Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rural Schools: Going Forward by Looking Back?

If you live in a rural area in the United States, chances are that you are near a school district that has undergone the consolidation of schools in multiple small towns into one, larger school in the past few years. As I wrote about here, rural communities are generally shrinking and aging, which obviously leads to lower school enrollment as there are fewer school-aged children around. At the same time, property tax revenues - nearly half of which nationwide are used to fund public elementary and secondary schools - have been declining in recent years due to lower property values and the generally poor economy (and, at least where I live [in Colorado], ag land assessments are not based on market value - thus limiting how much the upward spiral of land prices can contribute to property tax growth). Given these two considerations, it is natural for school districts to want to save money. What more could any conservative want than for government entities to do more with less?

The problem - or, rather, the first problem - is that study after study concludes that the perceived savings achieved by consolidation are minimal at best. University of Michigan researches reported in 1994 that "there is very little evidence that larger educational units will achieve economics of scale in administration or operations." The Rural School and Community Trust summarized the literature on the subject by saying, "Projected cost savings from consolidation are either temporary or illusory because lower costs in some expenditure categories" [e.g., administration] "are often offset by higher costs in other areas" [e.g., transportation].

The other major problem with school consolidation is simply that it tends to have negative results for both students and the surrounding communities. Bard, Gardener, and Wieland, writing in The Rural Educator in 2006, summarize their findings by saying, in part:
• Smaller districts have higher achievement, affective and social outcomes...
• Local school officials should be wary of merging several smaller elementary schools, at least if the goal is improved performance.
• After a school closure, out migration, population decline, and neighborhood
deterioration are set in motion, and support for public education diminishes.
• There is no solid foundation for the belief that eliminating school districts will improve education, enhance cost-effectiveness or promote equality.
• Students from low income areas have better achievement in small

However, the fact remains that many rural schools are in drastic - and disproportionate - need of improvement. Only about a fifth of American students attend rural schools, yet those same rural schools "account for an estimated one-third of the roughly 5,000 schools nationwide targeted for improvement." But how can schools improve when facing decreasing revenue streams and frequent budget shortfalls?

The answer - according to Lips, Watkins, and Fleming - is not to simply throw more money at the problem (even if the money were available). They suggest that "policymakers should resist proposals to increase funding for public education" because "[h]istorical trends and other evidence suggest that simply increasing funding... has not led to corresponding improvement in academic achievement." Combine this with the case made above against school consolidation, and readers are probably wondering what other alternatives might exist.

A starting point may be to realize that the very schools now threatened by consolidation are themselves the product of previous consolidation. As anyone who's ever read Little House on the Prairie or seen "Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman" knows, most rural areas in the Midwest and West were once served by iconic "one room schoolhouses." In fact, those schoolhouses were the primary mode of education for children up to about 8th grade in my part of the country until the middle of the Twentieth Century. The first half of my dad's siblings attended a country school; the younger ones were bused into town.

So, what happened to all of those schools? Was there something fundamentally flawed with that model of education? In the view of Bard, et al., the biggest strike against them seems to have simply been intellectual fashion:

The rise of industry in urban areas in the late nineteenth century contributed to the school consolidation movement. The prevailing belief during the industrial revolution was that education could contribute to an optimal social order using organizational techniques adapted from industry (Orr, 1992). Early school reformers and policy makers felt that an industrialized society required all schools to look alike, and began to advocate more of an urban, centralized model of education... urban and larger schools were adopted as the “one best model,” and from this context rural schools were judged deficient.

However, the new schools (which we now consider the mainstream) were inferior to the old model in several important ways. This is now being recognized by reformers of the large, urban schools that served as the "one best model" decades ago - so much so that The New York Times reported that "the fundamental aspects of teaching inside them [one room schoolhouses] - from multi-age classrooms and peer tutoring to interdisciplinary projects and keeping students with the same teacher for more than one year - are being copied in large school systems across the country."

The same Times article (which highlighted one of an estimated 380 traditional one room schools still operating in the US) quotes Professor Andrew Gulliford of Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado as saying:

One-room schools really represent, I think, the best model for training American children for the first through the eighth grades... In terms of ego development, in terms of character, in terms of personality, in terms of the well-rounded individual fitting in with the group, country schools are very efficient - they helped train generations of Americans... In a one-room schoolhouse, every child counts - they've always counted, whether it was 1890 or 1990. How can you say that in most modern educational systems today? It's just not true.
This superior model may also be far more cost-effective than our current system. Charlie Martin, writing for, conducted a "thought experiment" in which he developed a proposal for a one room school in midtown Manhattan. Parker used the general class-size and square footage of a preserved schoolhouse he had visited at the Adams County, Colorado Historical Society, but equipped his hypothetical school with new furniture and modern technology (including one computer for every two students, internet connections, plus $1,000 each for other books and supplies). Applying the current per-pupil funding in New York City, he was left - after paying to rent, furnish, and supply his school - with $230,000 to apply to the cost of salary and benefits for a teacher.

Sadly, the public education system in the United States has gradually become so unionized, bureaucratized, and monopolistic that such dramatic institutional change is likely to take decades (if it is even possible). There are some things concerned parents and/or taxpayers can do within the system to pursue real change: in Douglas County, Colorado, four Republicans ran for school board as an organized slate of candidates specifically to oppose union-backed candidates in November of 2009, and they won. One year later, the Douglas County school district is seriously considering a proposal in which it "could be the first wealthy, high-performing district to introduce vouchers." In California, a "parent trigger" law went into effect this January which gives parents of students in failing schools a mechanism that can "trigger a forcible transformation of the school - either by inviting a charter operator to take it over, by forcing certain administrative changes, or by shutting it down outright."

But these options will be (and have been) fought tooth and nail by those who benefit from the status quo - typically the teachers' unions - and inevitably take a great deal of time to set in motion. Once successfully implemented, they may still be for naught as an activist judge or court could overturn them, as the Colorado Supreme Court did with the state legislature's last effort to provide a voucher program in the most poorly performing districts. As Eva Moskowitz, the charter school founder prominently featured in the film The Lottery, says, "Parents need options now. Their 5 year old can’t wait five years."

One immediate option available for parents who are able and willing to take on the work, financial hardship, and possible stigmatization is to homeschool. Especially when more than one sibling is being educated, children receive many of the benefits listed for one room schools: mixed age classes, peer tutoring, keeping students with the same teacher for multiple years, and (of course) individualized attention. If parents can find at least one other family with whom they share these ideals and are willing to keep "minimal records" and abide by other statuory requirements, Colorado law actually permits them to establish an "independent school" in which "The administrator can be one of the parents... teachers are the parents, and all teaching is done in separate campus sites in each home." So, even if the days of the schoolhouse are essentially over, rural parents may want to consider the idea of "house schools" for their young wards.

*(Black and white photographs used above were taken for the United States Library of Congress and are considered public domain.)*