District size study should get scrutiny

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce is sparking important discussion with a recent study of the relationship between school district size and student performance. But the study shouldn’t stand as the last word on the subject. And the chamber’s spin – suggesting it proves bigger school districts are better, up to a certain size – shouldn’t go unchallenged.

Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research conducted the study for the chamber. It concludes that, on average, students in districts with over 2,000 students have higher test scores and access to more advanced and varied courses than students in districts with fewer than 1,000 students.

Over half of Indiana’s school districts have fewer than 2,000 students and nearly 20 percent have fewer than 1,000 students. Many are contiguous to other small districts. The implication is that small districts should look for opportunities to consolidate. Probably some of them should.

But in some cases, the performance differences between large and small school districts aren’t very large. And they aren’t at all consistent. You can’t draw a straight line that correlates school district size with various measures of student performance.

Districts with between 2,000 and 3,000 students – the supposed sweet spot for operational efficiency – have the highest average SAT scores and some of the highest ISTEP passing rates. But bigger districts, with over 5,000 students, have higher passing rates for Advanced Placement exams. And the state’s smallest districts, with under 1,500 students, do best on English-language arts end-of-course tests.

Chris Lagoni, executive director of the Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association, said the lack of consistency and the relatively weak correlation between district size and student performance suggest we should hesitate to create state policy based on the study. He said the focus on averages masks a lot of variation among small and large districts.

Lagoni, former superintendent of the 1,100-student Carroll Consolidated School Corp., pointed to a Kokomo Tribune story showing small schools in that area outperformed larger schools.

“I encourage anyone to examine the results for their local schools instead of what a model says,” he said by email. “Bias and variability are too diverse not to warrant local examination of what actual performance might be.”

A 2010 study by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University looked at the same issue and interpreted the data differently. It concluded that “school district size alone does not determine academic achievement or economic efficiency.”

The Ball State study stops short of calling for state-mandated consolidation of small schools. Instead it recommends state financial incentives for districts that explore consolidating and “best practices” studies to help small districts carry out mergers or use technology to expand their curricula.

Indiana is already doing some of that. The current state budget includes $5 million for “school efficiency incentive grants” to help school districts with the costs of consolidating.

Some other observations:

  • The study was released as schools in Bloomington and Muncie have experienced nightmarish problems with the performance of their Michigan-based bus contractor. School consolidation means students will spend more time on buses traveling greater distances to and from school, an inefficiency that isn’t reckoned with in the study.
  • As the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette points out in an editorial, it’s disingenuous for the chamber to finger-point at inefficiency in small public school districts at the same time it promotes charter schools and vouchers for religious schools. Some charter schools and some voucher schools have fewer than 100 students. Is that an efficient use of tax dollars?
  • Also questionable is the chamber’s claim that improved high-school performance will “drive per capita income and is especially critical for smaller communities.” Yes, it will be great if students from towns like Medora, Shoals and Cannelton raise their test scores and improve their college prospects. But it’s not clear how that helps the local economy.

There’s no question that small school districts, especially the 50-plus Indiana districts with fewer than 1,000 students, are challenged to provide their students with the same academic opportunities they would find in the cities and the suburbs.

But local schools are still the heart and soul of many small towns in Indiana. Often they’re about the only source of community pride and identity. In some cases, they are also the largest employers, especially of a college-educated workforce. If the chamber really wants to help those communities and their local economies, there must be better ways.

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One thought on “District size study should get scrutiny

  1. Pingback: 1960s consolidations transformed Indiana schools | School Matters

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