How Schools Went From Small to Supersized
Diane Ravitch, historian of education at New York University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, explained to The Washington Post how high schools became so big:
A century ago, the typical American high school was small and reflected its surrounding community.
Public school officials began to build large high schools in the 1920s to accommodate surging enrollments. From the 1940s to 1970s, many school districts and schools were consolidated to create fewer districts and larger schools. The movement for consolidation had several causes:
First, high school enrollments increased dramatically during the first half of the century in response to a changing economy that required higher levels of education.
Second, Americans admired the business model, tended to believe that "bigger was better" and expected economies of scale to result by building bigger high schools.
Third, in 1959, Harvard President James B. Conant wrote an influential study called "The American High School Today," which called for comprehensive high schools. Conant disparaged small schools because they could not offer a broad array of academic, vocational and general programs.
When Conant reviewed the national situation in 1965, he found that about half of all high school students attended schools with an enrollment between 750 and 2,000, about a third were in schools that enrolled 500 or less, and some 15 to 20 percent were in schools with more than 2,000 students.
By 1996, 70 percent of all high school students attended schools with an enrollment greater than 1,000, and nearly half were in schools with more than 1,500 students.
The movement toward large high schools was accelerated by efforts to promote racial integration. Conant and others observed that schools that drew students from large areas were far more likely to be racially integrated, unlike small schools that served relatively homogeneous neighborhoods and towns.
For all these reasons, large high schools were considered to be progressive because they could offer a diverse student body and a broad range of curriculum choices for all sorts of students, while reformers considered small high schools obsolete.
It is ironic that today's reformers now find themselves undoing the reforms of the 20th century.