Thursday, February 3, 2011

Consolidation Debunked (Again)

A new study was released this past week from the National Education Policy Center titled, Consolidation of Schools and Districts: What the Research Says and What it Means. Authored by Craig Howley, Jerry Johnson and Jennifer Petrie, Ohio University, the study cites nearly ten pages of previous research findings and extensive publications concluding emphatically “that a century of consolidation has already produced most of the efficiencies obtainable...and in the largest jurisdictions, (those enrolling 15,000 or more students) efficiencies have likely been exceeded.”

The study does a very nice job of summarizing the history of consolidation, particularly since 1920, highlighting the difference between improving educational inputs versus outcomes. The authors argue that much of the early consolidation efforts, which benefitted by the necessity of reforms such as graded schools, specialized teachers, greater teacher training, and more professional supervision saw thousands of single-school districts merge into what was commonly being referred to as union school districts.

They go on to note that once this was accomplished and additional adjustments were made up through 1970, further consolidation has generally exceeded any additional benefits that could be derived from it, especially large-scale, state-mandated consolidations. A body of contemporary research cited in the study illustrates that greater centralization and consolidation leads to expanded middle-management, additional costs associated with closing schools (often the only way to immediately realize any short-term financial benefit from consolidation), and undermining of teaching and learning. In short, the authors rightly conclude that the abundance of evidence argues against consolidation for economy or quality. On the other side of the argument, there is very little evidential support for consolidating districts or schools to reduce administrative costs.

Backers of consolidation have not yet produced any evidence that correlates a reduction in education costs with the significant school consolidations that occurred since 1930. As the authors note, “The size of the average district has increased ten-fold, and the size of the average school increased five-fold” while the number of districts shrank from nearly 120,000 in the early 1900's to a mere 13,879, currently. But the most amazing fact presented in the study is that 43% of public school students attend school in just 500 districts, and one could easily argue from the research that none of those districts are considered economically efficient. Therefore, it makes little sense to continue along this earlier path and try to produce additional efficiencies not supported by evidence.

This particular study expands on the concept of consolidation beyond the economic arguments. Here is a quick list of conclusions offered by the authors:

  • Consolidation leads to a number of problems for students and families including longer bus rides, fewer participation opportunities, and increased barriers to parent-school informal communications.

  • There are mixed impacts on the educational staff but these are usually mitigated by a well-planned and executed process.

  • Larger schools and districts undermine teaching and learning. As stated, the originators of consolidation warned that it was not intended to save money, but rather improve schools at the time through more efficient inputs (versus outputs).

  • Any increased fiscal efficiency would be very small, and there's no guarantee any savings would be returned to the taxpayer pockets or used to improve teaching and learning.

  • On average, contemporary consolidations have resulted in increased costs.

  • There is a strong correlation between larger schools (often the product of past consolidations) with negative learning effects.

  • Consolidations can lead to future economic costs as a direct results of lowered student achievement.

  • The most dramatic results of consolidation come from the negative impact on the “vitality and well-being of communities.”

  • Deconsolidation of large inefficient school districts promises the greatest economical benefits but this is conveniently ignored.

  • Consolidation of school districts almost always include or result in school closures and creation of larger schools.

  • Evidence continues to grow demonstrating that low-income and minority students benefit academically from small districts and schools.

  • Even early 20th century researchers concluded that, for academic outcome reasons, schools should be half the size of those recommended by the pro-consolidation forces.

The push for school consolidation will likely not disappear with the publication of this new study, nor will the political and media forces give in so easy when in reality it's centralized power they are advocating. While intuitively one can reason that combining two or more districts into one would reduce costs, this cannot be used as a blanket rationale for creating large, unwieldy districts that in the end hurt students while producing little to no economic efficiency. One would think that the conservative, market-economy backers would understand this since large school districts are an affront to competitiveness which they adore. In fact, the current charter school movement has created an “interest in smaller schools and districts” which disputes any claim that bigger is better.

Wouldn't it be nice, finally, if we could put this red herring to bed and focus our collective attention on what could contribute to real efficiency and effectiveness?

I encourage you to read the full study if you haven't.

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Howley, C., Johnson, J., & Petrie, J. (2011). Consolidation of Schools and Districts: What the Research Says and What It Means. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved 2/1/11 from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/consolidation-schools-districts.