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Assessing the Effects of Small School Size on Mathematics Achievement: A Propensity Score-Matching Approach


by Adam E. Wyse, Venessa Keesler & Barbara Schneider — 2008

Background: Small schools have been promoted as an educational reform that is capable of improving student outcomes. However, a survey of the research on small schools indicates that much of the movement for decreasing school size is based primarily on correlational methods that do not control for selection effects in the data. In addition, several recent studies have suggested that smaller schools may be able to increase student attendance and graduation rates but that these gains might not necessarily translate into gains in student achievement.

Purpose: This study investigates the potential effect of attending smaller schools on student mathematics achievement using propensity score matching techniques.

Research Design: Data in the study are from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002 and represent over 12,000 high school students. Observed student responses from 10th and 12th grade are used in the analyses.

Data Collection and Analysis: An estimate of the potential effect of attending smaller schools is determined by matching students in the largest schools to smaller schools of four different sizes using propensity score matching techniques. These methods are used to attempt to account for selection effects present in these data and to approximate what the effect of attending a smaller school would be in each case.

Results: Results from the study suggest that simply switching students to smaller school environments does not necessarily raise the mathematics achievement of students in the largest schools. Further analysis indicated that there did not appear to be an optimal range of school sizes that would provide maximum levels of student mathematics achievement.

Conclusion: This study suggests that creating smaller schools might not be the best mechanism to raise student achievement. It is suggested that policy makers make careful deliberations before deciding to invest in small schools as an educational reform, because it is hard to establish when they will or will not be successful. Further research is needed into what makes some small schools effective.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 9, 2008, p. 1879-1900
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15175, Date Accessed: 10/21/2017 10:51:04 PM

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About the Author
  • Adam E. Wyse
    Michigan State University
    ADAM E. WYSE is a doctoral student and graduate research associate in the Measurement and Quantitative Methods program at Michigan State University. His research interests include educational assessments, educational policy, and psychometrics. Recent publications include “Is Small Really Better? Testing Some Assumptions of School Size” with Barbara Schneider and Venessa Keesler, in Brookings Papers on Education Policy 2006/2007 (Brookings Institution, 2007).
  • Venessa Keesler
    Michigan State University
    VENESSA KEESLER is a doctoral student and graduate research associate in the Measurement and Quantitative Methods program at Michigan State University. Her research interests include sociology of education, educational policy, and quantitative methods. Recent publications include “School Reform 2007: Transforming Education Into a Scientific Enterprise” with Barbara Schneider (in Annual Review of Sociology, Volume 33) and “Scaling-Up Exemplary Interventions” with Sarah-Kathryn McDonald, Nils Kauffman, and Barbara Schneider (in Educational Researcher, Volume 35).
  • Barbara Schneider
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    BARBARA SCHNEIDER is the John A. Hannah Chair University Distinguished Professor in the College of Education and professor of sociology in the Department of Sociology at Michigan State University. Her research interests include sociology of education, scale-up research, and quasi-experimental designs for estimating causal effects. Recent publications include “Scale-up in Education, Volume 1: Ideas in Principle” and “Scale-Up in Education, Volume 2: Issues in Practice” with Sarah-Kathryn McDonald (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); and “Estimating Causal Effects Using Experimental and Observational Designs” with Martin Carnoy, Jeremy Kilpatrick, William Schmidt, and Richard Shavelson (American Educational Research Association, 2007).
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