The authors examine competing findings about the effects of smaller schools for different groups of students and about the effects of school size and organizational features in diverse contexts across a wide range of studies over the last thirty years. They conclude that the influences of size appear to be mediated by other features of school organizations that are sometimes, but not always, associated with size, making the relationship between school size and many desired outcomes an indirect one. These other features are associated with aspects of school design, including how adults and students are organized to work together, the nature of the curriculum, and how access to knowledge is organized. Smaller schools may provide the opportunity for important educational conditions such as stronger relationships, greater student involvement, and greater academic press, but they do not, by themselves, guarantee that those conditions will exist.
Interpreting competing findings in ways that can guide productive decisionmaking requires a much more nuanced analysis of the interacting elements of relative school size, student body composition, organizational design, curriculum content, and instructional features than is typically undertaken. As Bickel and Howley note, "Seldom have policymakers or researchers asked 'Better for whom?' or 'Better for what?' or 'Better under what conditions?'" In what follows, we seek to address these questions.
A new book, Global Education Reform: How Privatization and Public Investment Influence Education Outcomes, provides a powerful analysis of these different ends of an ideological spectrum – from market-based experiments to strong state investments in public education.