly feel they are getting better preparation for college and are more motivated to succeed in school than their peers in traditional high schools. Two main factors seem to contribute to this perception: (a) the Gates initiative mandates a high degree of rigor, as would be expected of a college preparatory school; and (b) most ECHS teachers form close relationships with their students, providing emotional and academic support to help them succeed in school. Because ECHS students are, by definition, from groups who might not have aspired to college in a traditional program, they often need these extra supports.

Distance learning/virtual schools

Most articles or reports about distance education written in the past 10 years describe the growth of virtual schools as “exploding.” The National Center for Education Statistics (2005) reviewed data from 2002-03 and reported that 36 percent of districts had distance learning courses, which represented approximately 328,000 student enrollments. By 2005-06, approximately 700,000 students were enrolled in virtual schools (Tucker, 2007). A 2007 survey of its 16 member states by the Southern Regional Education Board found 157,698 course enrollments in 14 states (2 states reported 0 enrollments), up from 48,131 in 2005.

Although the history of distance learning in this country goes back to a mail-based correspondence school founded by the University of Chicago in 1891 (Greenway and Vanourek, 2006), the first virtual school as we now think of it seems to have been created in 1995 by teachers in Eugene, Oregon. In the next year or so, virtual schools in Florida, Washington, and Connecticut appeared, and they were quickly followed by schools in nearly every other state in the nation.

Virtual schools come in a variety of configurations and serve a variety of purposes (Greenway and Vanourek, 2006; Rice, 2006; SREB, 2007; Tucker, 2007). Some students attend full-time virtual schools; these students may be home-schooled or unable to attend brick-and-mortar schools for reasons of health or parents’ employment (e.g., migrant or military families). Some students learn through a hybrid of virtual and traditional schooling that might mean attending school two days a week and working online three days a week. Other students use virtual schools to supplement their regular schooling, either to take courses that aren’t available at their home schools (such as Advanced Placement courses) or to retake courses they failed in the face-to-face setting. “Blended learning,” which combines online and face-to-face learning in the same course, is said to be an increasingly common delivery model.

Relatively little research has been done on virtual K-12 schools, although quite a bit of research on adult distance learning exists. Although most research on K-12 virtual education has not employed an experimental or quasi-experimental standard, there seems to be agreement that outcomes differ little from those of face-to-face courses (Greenway and Vanourek, 2006; Rice, 2006). Researchers and practitioners note that virtual learning has its pluses and minuses and may not be equally effective for every learner. For example, time management can be a problem for students who have not yet mastered independent study skills. A common reason given for dropping out of online courses is that students couldn’t keep up with the course requirements—sometimes because the course was too difficult and sometimes because of a lack of self-discipline. However, many students have positive experiences, citing the ability to personalize the course (a plus for gifted students) and the opportunity to fill gaps in the local curriculum (SREB, 2007).

Given the continuing growth of virtual schooling, Greenway and Vanourek note some important questions that need to be answered: “which types of virtual schools work, under what conditions, with which students, with which teachers, and with what training” (2006). These authors also note that “putting the word ‘virtual’ in front of the word ‘school’ doesn’t make it good, bad, or even innovative anymore. What matters is the school’s ability to educate children.” They caution policymakers and administrators to pay attention to the practice, not the technology, and to avoid applying “conventional bureaucratic protocols designed for physical schools.”

Rice (2006) looks at findings from studies that examined the qualities of the teaching and learning experiences in online environments, although she notes that these studies have generally been descriptive and anecdotal rather than experimental. Much of this research considers factors, such as student attributes and motivation, that might support success with online learning. If we suppose that these factors and attributes align with engagement, the results can shed some light on how schools might incorporate virtual courses into the curriculum.

Rice reviews the 2003 work of Roblyer and Marshall, who constructed and administered an educational success instrument to predict student success in online courses. They defined four major factors that might be related to success: (a) achievement and self-esteem beliefs, which reflect students’ degree of self-motivation; (b) responsibility and risk taking; (c) technology skills and access; and (d) organization and self-regulation, which have to do with study skills. Qualitative data from instructors were also examined, as were personal characteristics of students. The results from the survey predicted students’ success and failure in online courses with 100% and 95% accuracy, respectively. Two findings from the data emerged as other contributors to success: teachers noted that good parental support was important to good work habits, and the number of hours students spent in outside jobs affected course success.

Rice also discusses the 2001 work of Tunison and Noonan, who examined 126 high school students’ first experiences with online courses offered through an alternative virtual school. The theme that emerged from this work was student appreciation for “the feeling of empowerment and freedom in the direction of their learning." In addition, students liked being able to work at their own pace. Disadvantages were reported to be time management and technology problems. These researchers pointed out the need for student supports in conjunction with online instruction. Research on student supports, Rice says, has shown two factors important to success: (1) the amount of engagement by the adult supervisor and (2) learner interaction with peers. Rice mentions an internal evaluation of a virtual high school with a 95% retention rate, where interview transcripts, classroom documents, memos, and survey results established that “the qualities most responsible for success could be attributed in part to high quality materials and frequent teacher-student interaction." She notes that adult distance learning research indicates that such interactive tools as discussion boards may help learners improve achievement, develop higher-order thinking skills, and increase opportunities for reflection and sense-making. One researcher concluded that such online interactions can influence motivation and engagement.

Rice (2006) points to a perhaps overlooked feature of NCLB that could continue the explosive growth of virtual schooling. She notes that virtual schools can be used as school choice options and cites this language from the legislation: “A virtual school can be among schools to which eligible students are offered the opportunity to transfer as long as that school is a public elementary or secondary school as defined by state law.”

Emerging strategies in school organization

As researchers continue to look for definitive evidence to support how school organization can, in many ways, improve student engagement in schools, some recent trends in school organization are too young to have received much attention. Because these efforts are so new, no conclusions can be drawn for how these new structures and programs assist student engagement, although educators are optimistic. If these initiatives continue to develop, the research community must attempt to assess their effectiveness.

Grade 8.5. This initiative was established by communities in South Carolina and Florida with the goal of combating high dropout rates among students transferring from eighth to ninth grades. Students who have been identified as at-risk for dropping out of school as they transition into high school are selected to attend grade 8.5, which offers academic supports designed to keep students in school (Herald Online, 2008; Winchester, 2007).

Night schools in malls. In order to increase graduation rates in high schools, educators are also developing night schools and schools in malls that provide additional schooling opportunities for students who are at-risk for dropping out. Educators are finding that students are having difficulties graduating within the four-year timeframe given; therefore these additional opportunities will assist students in meeting graduation requirements in a timely manner (Gammil, 2008).

Extended high schools. Realizing that students are challenged with meeting graduation requirements in four years, some school districts are also considering allowing five years to graduate from high school (Payne, 2008). NCLB accountability standards consider students who do not graduate in four years as dropouts, by increasing the length of time allowed to graduate, students will no longer be considered dropouts, therefore improving school districts dropout rates.

Indicators of student engagement

As the educational community works toward restructuring and reorganizing schools, researchers have become increasingly interested in looking at the impact of these changes on student engagement. To measure engagement, researchers use a variety of indicators and look to answer questions such as Do students participate more? Have attendance rates improved? Are students graduating at higher rates? This section of the literature review discusses research efforts that have examined some of the more common indicators.

Dropout rates. Improving dropout rates in secondary schools is an increasing concern. Researchers have consistently found that students who attend smaller schools tend to drop out at a lower than students who attend larger schools. A student’s choice of whether to drop out or stay in school may be a reflection of engagement. The U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) recently published a topic report on dropout prevention (2007). It rated programs on three outcome domains—staying in school, progressing in school, and completing school—all of which might be considered indicators of engagement. The report discussed three strategies, or practices, the rated programs used to prevent dropouts: mentoring and monitoring students, alternative high schools, and schoolwide restructuring. In the first, personal relationships between students and monitors are the strategy for keeping students enrolled and progressing in a large urban high school. Alternative high schools, as described here, are small schools-within-schools, free-standing schools for at-risk students, or middle college high schools on college campuses at which students study interdisciplinary curriculums, receive individualized attention from teachers, and can earn college credits as they complete high school requirements. Within the restructuring strategy, the WWC mentioned small “learning communities,” such as ninth-grade academies and career academies that are linked with high academic standards and college-preparatory curriculum. The studies that met the WWC criteria for rigorous research demonstrated small to moderate effects on student engagement measures. Examples of other research examining the effects of small school design on dropout prevention include the following:

  • The Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago conducted an analytical comparison of Chicago High School Redesign Initiative (CHSRI) smaller high schools and larger high schools in Chicago and their differential effects on student engagement. They found that the cumulative dropout rate for CHSRI students at the end of their tenth grade year was 14% compared to 17% for similar students in larger Chicago schools. (Kahne, Sporte, de la Torre, and Easton, 2006)
  • A study of school size effects on student outcomes in Kentucky public schools from 2001-2005 concluded that dropout rates were significantly lower for high schools with 300 or fewer students. (Clark, Hager, and Nikolova, 2006)
  • In the High School Effectiveness Study on 10th-12th graders, Lee and Burkam explored how the way a school is organized may influence a student’s desire to stay in school. Results demonstrated that schools with 600 students or less had the smallest dropout rates. (Lee and Burkam, 2001)

Transitioning between schools can be a contributor to dropping out. In 1999, Alspaugh looked at the effects of transition grade to high school on the dropout rates of boys and girls. Alspaugh started with results of work conducted in 1995, in which he and a colleague established that there is a decline in achievement during the transition year from elementary school to the next level. The later work revealed additional achievement losses associated with future transitions. And, as the number of transitions increased, the research showed, so did the high school dropout rate. In addition, the higher the transition grade level, the higher the dropout rate, especially for boys. That is, students who transitioned from middle school to high school at 9th grade had a lower dropout rate than students who transitioned at 10th grade. The lowest high school dropout rates were for students who attended high schools with 7-12 grade configurations. Note that grade configuration was related, to some extent, with school size. Large high schools tended to have fewer grades, with 10-12 a common configuration among bigger schools. Likewise, smaller schools tended to have more grades. For the study, schools of three different configurations were included: 7-12, 9-12, and 10-12. Fifteen schools of each configuration (45 total), selected for as many common characteristics as possible, provided the data for the study. The findings showed a statistical difference in dropout rates between the 7-12 schools and the other two configurations, leading to the conclusion that fewer school-to-school transitions and the grade level of the last transition were related to lower high school dropout rates. In addition, Alspaugh reinforced the recommendation of other researchers (Lee and Smith, 1997) by suggesting that school organization be structured with more grades and fewer students per grade, factors that also contributed to fewer dropouts.

Student academic and non-academic outcomes. Franklin and Glascock (1998) reviewed the literature and analyzed data from rural schools in Louisiana to explore the effects of grade configuration on student performance—both academic and behavioral. They looked at data from students in four grades (6, 7, 10, 11) and four school configuration types (elementary, defined as grades K-6/7; middle/junior high, grades 6/7-8/9; secondary, grades 7/8/9-12; unit schools, K-12). Analyses showed significant effects at grades 6 and 7, where students in unit schools and elementary schools were higher than their middle/junior high peers on student behavior and academic achievement; these results were also true for grade 10 students, where those in unit schools did better than their peers in secondary schools. At grade 11, however, no significant differences between school configurations appeared. These results suggest that K-12 schools, where transitions never occur, may provide the best support for social and academic development.

In 2007, Weiss and Bearman reinvestigated the effects of transition to high school, seeking to address a specific question: To what extent does a change of schools between eighth and ninth grades influence student academic and nonacademic outcomes? In this study, the researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), an ongoing study started in 1994 of a nationally representative sample of students in Grades 7-12.The data set includes in-school surveys of more than 70,000 students, followed by two waves of in-home student interviews (wave 1 = 20,745 interviews, wave 2 = 14,787 interviews of the same students). Weiss and Bearman drew from the data only information from students who were in the eighth grade during the wave 1 interviews and in ninth grade during the wave 2 interviews; they had 1,680 cases for analysis. Of the outcomes, three academic ones might reflect levels of student engagement: (1) school integration (how close the students felt to people at their school, how much they felt like they were part of their school, how happy they felt to be at their school); (2) trouble in school (getting along with teachers, paying attention, getting homework done, getting along with other students); and (3) aspirations for college (self-assessed desire to go to college). (The other academic outcome was grade point average; the nonacademic outcomes were fighting, drug/alcohol/tobacco use, delinquency, and bringing a weapon to school.) Researchers analyzed the data using a variety of statistical methods: bivariate relationships, multilevel regression, and interaction analysis. In most analyses and for most outcome measures, only nonsignificant differences were found between students who changed schools between eighth and ninth grades and those who did not. The most interesting finding relative to school organization came out of the interaction analyses, which showed a benefit to changing schools for certain types of students. Students who have strong ties to their peers and make a transition have significantly better grades than peers who do not change schools; these students also have higher levels of school integration than their popular peers who remain in the same school. On the other side of the social scale, students who are isolated in eighth grade become significantly more connected to school in ninth grade if they change schools, and they also are significantly less likely to have high scores on the trouble-in-school outcome measures. Students who had been retained also benefited from school transition; they showed higher levels of school integration than their peers who did not change schools. Given these findings, the researchers conclude, “The transition to high school can serve as a fresh start for some adolescents." Bearman and Weiss add the caution that their research looked at students from two grades only and who had made only one school transition—findings might be different for students who changed schools more than once or changed at different grade levels. One other interesting result of this research: Whether students do or do not change schools, the changes that occur between 8th and 9th grades are very similar for all students.

A study about the transition to high school by academically promising African American youth in Ohio (Newman et al., 2000) examined how 22 students in an intervention program perceived the transition to ninth grade. Researchers took a qualitative approach, framed by ecological systems theory, to uncover how family, peers, school, and neighborhood contributed to academic success. In the school environment, several areas of importance emerged. Many youth in the study perceived ninth-grade work as more difficult than eighth-grade work, and ninth-grade teachers as less approachable and supportive than eighth-grade ones. The researchers noted, “Teachers may feel that setting higher standards and demanding more of ninth graders is necessary and appropriate. However, from the students’ perspective, harder may be seen as indifferent, unavailable, and therefore unsupportive." Among the higher-achieving students, several students found high school to be boring, said they did not like their classes, lacked motivation, and had trouble staying awake in classes. Other stressors mentioned by students included larger school size, class organization and length, and interactions with new people.

Attendance rates. Smaller schools have produced an increase in student daily attendance rates. Researchers have consistently found that schools with fewer students have higher attendance rates among their students.

  • Using student-level administrative data, the Urban Institute Education Policy Center compared engagement and outcomes of students enrolled in Baltimore’s innovative, smaller high schools with those students at other larger Baltimore public schools finding. They concluded that attendance rates were higher in Baltimore’s smaller, innovative high schools. (Urban Institute Education Policy Center, 2007)
  • In the Consortium on Chicago School Research’s comparison of Chicago High School Redesign Initiative (CHSRI) smaller high schools and larger high schools in Chicago researchers found that freshmen attending CHSRI high schools were absent between six and nine fewer days each year than similar students in non-CHSRI larger high schools. (Kahne, Sporte, de la Torre, and Easton, 2006)
  • A study of the size of Kentucky’s public schools on student engagement from 2001-2005 found that attendance rates were higher in high schools with 601 to 900 students. (Clark, Hager, and Nikolova, 2006)

Researchers suggest several reasons why smaller schools might have better attendance. In small schools teachers often have better access to students and can encourage students to attend class more frequently and stay in school. Smaller schools also tend to have smaller class sizes, allowing for more individualized instruction, which can increase student engagement in schools and may also increase student attendance, therefore increasing student achievement (Foreman-Peck and Foreman-Peck, 2006).

Because of smaller class sizes and individualized instruction, smaller schools offer students a more personalized experience that provides a sense of community, a sense of belonging. Sometimes described as a “school family,” smaller schools support the development of meaningful, sustained relationships among teachers and students, who are often well known to teachers in these environments (Darling-Hammond, 2002; Lee, Smith, and Croninger, 1996). Researchers find that personalized instruction in schools is essential to improving student engagement and achievement.

Safe schools. Safety in today’s schools continues to be a concern. School violence can become a distraction from learning; therefore providing students with a safe environment to learn is crucial in efforts to improve student engagement.

The manner in which a school is organized may greatly determine the level of safety at the school. Smaller schools tend to be able to maintain discipline better and to foster a greater sense of security among students. Teachers at Chicago High School Redesign Initiative (CHSRI) small high schools reported having a higher sense of collective responsibility in maintaining discipline as compared to similar teachers in non-CHSRI larger high schools (Kahne, Sporte, de la Torre, and Easton, 2006). In larger schools, students have reported being dissatisfied with the level of safety at their schools (Bowen, Bowen, and Richman, 2000). Researchers have also found that the degree of violence increases as the size of the school increases, finding that larger schools have more serious acts of violence than smaller schools.

Incidents of violence can vary depending on the whether students had to transition to another school for high school and at what grade.

  • Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), Christopher Weiss and Peter Bearman from Columbia University evaluated transition effects on both academic and nonacademic outcomes of high school students. Their results showed a significantly greater percentage of students who switched schools between eight and ninth grades carried a weapon to school compared to students who did not change schools. (Weiss and Bearman, 2007)
  • The results from a study of randomly selected schools in Louisiana, which assessed school reconfiguration efforts on student behavior, found that 10th-grade students had fewer behavioral problems (measured by attendance and suspension rates), in K-12 schools than in 7-12, 8-12, or 9-12 schools. (Franklin and Glascock, 1998)

The personalized instruction often found in smaller schools helps to reduce the amount of violence, often making these schools safer (Cotton, 1996). By creating a sense of family, as found in smaller schools that focus on building relationships between teachers and students, students no longer feel the need to engage in violent acts.

Detracking. Smaller schools help to alleviate tracking practices often found in larger schools. Tracking or ability grouping often locks students into dead-end academic tracks that fail to provide students with the credentials or the knowledge needed to obtain jobs or attend postsecondary educational institutes. Researchers have found that smaller schools can assist in eliminating this practice, finding lower amounts of academic tracking in smaller schools than in larger schools (Jimerson, 2006). Smaller schools can often accommodate heterogeneous groups of students allowing all students equitable access and participation in all academic courses offered, no matter how challenging, thus reducing the tendency to practice academic tracking (Cotton, 1996).

Student participation. Student participation in school activities is a key motivator for students to increase their engagement in school. Researchers have found that there tends to be greater participation in school activities in schools of smaller sizes (Crosnoe, Kirkpatrick, and Elder, 2004; Jimerson, 2006; Lay, 2007). Using a sample of 14,966 students in 84 schools from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, researchers Robert Crosnoe, Monica Kirkpatrick and Glen Elder, found that when school size increased students felt more detached from their school and to their teachers. They also concluded that students’ participation in extracurricular activities diminished at a steady rate as school size increased. The patterns found in the study did not differ on the race and/or ethnicity of the student.

These results demonstrate how students may lack a sense of belonging in schools of larger sizes, whereas strong interpersonal relationships are more likely at smaller schools. This research suggests that increasing interpersonal relationships in schools fosters more student participation in school activities. While students in smaller schools may be more inclined to participate, students in larger schools may also benefit from the larger number and variety of opportunities to participate found in larger schools.


The traditional structure of schools in America meets the needs of many students but fails to engage all students. Overall, research and experience seem to show that student engagement improves in smaller school settings and/or wider grade-span configurations. If properly implemented, the advantages of these organizational structures seem to be many:

  • closer teacher-student relationships
  • better recognition of student academic needs
  • fewer stressors related to transitions between schools
  • safer school environments
  • equal access to rigorous courses for all students

The above benefits support all students and help educators move toward the goals set by No Child Left Behind. However, students at both ends of the achievement scale may gain benefits through other variations on organizational structure:

  • early college high schools and virtual schools support self-paced learning, which can help gifted and talented students remain challenged and engaged
  • ninth-grade academies and early college high schools engage at-risk students by offering them supports that produce success
  • access to the greater variety of courses available through virtual schools and college curricula may help students find classes that connect with their dreams and realities

Combating issues such as dropout rates and providing safer schools for students cannot happen overnight. The challenges continue, and educators and researchers work on developing new approaches for students who may require additional assistance. With new solutions may come new challenges, and some of those emerged from the research gathered for this review: 

  • Autonomy vs. accountability. Nontraditional organizations such as virtual schools and early college high schools may need to operate somewhat independently of the system(s) that support them. However, as members of the public education system, they must be accountable. Finding flexibility in the system to enable the nontraditional structures to be effective while keeping them accountable is something policymakers and administrators need to negotiate—and that may be an ongoing process.
  • Protecting innovation without isolating innovators. The bureaucracies designed for traditional schools often do not fit innovative schools. The innovators who implement these schools may need to work around policies or restrictions that don’t relate to them (e.g., school uniforms, prescribed texts or curriculum guides), yet retain their connection with management when they need support. Similarly, a school-within-a-school needs a way to maintain its separate identity and operate by its specific rules, or it will eventually re-merge into the larger school. Administrators and policymakers need to be aware of and respect the differences of the innovation, or the investment required to implement it will be lost.
  • Equity. When one large school becomes several small schools, each with a different theme, educators must consider how to maintain the same standards of rigor at all schools—in other words, avoid falling back into tracked programs. Likewise, when a school-within-a-school is established, educators must consider how students in the larger school can gain the advantages of the smaller school’s opportunities.

Overall, the organizational structures discussed here offer a variety of benefits to students, and most, if not all, the structures adhere to small size as a basic principle. Can the country afford to convert from large schools to small schools? How many new buildings, new governing bodies, new school buses, and other new resources will be required? However many they may be, at least one study has shown that cost should not be a concern (Lawrence et al., 2002). The authors of this report include researchers, educators, and builders; together they examined data to answer questions about construction, student outcomes, building maintenance, and community benefits. Here’s the good news: On all counts, the authors found that moving away from consolidated schools and toward smaller community schools, or at least schools-within-schools makes academic, social, and financial sense.

This research review was conducted for the Center for Public Education by researchers at Edvantia, an education research and development not-for-profit corporation founded in 1966. The references are located on a separate web page.

Posted: September 4, 2008

©Center for Public Education

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