Speak Your Piece: Small(er) Schools

For a short time, the small-school movement was the hot trend in education. Though the field has moved on to the next new craze, more research is showing that small schools make a positive difference. Just be careful how you apply these lessons to a rural setting.

Share This:

Education advocates who favor smaller schools for rural communities ought to be pleased with the findings of two research reports – one that shows small schools improve student achievement and another that says school consolidation creates more economic problems than it solves.

But, unfortunately, the research is so focused on urban settings it’s nearly impossible to draw conclusions about how the studies might apply to rural areas. It’s a common problem for mainstream education researchers, who can’t seem to get their heads around rural issues.

How Much Does “The Truth” Cost?

There hasn’t been as much research lately about the positive impact of smaller schools. Ever since Bill Gates spent a couple of billion dollars to prove that small schools don’t work for his purposes (true: they didn’t).

Gates proved it by dumping nearly a billion and a half dollars into big cities to establish “small schools.” These were generally high schools of one small size, about 400 kids. But then an expensive evaluation didn’t show big gains everywhere within a year or two, and Gates pulled the plug. Maybe he had other reasons: realizing, for instance that the level of funding wasn’t sustainable because it could bankrupt the foundation over the 10 or so years it would take to institutionalize a profoundly different pattern for urban schooling.

Nonetheless, actual empirical research (as opposed to throwing money at a problem and chatting it up far and wide) continues to suggest the value of smaller schools and districts.

We doubt that anyone, anymore, is listening, though. Imagine that you set two piles of paper in front of someone.  One pile is a stack of cash; the other a four-inch stack of dull reading. Which would you chose? No contest!

The metaphor’s not exactly right, sure. You don’t get to keep the billions. But someone did, and their involvement at least buys silence (in far too many cases). Money talks, especially when it says “shut up.” So much for the “small schools movement.” It seems quite dead (maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see it in the academic journals or the popular press: Gates rendered it yet another fad). But this is how education philanthropy works in the neoliberal era. Carnegie built libraries; Gates helps kill public schools. Great. We don’t need citizens: just employees of giant firms and consumers of the products of giant firms.

To our minds as pointy-headed researchers, though, the small-schools movement was always oversold. The reason is clear: To sell something in the American education “marketplace,” it has to be oversold. We have 100 years of fads to prove it—none worth anything (at least not in the form the fads were brought to “market”). So the small-schools movement joined a long tradition, and Gates helped with tremendous charity.

So a billion dollars or two is very persuasive when it comes to “proving” what doesn’t work. In research we call this sort of demonstration “falsification”: establishing a truth by trying to prove it wrong. It’s a good idea, but money isn’t data. Well, in research we don’t actually insist on an exchange of funds. But, come to think of it, the research enterprise does indeed run on money. And Gates did spend a bundle on the evaluation that cut his small-schools juggernaut short.

Recent Movement to Falsify the Billionaire

Despite the expensive Gates “falsification,” actual research on smaller school size continues to appear. It gets better and better: But in all the goodness, rural doesn’t get very much attention.

Two of my favorite recent pieces are Ilyana Kuziemko’s Indiana 2006 study, which used the word “rural” once in its text; and the just-published piece by Howard Bloom and Rebecca Unterman on the New York City small-schools experiment, which predictably doesn’t. (There are quite a few such New York studies, and this one is perhaps the best yet.)

Kuziemko used natural enrollment changes (“shocks”) to set up a pre- and post-consolidation comparison. She found that increases in school sizes that resulted from the consolidations exacted an achievement cost. She calculated how much these achievements costs would reduce students’ future earnings. It’s very funny, if you can get the joke (black humor): The costs to future earnings outstrip the cost of keeping smaller schools open. It’s better education and more cost-effective. Ordinarily, we’d call this a “win-win situation.” Not in America (where we invented the dumb phrase.) No, because whenever financial crisis strikes, as in the 2008 Great Recession, state legislators and their big-business supporters suggest closing as many small rural schools as possible (we saw this in Ohio in 2010)—to save money and make education more efficient.

Photo by Jeffrey Reed
The Gainestown Schoolhouse in Gainestown, Alabama was built in 1919 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Bloom and Unterman used the New York City school lottery, which assigns applicants to schools, to set up a natural experiment for assessing graduation rates. It’s the closest one can get to a genuine experiment, the so-called “gold standard” of randomized controlled trials—the sort of research said to prove causality. Here, the applicants were impoverished and diverse, and they were randomly assigned to schools—presto, an experiment. The experiment fits in with findings from correlational studies (the bronze standard) that have found that smaller schools particularly benefit kids from impoverished families, whereas bigger schools damage their education. Guess what? In this situation we can now say that smaller schools cause higher graduation rates. Whoopee. Without the word “cause,” we’ve known this fact for decades—it’s one of the most durable findings in school-size research.

Rural Oversight

No, we can’t start celebrating in rural places just yet—or shouldn’t, unless we want to play into metro-centric professional hands. Neither of these researchers “gets” rural. They work east of the Hudson River, in the famed City at the Center of the World (title of a good history of that storied city).

The researchers don’t take time to read up on rural issues and therefore don’t, can’t and won’t say anything about rural applications of their findings. Neither study engages rural issues in any way. It’s up to us to connect the dots.

On one hand, the Kuziemko piece clearly is relevant to state-level consolidation schemes, however, and the reference list at least demonstrates awareness of a rural connection (two entries—wow). It’s also relevant because state legislatures are the ones that arrange for the merging of rural school districts and the closing of rural schools. Kuziemko gets a B for rural attentiveness, by implication. We circulate this piece to rural citizens fighting to keep their schools open.

On the other hand, Bloom and Unterman, weren’t funded for rural. The delicious irony with their study is that it was funded by Gates! After all, 1) big cities like New York were where Gates dumped most of the lucre that undermined the “small schools” movement, and 2) New York was the city where small schools actually seemed promising, right up until Gates withdrew its massive funding (a move that “hit like an A-bomb,” a famed big-city, small-schools advocate in Chicago told us).

Perhaps the Gates Foundation funded this new research because it felt bad about abandoning the big-city, small-schools strategy so quickly. Now, based on the results of this study, it can feel worse. This research study, however, says nothing about how the findings might apply to rural schools. So we give this report a D minus. That grade goes to the Gates Foundation, however, not the researchers, who were just following orders. This is how funded research works: Side trips are too costly. Especially westward from the Hudson River.

Here’s what the authors of the research report write about how their study might apply elsewhere: “Other school districts looking to implement SSCs [for ‘small schools of choice’] should assess whether they have the same human and political capital to draw upon”

Capacity Thieving

Split a gut, rural America! Rural America’s small schools need to assess whether they have the capacity to be small? It’s not like most U.S. districts aren’t pretty small (with a median district enrollment nationwide of about 3,000). This is a factoid known well to the American Association of School Administrators, for instance, but not really to Gates or the denizens of the Isle of Manhattan. Mainstream researchers tend to remain ignorant about such matters. We know this from long experience with them.

Are we convinced that smaller schools are better overall? Certainly. But the devil is in the comparative “smaller.” We need to explain that the 20th-century ideal for school size (way-too-big at about 1,500 for high schools) persists as the perfect set up for schools that look and operate like factories and prisons. But should all high schools enroll 600-900 students, as one team of liberal and urban-oriented researchers has insisted (actually trudging to West Virginia to “disseminate” this happy finding to the presumably ignorant and sentimental hillbillies, whose legislators and state officials were already doing a world-class job of closing schools)? Does an optimal school size (also) exist for K-2, K-4, K-5, K-6, 6-8, and 9-12 schools? One size for each, which fits everywhere? No.

Such an idea of “the best” represents industrial thinking—the one best way (for everything). We don’t believe in such universal bests, however, because communities and cultures differ. And rural communities are vigorously diverse.

For us, the principle of smaller (smaller: let’s repeat it) makes logical, social and psychological sense when the effort at hand relates to actually forming minds. If one is up to something else with schooling (inculcating chants, conditioning salivation, getting students ready for incarceration): not so much.

These (Kuziemko and the Gates’s-bought effort) are good studies, but they are not as much help to us as they might seem, because they hardly engage rural realities at all. Activists with whom we’ve worked note that rural school boards and superintendents bent on closing smaller schools really can tell when a study doesn’t mention rural!

The urban small-schools movement is, in fact, another form of extraction from rural places. It moves a rural schooling practice—small size—to cities. But rural consolidation continues, as that team that visited West Virginia argued—those rural small schools are that way by default: they can’t help it, and they don’t mean it. Wow. The result? Rural folks get left with the mess of consolidation: about like the nation getting cheap energy and rural places getting ruined communities, economies, water, and land from drilling, mining, and timbering. All these evils keep rural areas ripe for continuing plunder. It works for everybody; that is, for 80% of everybody—the greatest good for the greatest number. Sorry, rural.

For Gates, this form of extraction became really big business for a short while. It was over very, very fast. So, to those of you who want to advocate for smaller schools in rural areas, use this research as needed. Just remember that it is bad news wrapped up as good. And be prepared when you’re told it’s not rural.

Craig Howley studies rural education from his home base in Appalachian Ohio. Cailtlin Howley is an education researcher in West Virginia.


Topics: Education

News Briefs