A critical view of the Leithwood school size report

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November 28, 2007 by realrenewal

by John Conway, Trustee, Subdivision 5


As part of the system renewal process, the Board contracted the services of a qualified consultant to provide a review of the research on “best practices” with regard to school size. This was considered prudent given the growing body of evidence accumulated over the past two decades indicating that small schools, at both the elementary and high school levels, are much more effective than large schools. An awareness of such evidence will assist the Board in making wise school closure decisions. The consultant was asked to review the evidence available about the effects of school size along a number of dimensions, including academic achievement, social and psychological impacts, community integration, impacts on “at risk” children and “at risk” neighbourhoods, effects on extra-curricular participation, and consequences for teacher effectiveness and satisfaction.

Kenneth Leithwood of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, was awarded the contract and co-authored the report with Doris Jantzi. The report was completed in August 2007 and presented to the Board in September 2007.


The Report

Based on a review of 59 empirical studies published since 1990, as well as some widely cited pre-1990 studies, and four literature reviews, the report largely supports the growing consensus that “smaller is better” on a variety of outcome measures.

Regarding students’ academic achievement, among elementary schools the trend was “the smaller the school the better the achievement” (p. 3), while among high schools the trend was “as school size increased, achievement declined’ (p. 5).

On the dimension of the “equitable distribution of learning,” the conclusion was “school size has a larger impact on the learning of disadvantaged and/or low SES students than on the learning of advantaged or high SES students…Disadvantaged or struggling students benefit most from the care and the attention they receive in” small schools (p. 9).

On the dimension of “attendance and retention,” the conclusion was that, though the results were mixed, the trend was “better” outcomes for smaller schools (p. 9).

On the dimension of “participation, identification and connection,” the report concludes “smaller schools are associated with greater student engagement” (p. 13).

` On “course-taking patterns,” the report concludes that, while course options are more varied in larger schools, a school of 400 is adequate for “breadth and depth comparable to larger schools” (p. 14). As for achievement, the report notes there is growing evidence that fewer course choices with a more focused emphasis on core academic disciplines lead to superior student achievement.

On the dimension of extra-curricular activity, the report notes that high levels of such activity are “positively associated with smaller schools” (p. 15-17).

On other outcomes, like self esteem, physical safety, and social behaviour, the report notes that research evidence was limited, but nevertheless the trend appears to be that small schools tend to be associated with higher self esteem, greater safety, and less bullying behaviour (pp. 17-19).

On cost efficiency, the report notes that the results are mixed, but that more recent studies strongly suggest that smaller schools are more cost effective, particularly when graduation rates are included as a criterion (pp. 19-21).

On teacher impacts, the report again notes mixed results but a clear trend indicating “that smaller school size enhances the chances that teachers will hold positive work-related attitudes” (p. 23).

Based on the survey of the evidence provided in the body of the report (pp. 1-24), a reader would reasonably conclude that recent research continues to support the emerging consensus that small schools are better schools on most important outcome measures. Hence, one would expect a policy recommendation that Regina Public Schools adopt a policy to maintain smaller schools, at both elementary and high school levels, and to shelter existing smaller schools from closure, particularly those serving “at risk” children.

Many of the items listed in the “summary of results” flow logically from the body of the report. But some do not. The report argues that the evidence surveyed justifies “six claims about school size effects” (p. 25).

First, “smaller schools are generally best for most purposes. The weight of evidence…clearly favours smaller schools for a wide array of student outcomes and most organizational outcomes as well” (p. 25). This is clearly supported by the evidence reported, and stands as the strongest conclusion based on the research examined.

Second, “‘smaller’ does not usually mean ‘really small.’” ‘Smaller’ is a relative term. In districts with secondary school sizes exceeding 2500 students, for example, smaller can mean as many as 1500 students, a size which would be considered very large in other districts” (p. 25). The reader of the report will look in vain for the evidence supporting this assertion in the research cited. The issue of “relative size” does not appear to be in the research, i.e., that a school of 1500 would be “relatively small” in one district, and “relatively large” in another, but would be associated with the positive outcomes of small schools reported in the research because it is “relatively small” in that particular district, though not “really small.” Nor will the reader find evidence of research distinguishing between “small,” “really small,” and “relatively small,” at least it does not appear to be so noted in the report. The fact is there is no clear support in the evidence cited to justify this claim and its only effect is to dismiss the significance of the evidence supporting the effectiveness of small schools.

Furthermore, upon serious reflection this is a preposterous claim that cannot withstand even cursory scrutiny. The research on school size examines the actual numbers of students in the schools compared on the outcome measures. There is no examination of the category “relative size” as proposed in the Leithwood report. By using the concept of “relative size” there is a suggestion that this is somehow a factor of significance in determining outcomes. An elementary school of 800 is a school of 800, whether it exists in New York, Toronto or Saskatoon. Are we to believe that a school of 800 in metropolitan centres like New York or Toronto will somehow enjoy the outcome advantages of a small school, while a school of 800 in Saskatoon would not? The same goes for studies of class size effects on outcomes. These studies examine the actual number of students in a class, categorize the class by size, and then perform outcome measures. We know from the research that smaller class size begins to show pretty strong improvements at 20 or below, with marked improvements showing up at 15. Now if we were to introduce the concept of “relative class size” it would be patently absurd to argue that a class of 50 in a large school of 3000 is “relatively small,” and therefore would enjoy the outcome advantages found in the literature for small classes, say of 15 to 20, while a class of 50 in a school of 400 is “relatively very large,” and would therefore not enjoy such advantages. The whole idea of “relative size” as an important factor in determining outcomes in either school size or class size is simply a red herring, serving only to distract our attention from the real issue of the actual size of schools and classes, and the impacts of actual size on outcomes.

Third, “one size may not fit all purposes. Smaller schools are an advantage for most though not all types of student outcomes. Some evidence, for example, recommends larger schools for nurturing the achievement of academically successful senior high school students, whereas many other student outcomes seem to develop best in smaller schools” (p. 25, emphasis added). This is a confusing claim that does not seem to emerge dramatically from the evidence reported. For example, it is again noted that smaller is “an advantage for most…student outcomes.” That is clearly the central finding of the research. But the report then qualifies this with “though not all types of student outcomes” are advantaged by smaller schools. What types? Only one is reported: large schools are good “for nurturing the achievement of academically successful senior high school students.” But then this one reported exception is again qualified by “many other student outcomes seem to develop best in smaller schools.” If the reader is confused at this point, it is understandable. So large schools are good for senior high school students who are academically successful. But would these same students not be academically successful in small schools as well, or would they fail? Further the evidence noted that you can get all the breadth and depth you need for academic success with a high school of 400 (p. 14). The foundation for, and the purpose of, this claim is confusing, contradictory, and not clearly supported in the body of the report.

Fourth, “student background matters. Students who traditionally struggle at school, students from disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds, for example, are the major benefactors [sic] of smaller schools. But smaller schools do not seem to be an impediment to the learning of more advantaged and/or high achieving students, at least if those students have access to the specialized instruction they need to master complex subject matter” (p. 25). This claim is well supported in the research report and the evidence cited. But curiously it seems to contradict the third claim, suggesting in fact that high achieving senior high school students can get what they need from a smaller school, and perhaps perform at even higher levels.

Fifth, “breadth of curriculum is no longer a justification for large schools. The breadth of the curriculum, often cited as a major advantage of large comprehensive secondary schools, seems achievable in schools as small as 500 to 600 students. Such breadth, however, is now regarded as a serious threat to the academic progress of most students” (p. 25). This claim is clearly supported in the evidence reported in the body of the report. But a curious thing seems to have happened in the journey from page 14 to page 25. On page 14 the report cites, from the research, the figure of 400 as the number of students that makes it possible to achieve the “breadth and depth with curriculum offered in much larger settings.” On page 25 that figure has now been inflated to 500 to 600 students with no explanation for this dramatic increase.

Sixth, “cost efficiency is no longer a justification for large schools. Most contemporary studies have concluded, unlike an earlier generation of studies, that small schools are more efficient and cost effective. This reversal of opinion is the result of taking graduation rates into account. Small secondary schools manage to graduate a significantly larger proportion of their students then do large secondary schools. The higher drop out rates of large secondary schools is also one of the most plausible explanations for the results of studies associating higher achievement levels among senior students with larger school size” (pp. 25-26). This claim is unambiguously supported in the evidence cited in the report. But there is a problem, since this claim appears to contradict claim three. In claim three we were told that one of the arguments in favour of large schools was that they are good “for nurturing the achievement of academically successful senior high school students.” Now claim six tells us that “one of the most plausible explanations for the results of studies associating higher achievement levels among senior students with large school size” is in fact “the higher drop out rates of large secondary schools.” So what can we safely conclude from this apparent contradiction between claim three and claim six: that big high schools lead to academic success for those who persist because many students drop out, or that big high schools “nurture” high academic achievement among senior students? The authors of the report can’t seem to make up their minds, having it one way in claim three and the other way in claim six.


Unsubstantiated Policy Recommendations
The reader might be forgiven for feeling blindsided by the unexpected policy recommendations regarding “optimum school size” provided in the report (p. 26). There is no discussion in the report about research on optimum school size for best results, nor are there clear citations in the text noting the evidentiary bases for the recommended optimum school size ranges. Indeed, the reader, based on the report, might have understandably expected recommendations urging Regina Public Schools to retain its many existing small schools, particularly those serving disadvantaged areas of the city. The whole thrust of the research is clearly “smaller is better,” so the fact is Regina Public Schools already has considerable bragging rights about its current situation with regard to school sizes. But the authors of the report do no such thing. Rather, they make the following unexpected recommendations.


“Elementary schools serving student populations exclusively or largely from diverse and/or disadvantaged backgrounds should be limited in size to not more than about 300 students.”


“Elementary schools serving economically and socially heterogeneous or relatively advantaged students should be limited in size to about 500 students.”


“Secondary schools serving student populations exclusively or largely from diverse and/or disadvantaged backgrounds should be limited to about 600 students or fewer.”


“Secondary schools serving economically and socially heterogeneous or relatively advantaged students should be limited in size to about 1000 students.”
One looks in vain in the report for a summary of the research on optimum school size. Actual size numbers are mentioned infrequently in the report. On page 14, 400 is the size positively cited from the research for being able to offer the breadth and depth in curriculum comparable to much larger high schools. In the Appendix of the report summarizing details on the studies reviewed, actual school size is mentioned in ten of the studies, according to my count. But these sizes are reported, not as optimum school sizes, but simply as the size of the schools actually studied and among which comparisons were made. For example, Lee and Burkam (2003) noted that in a total sample of 190 schools, schools of less than 600 had the lowest drop out rates when compared to schools in the categories “medium” (600-1500), “large” (1500-2500), or “very large” (2500 or more). Presumably to get a handle on “optimum” school size for the purposes of student retention, one would have to do further study of the school sizes of the “small” school category of less than 600. In other words, 600 is not an optimum school size, but rather a counting category. Indeed, one might expect that the smaller schools among the less than 600 category might well have the best retention rates, given the trend documented in the study. The only study reported in the Appendix which mentions an “optimal school size” is Falch and Storm’s (2005) study of teacher retention in the Norwegian school system which found that 370 was the “optimal” size.

The blunt truth is that the report does not survey the research on optimum school size. The policy recommendations made are therefore not evidence based. This is unfortunate since these policy recommendations may be used to justify the closure of many small schools in Regina’s public system.

Granted earlier research on school size noted there was little agreement on what constitutes a “small” school, or what is an optimal size for a small school. Most studies had to deal with the actual existing schools being studied, and therefore simply imposed an operational categorization for the purposes of the particular study, grouping schools in various size categories. Depending on the actual schools studied, the size categories on which comparisons were based therefore varied widely from study to study. Williams (1990) noted there was no agreement, and the “small” category often varied from 300 to 400 for elementary schools, and from 400 to 800 for high schools. Fowler (1992) made a stab at a reasonable definition of “small” as fewer than 400. Ornstein (1990) did not claim to have found the “optimum” school size, but suggested an “appropriate” size for the small school advantage was 200 to 600 for elementary schools, and 300 to 1000 for high schools. Barker (1986) argued that a small school must have 300 or fewer students to qualify and to enjoy the small school advantage.

Given the dramatic growth in the number of small schools, there is now a growing body of research on optimum school size for enhanced educational and social outcomes. Better comparisons can now be made as more and more small schools are established and can be studied, and their outcomes can be compared more systematically to larger schools. Such data and comparisons have laid the foundations for more focused research on “optimum” school size. I have neither the time nor the expertise to do a comprehensive survey of such literature, but I have tried to keep myself informed on this issue during my years as a Trustee on the Regina Public School Board. Gregory (2000) reports that for enhanced academic achievement the best size range for a high school is less than 400, and the optimum size is in fact 200. Howley and Harmon (2000) report that the optimum size for a high school is less than 400. Anderson (1998) reports that the optimum size for an elementary school is less than 350. Winnipeg’s River East School Division contracted a consultant to review the research literature on optimum school size (River East, 2001). The research literature on optimum school size available in the United Kingdom and the United States was examined. According to those findings, reported in 2001, the optimum size for a high school is 300 to 600, while the optimum size for an elementary school is 200 to 350. The report further noted,

The research literature supported the concept that “small is better” because of better academic performance of students, more involvement of parents, greater accountability of staff, more personal relationships, less alienation of students (greater sense of belonging), and safer schools, including a reduction in disruptive and violent behaviour on the part of students (p. 6).

The most persuasive report on optimum school size I have read recently is that provided in the book by Daniels, Bizar and Zemelman (2001) who not only survey the literature but report “best practice” professional experiences in setting up actual schools. In the chapter on size the authors survey the research presented in 16 references, all after 1990, as well as recounting professional experiences in setting up successful small schools. They conclude that for “a genuinely effective small school” the maximum size for an elementary school is 250 to 300, and for a high school 400 to 450. That is the maximum size; it must be emphasized (p. 41).

In should be noted with some concern that none of the above references on optimum school size was examined in the report prepared by Leithwood and Jantzi. Further, only one of the 16 references cited by Daniels, Bizar and Zemelman (2001) in their consideration of school size was examined by Leithwood and Jantzi.
Recent reports on what has occurred in Chicago and New York are very significant. Both large cities have adopted a small school policy with very good results. Chicago, as of 2005, had 150 such schools, ranging in size from 200 to 400 (Education World, 2005). Based on the Chicago experience, Lee and Loch (2000) argue a “small” school should have less than 400 students. New York is committed to opening at least 250 small high schools of less than 500 students. Many New York high schools had reached unmanageable sizes of 3000 or more, and they were just not working, especially in the disadvantaged areas of the city. An examination of 14 of these new small high schools, which graduated their first class in 2006, reports astonishingly positive outcomes: higher attendance; higher academic achievement; a majority graduating (between 80 and 90 per cent, compared to the normal rate of 60 per cent); many of the graduates went off to college, the first member of their family to do so (WestEd, 2007; New York Times, 6 July 2007). Given the dramatic events in places like Chicago and New York, particularly the reports on the success of small schools, one wonders why the report did not delve in detail into events in these two cities, including the research foundations of the policy change and the emerging data on successful outcomes. For example, the Chicago Small Schools Coalition proposes a maximum optimum size for elementary schools of 350, and for high schools of 500 (Small Schools Coalition, Chicago, n.d.).

The research on the optimum size of small schools examined here suggests an optimum size, in order to more fully enjoy the outcome benefits the research documents for small schools, in the various following ranges:
High schools –less than 400, optimum size of 200 –optimum size, less than 400

–300 to 600

–maximum size of 400 to450

–less than 500

–less than 400

Elementary schools –less than 350

–200 to 350

–maximum, 250-300

–less than 400

What most of these have in common is that they are considerably smaller sizes than the recommendations made by Leithwood and Jantzi of 300 for elementary schools serving disadvantaged students, and 500 for elementary schools serving less disadvantaged students; 600 for high schools serving disadvantaged students, and 1000 for high schools serving less disadvantaged students. While there is some small overlap between the lower figure proposed by Leithwood and Jantzi for disadvantaged students in elementary schools, there is a fairly marked difference in proposed optimum sizes at the high school level.

When one combines the insights provided by the findings of the general research on small schools presented in the body of the report by Leithwood and Jantzi, with the evidence from the research on the optimum size for small schools reviewed above, some fairly clear and dramatic conclusions with significant policy implications emerge. It is clear that “smaller is better” when a variety of impacts and outcomes are examined, including most importantly, given the core mission of schools, academic achievement. But the evidence allows us to go even further and conclude that “the smaller the school, the better the outcomes.” And the evidence allows us to add the following final general conclusion: for greatest success among disadvantaged students, small schools, often schools considered very small by existing standards, or “really small” to use Leithwood and Jantzi’s formulation, are not only best, but are perhaps absolutely essential.

A significant question remains unanswered. If the “optimum” school sizes recommended by Leithwood and Jantzi are not based on the evidence provided by actual existing research on the optimum size of schools, then were do they come from? The authors do not indicate where these alleged “optimum sizes” come from. Perhaps the recommendations merely reflect the personal and professional opinions of Leithwood and Jantzi. It was incumbent of them to say so, if this were the case, since their manner of presentation in the text of the report just after a review of research literature on small schools might lead a naïve reader to erroneously conclude that the numbers are evidence- based.


One fact cannot be ignored, however. The optimum size numbers provided by Leithwood and Jantzi come remarkably close to the school sizes recommended by the Administration of Regina Public Schools, and approved by a 6 to 1 majority of the Board in March 2007, many months before Dr. Leithwood was contracted to do the research review on small schools. Clearly the Administration and a majority of the Board had already made up their minds on the future of Regina’s public schools on the question of school size. The “optimum” school size policy recommendations of Leithwood and Jantzi therefore have served to provide a post hoc justification for a decision already made.

The school size ranges adopted by a majority of the Board were based on “program delivery options” outlined by Bob Brown, then Director of the system, in two memoranda dated 15 February 2007 and 28 February 2007. The program delivery options included a “smaller elementary option” with an enrollment of 217, and a “larger elementary option” of 434; and a “smaller high school option” of 535, and a “larger high school option” of 1070. After further consideration, the high school option was amended to propose a minimum size of 600. These proposals were boiled down to an elementary option with an enrollment of 200 to 400, and a high school option with an enrollment of 600 to 1200. These size options were then presented to the public for consultations. No other size choices were included in the consultations.
These size options were not based on a review of the research on optimum school size. Rather they were based on what was considered to be a necessary enrollment in a K to 8, or a 9 to 12, school in order to maintain what is believed to be an essential program with reasonable electives, as well as to adhere to the system’s existing class size and teacher allocation policies. Elementary class sizes for the larger option were based on an average of 23.6 students for grades 1 to 8, 20 for K classes, and 15 for Special Education classes. The only difference permitted in the smaller option was a K class of 10. Both high school options were based on an average enrollment of 25 students per class for grades 9 to 12. These are quite large class sizes, class sizes that have increased dramatically since March 2007. The most recent teacher allocation class size guidelines for Regina Public Schools, as of 7 November 2007, are in fact much larger: 25 for grades 1 to 3; 30 for grades 4 to 8; and 32 for grades 9 to 12. These class sizes are too large, and the Board continues to evade a serious commitment to a plan for reducing class sizes.


One of the constant themes in the research on smaller schools is that one of the reasons small schools have such better outcomes relates to the reality that smaller schools typically have smaller classes. To a certain degree, this advantage of small schools has been undermined in Regina Public Schools by an effort to maintain the class size guidelines as closely as possible by double grading strategies. Further, one of the arguments used to persuade people to accept the need to close small schools, and consolidate student numbers in fewer schools, is to note that adherence to class size guidelines on teacher allocation will result in triple grading if small schools are kept open.


The whole issue of class size policy needs close examination. The evidence in the research on class size echoes that on school size: smaller is better; and the smaller, the better. Benefits show up as class sizes are reduced from 40 to 30 to 20, but the strongest benefits begin with classes of 15. Frequently, critics of the move to small class sizes point to quantitative data which do not reveal overly significant benefits among classes of 20 compared to those of 30 or even 40 – that is, quantifiable academic achievement measures, like grades or reading or math levels, do not differ markedly. But research on qualitative outcomes consistently records that teacher, student and parents perceive and report that the education received in smaller classes is of a significantly higher quality. But at the class size of 15, both quantitative and qualitative measures reveal a marked increase in successful outcomes. Hence, the “best practice” evidence clearly suggests the wisest course to follow is to combine a small schools policy with a small class size policy. Rather than a long range plan to close schools and to consolidate students in fewer schools with large classes, the Board might more wisely pursue a long range plan to retain small schools while systematically reducing class size standards across all grades until optimum targets are reached in both school size and class size.


Conclusion and Recommendations

It is conceded that I have not done a comprehensive review of the research literature on the optimum school size range which delivers the maximum benefits of the well-documented small school advantage. But I have cited the literature I know. Nor have I done a comprehensive review of class size benefits for smaller classes compared to larger classes. But over the years I have read a great deal on the class size issue, and consequently my comments and arguments can be read as informed comments and arguments, rather than merely expressions of opinion.
Clearly it would be wise for the Board to contract with recognized educational consultants to perform comprehensive reviews of the research literature on both issues. In addition, a comprehensive review of the research literature on the relative advantages and disadvantages of double and triple grading strategies would be particularly useful at this point in the debate about the future of Regina Public Schools. I would strongly urge, however, that such experts be asked to do these reviews “blind,” that is without reference to the existing policies on such matters now in force in Regina Public Schools.
Certain clear policy recommendations emerge from the discussion in this critique, policy recommendations that flow logically from the literature review on the small school advantage provided by Leithwood and Jantzi, from the review of some of the literature on optimum school size ranges, and from the widely known benefits of targeting 15 as the optimum class size. These policy recommendations are therefore evidence-based to a significant extent, particularly those on optimum school size for enjoying the small school advantage. Though not based on as comprehensive an evidentiary foundation as one might prefer, they are considerably more evidence-based than either the optimum school size recommendations provided by Leithwood and Jantzi, or the school size guidelines administratively imposed by the program delivery options adopted by the Board in March 2007.


Policy Recommendations


Regina Public Schools should adopt a comprehensive “small schools” policy, establishing maximum optimum enrollment guidelines for elementary schools of less than 300, and for high schools of less than 500. Existing schools beyond these guidelines should be “grandfathered,” but future school construction should adhere to these guidelines. Furthermore, these guidelines should inform program delivery decisions within existing schools.


Regina Public Schools should “shelter” existing small schools from closure, particularly those serving socially and economically disadvantaged students.


Regina Public Schools should adopt a comprehensive “small class size” policy and develop a 10 year implementation strategy to reach the following class size goals: K, 10; grades 1 to 8, 15; grades 9 to 12, 20.


As the first step in achieving the 10 year goal, Regina Public Schools should begin the immediate implementation of this class size policy in those schools serving socially and economically disadvantaged students.



All of which is respectfully submitted,



J. F. Conway, Trustee

28 November 2007
























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