This summarizes the findings of an important paper.
A 2015 study noted that school size has variable effects on different kids — but clear harms of large schools for kids with disabilities, especially learning disabilities, and kids from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds (who are disproportionately kids of color).
Seth Gershenson & Laura Langbein of American University note that “the benefits of larger schools [economic efficiencies and more specialized instruction] come at a cost, as larger schools have higher rates of student absences and social disorder that may hinder cognitive and social development.” They note that these negative effects apply particularly to kids with disabilities and kids from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.
The first part of the paper is a helpful discussion the large literature on school size and academic achievement, noting that many of those studies are contradictory or inconclusive because they do not look at specific subgroups. For instance, kids with no disabilities from socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds, show no particular harms from large schools, and can take advantage of the greater resources that may be afforded by economies of scale. But other groups suffer harms — so a study that does not separate out these subgroups may show no real harms from school size.
The second part of the paper lays out their findings, which are based on study of an entire state’s public school system. The key finding is that “Specifically, the math and reading achievement of students with learning disabilities, and the reading achievement of socioeconomically disadvantaged students, are disproportionately harmed by increases in school size.” (p.151S) For the population as a whole, there are no causal effects on standardized test scores — but for these kids, there were real harms.
This paper is helpful, because it provides some context and helps explain the mixed data on school size: Studies that showed neutral effects of school size were only looking at the overall population, not relevant subgroups. Studies that have shown negative effects were looking at particular subgroups, and not the overall population. This study helps explain that apparent contradiction.
What does it mean for Amherst? In a town with a growing population of socioeconomically disadvantaged kids (disproportionately kids of color), and high numbers of kids with learning disabilities — it seems clear. The large proposed school is likely to have measurably negative effects on those kids’ experience of school.
For more information on related research, see our Research tab on this blog.