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.)*

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Election Night Live-Blog!

Come over to Facebook (link on the left) for our Election Night Live Blogging!  Grab a beverage, pull up a chair, and discuss the latest returns from Election 2010. 

Or, if you're not a fan of the Facebook for whatever reason, post your comments here.  Should be an interesting night!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Election Spying

In light of the upcoming election, I wanted to be an educated voter, so I went online to research the candidates in my area and stumbled across a handy little quiz that pairs up your views on the issues with the best matched candidate. I knew where I stood on all the issues, but decided to take it anyway just for fun. I about fell out of my seat when the results revealed that I share the most views with Libertarians. WHAT? I went back and reviewed the questions and realized that I had misread a question regarding laws and marriage. I changed that one answer and the results threw me back to where I suspected, smack dab in the middle of conservatism. Phew! Dodged a bullet there. But then I started to wonder how could one teeny, tiny answer could cause such a rift between both sides. If we truly have that much in common with members of ‘the other side’ why are the emotions so animated over the few things that we don’t agree on?

So, feeling like a spy, I decided to go to websites that support the other sides. I started with the Libertarian party’s website since the quiz almost catapulted me there. At first glance, it seemed promising because its slogan is ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Freedom’. Sounds good to me. I dug deeper. After searching its website, I quickly realized where I had problems with their way of thinking. It lists 5 points of Libertarian belief referring to: America’s heritage, caring for others, politics based on self-ownership (these three points I more or less basically agreed with), but then a couple of points threw up red flags for me: free and independent, and tolerant. I have a romanticized vision of the wild west and am pretty much for marshal law in times of crises, however, this idea of ‘live and let live’ seems a rather irresponsible approach to governing. It reminds me of the phrase, “you got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.” Another one of my biggest complaints is their opinion to legalize drugs. It would be like a parent who knows that their child smokes pot, but then is shocked when their child begins to do other illegal activity or loses all motivation to do anything but smoke pot. Responsibility is not a bad thing. I want a responsible government representing my family and me. I have since learned that the previously mentioned handy quiz was created by the Libertarian party to change the way others see them. They may have initially done that in my mind, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that almost half of their platform is ridiculous.

On the particular quiz I took, Statism was listed as the opposite of Libertarian. While there is no Statist party in the U.S. (mainly because that belief system is essentially as un-American as you can get), I peaked at Wikipedia’s definition only to confirm my sad belief that economic statism (a.k.a. socialism) is alive and well and is seeping into the mainstream of the foundation of the U.S.A. Maybe President Obama should refer to that the next time he wants the government to purchase an automaker. Quite frankly, I had nothing in common with the Statist belief. Oppression was the heavy word that came to my mind.

And on to the opposite of most RR readers, I looked up Liberalism (a.k.a left wing, Democrat, crazy—oops wait, not that). I really have a hard time saying this, but some of my favorite people are Democrats. That is why I get so confused when someone that I would obviously have much in common with otherwise could possibly be on that side of the quiz. How different are we? Well, the Dem’s website has a very sweet sentiment when you read what they believe in.

Here’s a quote from the website, “Democrats recognize that our country and our economy are strongest when they provide opportunity for all Americans—when we grow our country from the bottom up…Democrats stand for an abiding faith in the judgment of hardworking American families, and a commitment to helping the excluded, the disenfranchised and the poor strengthen our nation by earning themselves a piece of the American Dream…Democrats believe that each of us has an obligation to each other, to our neighbors and our communities. Each of us has a role to play in creating our future—and while we have made great progress as a nation, we know that our work is never done.” Or rephrased from my observation: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

I can easily pick apart that paragraph alone: provide opportunity for all sounds nice, except when they step all over my freedom to do so. It’s like grading on a curve, the person with the highest grade always gets the bad end by making their hard work not as valuable because their grade is not based on the work, but on the comparison of everyone else’s work. Grow our country from the bottom up…yeah right. I’m sure there are certain circumstances that all politicians have had to overcome, but don’t try to fool me when the majority of people in power who are trying to grow the country from the bottom up were born with a silver spoon in hand. Helping the excluded…by earning themselves a piece of the American Dream. Have they forgotten that is what free enterprise is? That is the American Dream. You aren’t doing anyone any favors by giving that which they should do on their own. You can’t give gumption. You can’t give creativity. How ridiculous does it sound to “help someone by earning themselves”?!?!? They are missing their own point of earning themselves. That means without help.

That does explain why I am so fond of several Democrats! I truly believe that most Democrats (minus Nancy Pelosi—she’s E-V-I-L haha) think that influence and money is enough to change others. It is a common pattern in life, but the truth always dispels that belief. They are the governmental version to enablers to drug addicts. They are the nosy and meddling aunt whose intentions are good, but the plan is flawed. They are the ‘Helicopter parents’ as described in the book “Parenting with Love & Logic”. They hate to see the natural consequences that others receive for making wrong choices. They are the wives that think controlling their husbands will change them. I won’t even go into their stance on the issues because I feel as though they look at problems in an idealistic view versus reality.

All in all, I see we have many similarities with our political counterparts, but the differences are valid. It is important to know who you vote for. If you vote because you like a guy’s personality rather than his belief system, you will be disappointed. Just look at all the angry people who voted for Obama. He was the most likeable presidential candidate, but that saavyness ended up polarizing most of America. We as a free society, do need the liberals even though they can frustrate us. They can provide a sense of balance (when debating on a mud-free platform). I can’t help but allude to the example that sometimes my husband and I don’t agree on personal matters and he can frustrate me. In our personal ‘debates’ we usually come to some sort of compromise or when he has a valid point, I submit to that stance. In the end, when we are respectful of each others feelings, the result is better than what I originally imagined. My idealistic hope would be that we as a country could somehow go back to the common ground and not demonize each other, but have healthy debates that could get our great nation back on track.

Since that handy little quiz was taken, I received my handy little voter’s guide in the mail. Quite honestly, it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. The majority of candidates didn’t even answer the questions. So, with Election Day right around the corner, I encourage you to really take some time to research who and what is on the ballot. I guarantee it won’t be easy, but being an informed voter is a good thing. Don’t just vote for your party just because. I think that is how so many crooks snuck into Congress to begin with. It always stinks when you are voting for the lesser of two evils, however, knowing that is empowering and can give you ammo for the next primary.

Happy Voting, RR! Grab your tea and have a party!