• from EducationNews.org, December 13, 2005 - "Smaller vs. Larger School Systems"
  • from The Columbus Dispatch, December 17, 2005 - "Smaller systems beneficial to education"


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Smaller vs. Larger School Systems
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Smaller Systems Beneficial to Education

December 13-17, 2005

By William L. Bainbridge

Thirty years ago, smaller school systems and small schools were common and were being assailed as obstacles to effective public education. Now the foundation of the world’s richest person, Bill Gates, and most knowledgeable researchers are promoting "small" as major solutions to improve student performance.

The issue of large school districts vs. smaller ones seems to recycle at least once each decade in legislatures across the country. Prior to World War II, the United States had more than 120,000 school systems averaging about 250 students. Today, the nation has 15,573 districts; most have one school board, one superintendent and average about 3,200 students. Some states have gone to countywide systems, and Hawaii’s is statewide.

Although there has not been sufficient research to document all of the effects of student population on academic achievement, three decades of research reveals that schools with populations of 350 to 500 can boost student achievement – as long as qualified teachers, capable administrators and a challenging curriculum also are in play. Conversely, states with the largest systems tend to have the low student achievement. While there is a statistically consistent negative relationship between increased student achievement and larger systems, many of the large systems also are negatively affected by high poverty rates.

But those experts who favor of smaller schools argue that consolidation of small districts has created:

  • Increased bureaucracy.
  • More power in large teachers’ unions.
  • Greater influence of special interest groups.
  • Difficulty in choosing places to live with reliable and consistent school attendance areas.
  • Decreased parent volunteerism.
  • Increased teacher absences from the classroom.
  • Lower student graduation rates than smaller systems.
  • Unfair competition from private schools that are, on average, a third smaller than individual public school buildings.
  • Complex processes to resolve inequities, conflicts and grievances.
  • Noncompetitive substitute teacher programs.
  • Lack of effective communication with parents.
  • Reduced influence of individual taxpayers, employers and parents on the future work force and citizenry since administrators and school-board members have much larger constituencies.

Recognizing the problems inherent in increasing the size of the average school system has given birth to strategies to solve the problems of small rural and suburban school systems without resorting to consolidation.

For example, legislatures in New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa and Oregon have created so-called intermediate-unit districts, which allow autonomy but provide services and a variety of academic programs. Clusters have been formed to foster science programs, specialized materials, microcomputers, staff development and in-service training for administrators.

Also, a number of neighboring school systems have agreed to share facilities, equipment and even personnel. Such sharing allows districts to remain separate and relatively small, while gaining services and curricular programs, special-education services and vocational offerings.

Modern educational technology makes it possible for small schools to have access to a broader range of information and curricular offerings, enabling learning opportunities to be expanded without a need for consolidation. "Distance learning" is one alternative to mergers for enhancing instructional offerings. Such innovations were not widely available during the last great consolidation eras of the 1960s and 1970s.

While individual examples of good school systems can be selected from every size school system, there is ample evidence to indicate that Gates and others may have good reason to be pushing for smaller teaching and learning units.


is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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