Last year South Dakota's Department of Education notified nine districts that under a new state law they would have to consolidate, in part at least, because they had schools with fewer than 100 students. This caught my attention because I've been telling my friends how great it was that my daughter went to a small school. Our family experienced so many benefits - due largely to the fact that the school was small - that I thought it time someone proposed that no school have more than 100 students. Yet a multi-decade trend in school consolidation - with no sign of abating - promotes "minimum enrollment requirements" and seemingly fails to act on an accumulation of evidence that small is better.
Just the Facts
The statistics on school district and school consolidation are startling. When the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) began tracking the number of districts and schools 70 years ago, it found that the United States had more than 117,000 school districts, collectively operating about 250,000 schools, and serving a total student population of just over 25 million (hey, evenly distributed that would be about 100 students per school). By the year 2000 there were only about 15,000 school districts nationwide, operating about 92,000 schools but serving a total student population of nearly 47 million students (evenly distributed that's more than 500 students per school).
During this same time frame, according to a study by Kiernan Killeen and John Sipple at Cornell University, the percentage of students bused to school increased from under 10 percent to more than 60 percent. Student transportation costs (adjusted for inflation) followed suit, remaining below $2 billion annually through the mid-1950s but escalating to more than $10 billion by the year 2000.
This massive consolidation has raised numerous questions and concerns, some of the loudest coming from the Rural School and Community Trust. In one of its many reports and research reviews it suggests that school and district consolidation "raises important questions that are fundamental to the American democratic enterprise, including: Which communities are allowed to govern their schools? Which communities are allowed to have a school? Do citizens have a right to participate in these decisions?" These are important questions of politics and policy, but what about issues such as student achievement, student behavior, and operational costs? Does school size make a difference?
Rural vs. Urban
When I last wrote on this topic (Small Schools, Big Benefits, November 2007) my focus was on large urban districts and the benefits of reducing school size, particularly with regard to helping students feel a greater sense of belonging to the school community, which leads to improved social behavior and a safer, more secure school environment.
Despite the fact that these social and safety benefits hold for small rural schools, consolidation is still the trend, driven largely by the belief that it leads to improved academic results and lower operating costs. Both claims seem reasonable, but there is ample evidence that they are unfounded and should be dismissed. According to a review of research by the Rural School and Community Trust, small schools promote higher achievement and get better academic results, including more students likely to take advanced level courses; more students likely to participate in extracurricular activities; lower dropout rates; higher graduation rates; and a greater likelihood of academic success in college.
Moreover, researchers Lorna Jimerson and Marty Strange found that "teachers in small schools tend to be more satisfied with their jobs, have less absenteeism, and take more responsibility for ensuring that their students are successful in school." Additionally, with ever expanding access to distance education and high quality virtual school curriculum options, teachers in small schools are better able to offer a strong core curriculum customized to individual student needs and interests.
When it comes to operating costs, the research favors smaller rural schools as well. Consolidation generally increases transportation costs, but it also may boost other more hidden costs related to increased dropout rates and more deviant social behavior. Moreover, administrative costs are reduced in small schools when principals serve more than one school or when they serve as part-time administrator and part-time teacher.
Based on research and advances in communication technologies, it seems we should be expanding not consolidating, but why stop at 500,000 schools? Why not 1,000,000?
Daniel E. Kinnaman is publisher of District Administration.