Thursday, September 3, 2015

Consolidation, What Is It Good For?


Tim Collins When schools are abandoned, communities lose a valuable asset. This school in Vermont, Illinois, is no longer helping students or its community.

When you walk into an old rural high school, it’s easy to get some sense of the community’s history from the black and white senior class photos lining the main hall.

You’ll probably notice that the graduating classes were small, except perhaps in the 1960s and 1970s, during the baby boom. Now the classes are small again, as they were 80 or 90 years ago.

Seems to me that small classes worked fairly well in the past. Why not now? What is so scary about smaller school districts that they are driven to consolidate by state and local forces?

Consolidation promises that bigger is better. Larger schools supposedly increase educational value per student and offer more opportunities for learning.

Despite the good intentions of consolidation supporters, theirs is a narrow economic argument that tends to isolate the school as an institution from the well being of both the children and the community. 

Consolidation might make sense where merged districts are relatively small. But it is outmoded in contemporary rural America, given continuing population decline across wide swaths of the already depopulated countryside. Consolidation proponents are asking the wrong questions and pushing the wrong option for children and communities.

Let’s make consolidation the absolute last resort. Instead, let’s recognize that merging districts with financial problems and falling enrollment will not make them better off financially and educationally. Let’s focus on what’s really important — the resources (financial and otherwise) that strong community and school leaders can leverage to improve the well being of children.

It is true that without good school leadership, small schools do not necessarily guarantee high-quality education, although the research does suggest that small classes and schools tend to benefit students.

The main issue is a tradeoff between seemingly lower costs now with consolidation and the longer-run likelihood that smaller, community-based schools can ultimately improve lives, citizenship, and productivity of students when they become adults.

Leaders of small rural schools need to ask different questions:

What about education of children in and for the community?

How can we be creative in using the school to help develop and nurture homegrown opportunities in a global economy, to build our community’s future?

What about the school, not only as an amenity, but also as a vital force in the community? Rural School and Community Trust Schools and school districts have been getting larger for the past several generations.

The reality of rural America today is that most communities are pretty much left to fend for themselves. Rural school consolidation creates a simplistic solution to what may or may not be a problem, but then creates another problem. Consolidation equals yet another disinvestment in rural places.

Moving beyond the lure of consolidation is not easy. Putting this idea aside means rural schools need to be out front in creating community leadership. They need to empower teachers, children, and parents in continuous, child-centered school improvement. At the same time, they need to tap into the rest of the community — not only for money, but also for the time, talents, and energy to engage citizens, teachers, and children in the classroom and in the community.

Rural school leadership involves marshaling financial and nonfinancial resources as a creative investment in future community leaders, the children. Child-centered leaders are primarily concerned with efficient – that is, effective – schools that prepare children for community life.

Yes, skills and knowledge are important, but so are physical and emotional health and a safe place where children can develop roots. Small, rural community schools are not only about the money and the curriculum. They value children as essential to the future of a healthy community. Rural community education is a long-run investment in nurturing children, who are future community leaders. 

Rural communities that are doing well have leadership with a certain “it,” an intangible combination of personalities — an ability to cooperate, accept differences, remain flexible, and respect knowledge, along with an unlimited supply of creativity and optimism.

These qualities lead to an understanding that the global economy is not only navigable, but can be tapped to improve long-run community well being. Rural community schools need to be a source of intellectual and social leadership that builds excellence, capacity for community adaptability, success, and sustainability in a dynamic world. 

Consolidation robs communities of important assets: their children and their schools. Consolidation may seem efficient based on pupil-to-teacher ratios, costs per pupil, and the promise of improved curriculum and higher test scores. But it is hardly efficient, given the costs of transportation and the time children spend away from the school and their families.

School and community leaders who promote consolidation may think they have the well-being of children in mind, but their emphasis on per-unit cost treats students as if they are assembly-line products and not children with differing needs, personalities, and dreams.

Rural schools have provided their communities with doctors, lawyers, ministers, merchants, farmers, and laborers for generations. The notion of schools at the center of rural communities is hardly new. Nor is the idea of child-centered education.

Conditions across rural America now make the case for small, community schools even more compelling.

Rural schools centered on children and community can build lifelong ties between people and places. Besides building community, a task that requires considerable patience, they can be, with the right leadership, a significant financial and social investment in the well being of children educated for the community. 

Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.


Schools and districts

The author too often conflates the argument about the size of school districts with the argument about the size of schools. There are compelling reasons for reducing overhead load by consolidating districts. This does not inevitably mean consolidating schools.

In fact, the debates should be entirely separate. There should be a rational, informed debate on what size district will produce the best results, and a separate but rational and informed debate about what size school will produce the best results.

In many states, very small rural school districts have extremely high overhead costs because the number of students simply can't support the number of administrators efficiently. 

Limited course selections in small rural high schools.

I understand that a school can be the centerpoint of a small rural community but why is it the school's place to stem the "disinvestment" in rural places over the needs of students.  I think the goal of a school should be give students the best education and training to become productive citizens. The author glosses over his statement that larger schools "offer more opportunities for learning".

I taught in a rural farming community in Illinois. The school had 240 students K-12 with 75 being high school students. Students that did not live in walking distant of the school had long bus rides. The K-8 program worked fairly well with small classes. However once the students reached high school, the course selction was extremely limited. The students had ONE social studies class (the state required US history course) that they could take their four years. Math courses did not go beyond Algebra II. All students in each grade level took the same English class. There were no honors or enrichment classes. The tech courses were limited to keyboarding, bookeeping and wood shop. There were no fine arts classes. The small library was housed in a classroom and contained books for K-12.  There was no librarian. Teacher retention was also an issue.  For the most part, these students did not have an understanding of global economy; in fact most of them couldn't see beyond their rural community. Out of a class of 18, four students would further their eduation at the local community college. Rarely would any student even think of attending the state university only 45 miles away. There was very little exposure to "the world" outside their community.

And yes, it does come down to money. Internet classes can pick up some of this demand. However a small school system doesn't have the financial resourses to hire a teacher to teach welding 3 students, or art to 5 interested students.  

I disagree with the author's view that larger schools only treat students as assembly-line products and disregard students' needs, personalities and dreams. Students in small rural high schools are not given the same choices and opportunities regarding their education as students in larger schools. I do not believe that students in small rural high schools should be made to sacrfice the quality and depth of their education just for the sake of having a school in a community.

And for the record, this school system did consolidate with neighboring communities for their high school students. The community hasn't grown much but it certainly has not deteriorated either.

Thank you for your comments


I appreciate your comments on this important and controversial issue.

I agree with Jim about the difference in school size versus district size. In Illinois, however, districts and a school (elementary or high school, for example) and a school system (primary, junior high, high school, for example) are often the same.

I also agree with Barbara's statement that "the goal of a school should be give students the best education and training to become productive citizens." My contention about schools' obligation to stem community disinvestment, however, comes from the literature on community schools and community education, which is not covered extensively in colleges of education. (Please correct me if I am wrong about this.)

Let's face it. Most rural schools cannot do their work well without community support. This is why I argue that they can prosper if they tap into their communities and build leadership that supports the school not only financially, but brings talented people into the classroom under the supervision of qualified teachers. This has worked in many communities, and a search of place-based education or curriculum of place will find examples on the web.

As for my remark about schools as assembly lines, as I was writing the piece I was thinking of a superintendent I met recently who referred to students as products to be moved through the system. A look at education history shows that this is a common, and persistent way of looking at schools, unfortunately. Its manifestation today is characterized by producing as many graduates at the lowest price possible, a philosophy I've seen exercised by too many school boards interested in "adequate" instead of "effective" education.

So, I am grateful for your comments, although we have disagreements. This is what the Daily Yonder was intended to do!