By Daniel Downs
From the 1930s through 1970s, a national school consolidation movement occurred that was inspired by educational reformers like Ellwood Cubberley and James Conant. Thousands of small schools across the state and nation were closed. Larger school districts were created and larger school buildings were built to accommodate the new students in smaller classes. The sales pitch for school consolidation was cost saving efficiency, more curricular choice, higher wages for teachers, and, consequently, a higher quality of education resulting in higher student achievement.
The recent outcry of both politicians and businesses point to a failure to deliver the goods. Although more money is spent per capita on public education than any other nation, American youth are underachieving in science, math, and often failing in reading and writing. These were the same problems used to justify increased spending on schooling in the 1980s and in the 1960s. Moreover, the same problems of school drop out rates and the education gap remain the ballyhoo of professional educators, businesses, and politicians. The latter problem has been glaringly evident in big cities where school consolidation was supposed to show the greatest results.
Xenia Community School district is a by-product of that consolidation reform. Like neighboring school districts and others throughout the nation, inter-school district consolidation is the cost-saving reform movement of the 21st century. It is being funded by dirty “tobacco money” and will prove to produce in-kind results.
In previous articles, I presented education research demonstrating that small neighborhood schools enable the best learning environments in which quality education becomes possible. Smaller schools enable more interaction between administrators, teachers, and students. Parents are often more involved in their children’s schooling. Teachers enjoy teaching more and student achievement is greater in smaller schools. Because crime, vandalism, truancy, dropout, and other behavioral problems occur less in smaller schools, everyone is able to achieve more. As a result, a much higher percentage of students graduate and later obtain college degrees. These are common factors in the many studies and reports on small schools.
When reviewing the research literature again, I found the maximum school population was wrong. The studies I previously had used claimed the above benefits were consistent in schools up to 400 students, but new studies claim the upper limit should be less than 300 for elementary schools. For example, a 2003 University of Missouri study found that elementary aged students form low socio-economic households performed better in small schools. These findings are similar to many other studies as well. Students in Missouri schools with enrollments 200 and under achieved the highest SAT-9 test scores in reading, math, science, and social studies. Interestingly, the Cincinnati-based Knowledge Works Foundation funded a study titled “Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools.” In the study lead by educator Barbara Lawrence, an upper enrollment level of 150 for grades 1-6 and 200 for grades 1-8 were recommended based on a review of all relevant studies.
Because small schools benefit students from lower income households, one third or more of Xenia students can expect a poorer quality of education if forced to attend larger consolidated schools.
More important possibly than educational quality research are studies on the return of schooling. A return on schooling refers to the economic returns on an investment in schooling and in this case public schooling. While most studies focus on either the number of years of schooling or qualitative factors like academic achievement, a research study by Christopher Berry of Harvard University addresses economic impacts of school size. In his research paper titled “School Size and Returns to Education,” Berry finds the only consistent factor negatively impacting income levels is school size. That is men who had attended small schools earned more income later in life than those who had attended large schools. He analyzed teacher salary, class size, district size, and state funding finding only school size impacted future income. With an increase of 100 students, Berry calculated the average decrease of future income would be 3.7 percent. If the average income is $50,000 and school size is 300, then those who had attended schools with 400 students will likely earn only $48,150 or those of a lower socio-economic class whose members on average earn a yearly income of $25,000 can expect to make about $24,000.
Therefore, Xenia students can expect to earn less income during their careers because they attended larger consolidated schools.
The argument that larger schools cost less to operate is true. However, it is also true that smaller schools cost less per pupil because of higher graduation rates, higher attendance levels, and fewer behavioral problems, resulting in a higher quality of learning overall.
Whether or not it is too late to change the rebuilding plan–only lawyers would know, it is certainly not too late to force the state to change its enrollment policy and to make future plans for Xenia Schools. For example, instead of settling for five larger elementary schools, a new plan should include rebuilding or building small schools near Arrowwood, Spring Hill (without a basement), possibly Wright Cycle Estates, and elsewhere.
Sources: “Why Small School Are Best,” Xenia Daily Gazette, April 28, 2008 and “It’s All About the Money,” Xenia Daily Gazette, April 29, 2008. John Alspaugh and Rui Gao, “School Size as a Factor in Elementary School Achievement,” University of Missouri, April 28, 2003. CR Berry’s research has been republished in the book Beseiged: School Boards and the Future of Education Politics, 2006 and in the Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, April 2010.