"In the school-size debate, smaller appears to be better" from the SARASOTA HERALD-TRIBUNE

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December 10, 2005

By William L. Bainbridge

In the school-size debate, smaller appears to be better

A well-organized group of concerned parents in St. Johns County, Florida, recently suggested increasing the size of elementary schools in one of the nation's fastest growing school systems. These well meaning parents argue that larger elementary schools provide a better alternative than seeing their neighborhood attendance centers re-assigned to different elementary schools. This appears to be an idea that goes against the grain of current trends and research on student success.

At the same time in Tallahassee, State Senator Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, and State Rep. Fred Brummer, R-Apopka, are proposing a constitutional amendment to allow citizens to vote on the creation of smaller school districts within counties. Wise and Brummer contend Florida educators could do a better job of teaching students if our unusually large consolidated school systems were divided into smaller districts. The districts would be divided only if local citizens approve such a measure at the polls.Voters across the state could make the choice about school size on a permissive referendum in 2006. While some politicians, educators and lobbyists oppose this measure the concept has great merit.

Thirty years ago, smaller school systems and small schools were commonplace, and were being assailed on both political and educational fronts as an obstacle to effective public education. Now the foundation established by the world's richest person, Bill Gates, and most knowledgeable researchers are promoting smaller schools and school systems as major solutions to improve student performance.

How does the relative size of schools and school systems reflect the changing needs of public education? The issue of large public school districts versus smaller ones seems to recycle at least once each decade in legislatures across the country. This policy dispute has been going on throughout the natural lives of most of us.

Prior to World War II, the United States had over 120,000 school systems averaging in size about 250 pupils. Today state laws have reduced public systems to one-eighth the number or 15,573 total. Most have one school board, one superintendent and average about 3200 pupils. Some states have gone to countywide systems while Hawaii is statewide.

Although there has not been sufficient research to document all of the effects of school system population on student achievement, three decades of research reveals that schools with smaller populations (350-500 pupils), highly qualified teachers, capable administrators and a challenging curriculum can positively influence student achievement. The fact is that states with the largest school systems tend to have the lowest student achievement. Back when the school consolidation movement had a political head of steam, some of our nation's best school districts were in urban centers. Today, researchers believe that larger school systems serving higher poverty level urban centers can gravely effect student success.

While there is a statistically consistent negative relationship between increased student achievement and larger school system size, many of the large systems are also negatively impacted by high poverty rates.

Those in favor of smaller schools argue that consolidation 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;
  • non-competitive substitute teacher programs;
  • lack of effective communication with parents;
  • reduced influence of individual taxpayers, employers and parents on the future workforce and citizenry since administrators and school board members have much larger constituencies.
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 1960's and 1970's.

While individual examples of good schools and school systems can be selected from every conceivable sized category, 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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