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### School Woes: Debunking the Myth of a Universal Solution

RALEIGH — Due to the significant advantages associated with improved education, it would be beneficial if policymakers were aware of the precise strategies needed to overcome barriers to higher academic performance.

However, obstacles to achievement are not mythical creatures like werewolves; they are intricate and deeply ingrained in reality, far from being simple or fictional. Regrettably, many political debates on education reform tend to revolve around the idea of using silver bullets to address these challenges effectively.

In the past, there was a widespread belief in the efficacy of making schools smaller as a magical solution. This concept garnered attention from the media, received funding from various foundations, and gained political traction. The initial support for this notion was backed by some research and seemed logical: smaller schools could potentially be easier to manage and customize, fostering innovation and personalized teaching methods.

However, like numerous other trends in education reform, policymakers allowed a few isolated success stories and a plausible theory to overshadow critical thinking and thorough evaluation. Without careful consideration, states and districts rushed to dismantle existing schools and establish new, smaller institutions. The outcomes varied and, in many instances, fell short of expectations.

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Research has revealed that while some students excel in smaller school environments due to feeling safer and receiving more individualized attention, not all students and educators benefit equally from this model. Smaller schools may lack the resources to offer advanced courses for gifted students or provide diverse extracurricular activities that keep some students engaged.

A more in-depth examination of the issue would have tempered the unrealistic expectations surrounding the small-school movement. Over the last 25 years, over 100 peer-reviewed studies have explored the link between school size and student performance. Approximately one-third of these studies found that smaller schools were associated with higher achievement, while in half of the studies, there was no statistically significant correlation between school size and outcomes. The remaining studies indicated that smaller schools were actually linked to lower student performance.

It is important to note that these findings do not negate the potential benefits of smaller schools for certain students. However, policymakers should not anticipate significant improvements in efficiency or effectiveness from a broad downsizing of public schools. Other factors play a more significant role in shaping student success.

For successful small schools, size is just one element of a broader set of characteristics that contribute to their effectiveness, such as a shared vision, strong leadership, a rigorous curriculum, and community support. Some studies highlighting the advantages of small schools are essentially emphasizing the benefits of innovative schools that, despite starting with small enrollments, maintain their effectiveness as they grow. For instance, a 2013 study in the Journal of Urban Economics demonstrated that while breaking up existing high schools in New York City did not impact graduation rates, newly established small schools outperformed other high schools in the city.

In the quest to enhance education, policymakers should not discard the idea of small schools in favor of a new miraculous solution. Instead, they should shift their approach entirely. By establishing rigorous standards, ensuring independent assessments of student performance, and providing crucial information to stakeholders, policymakers should empower districts, schools, and educators to make informed decisions autonomously. School reform should be viewed as a journey of exploration and replication, not as a form of social engineering or bureaucratic control.

Unlike the concept of small schools, school autonomy consistently yields positive results. The majority of peer-reviewed studies demonstrate a significant correlation between school autonomy and student outcomes. Whether public or private, autonomous schools that deliver results may choose to maintain small enrollments or opt for a different approach — as long as they achieve positive outcomes.

John Hood, a member of the John Locke Foundation board, combines epic fantasy with early American history in his latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk (

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