Smaller is Better when it comes to Running Our Schools

Since the publication of A Nation at Risk, there have been numerous efforts to try to find the right mixture of ways to improve student achievement while lowering the cost of education involving five major policy making levels (i.e., federal, state, district, school and classroom/student.)  Many of these efforts have looked at the decision making process and how politics impacts that process in terms of the educational policies that result.  Using test scores as a measure of student achievement and local property taxes as a measure of the cost of education, a number of states as well as the federal government have advocated through various means for larger class sizes as well as for school consolidations.  Federal and many state governments have also advocated for the centralization of policy making at their respective levels as ways in which not only to improve student achievement but also to lower the cost of providing education. 


These federal and state level stakeholders whose motto might conceivably be described as “bigger is better” seem to base their belief on presumed economies-of-scale that will lead to lower operating costs and thereby lower property taxes as well as to perhaps improving test scores through the application of nationally determined standards at the state level.  One of their arguments seems to be based on the belief that having larger class sizes requires fewer teachers which in turn lowers operating costs.  In addition, larger class sizes mean fewer class rooms would be used thereby minimizing the demand for new or expanded school facilities.  Another argument advocates for school district consolidation as a way in which to achieve improved operating efficiency primarily through presumed lower administrative costs. 


National standards such as those imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) with its mandated tests are also seen as a way in which to drive the formulation of educational policy at the federal and state levels while the federal level includes an aggregation of state data.  Such national educational policy is believed to help “raise the bar” for student performance.  While NCLB is mandated by the federal government, the states force their school districts to comply with its regulations.  The NCLB test scores are used to determine adequate yearly progress (AYP) for students, schools and districts alike. 


But the combination of federally-determined educational policy implemented through state governments and departments of education has often resulted in decisions seemingly made more in favor of special interest groups than local schools as well as in higher costs.  Consolidating local school districts into countywide or extremely large regional districts removes decision making authority from those levels most affected by educational policy decisions:  the individual student, school and district.  It also concentrates policy formulation and decision making at centralized levels where special interests have greater leverage on the policy makers and, as a result, greater control of the policy outcomes.  Moreover, consolidation of local school districts into county level districts while fewer in number with supposedly less combined administrative expense has often resulted in higher state-wide total administrative costs due to the lack of accountability, excessive political patronage hiring at the county level and reduced local taxpayer input. 


Because the federal and state levels are too distant from where education actually takes place and are more easily influenced by special interest groups, accountability declines at these levels where it is needed most.  Consolidation of local school districts into county level districts also tends to result in more of a traditional military-type command-and-control decision making model.  In this Theory X model the federal level develops the strategy for policy implementation, the state governments and their departments of education translate the strategy into tactics for deployment, and the school districts are responsible for making sure that the federal and state mandates are implemented accordingly at the individual school and student level. 


Because countywide or regional school district consolidations lead to increased education costs, lower student achievement especially as measured by test scores and less accountability such combinations should be prevented.  Eliminating units of consolidation such as county level departments of education will not only remove an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and cut administrative costs but also improve accountability particularly to local taxpayers as well as to parents.  Moreover, without county level departments of education or large regionalized school districts overburdening our educational systems, our schools will be better able to provide quality instruction. 


The majority of research on class size has demonstrated that when qualified teachers teach students in smaller class sizes, the students not only learn more but also these students retain this advantage over other students who attend larger classes.  One leading study is the longitudinal class size reduction initiative conducted over a number of years in Tennessee called the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project.  The STAR project demonstrated that students, who were enrolled in small classes beginning with kindergarten and continuing through third grade, were significantly more likely than their counterparts who attended larger classes, to: 

  • Demonstrate better reading and mathematics skills
  • Complete more advanced mathematics, science and English courses
  • Complete high school 
  • Graduate high school on time 
  • Graduate with honors. 


The STAR project also found that even after the students returned to larger classes in the fourth through eighth grades those students who attended smaller class sizes for their first three or four years maintained an advantage over students who had attended the larger classes from kindergarten through third grade.  The findings of the STAR project are echoed by other projects such as Wisconsin’s Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) project, which was a statewide initiative in Wisconsin that increased student achievement, and Indiana’s Project Prime Time.  In addition, the research demonstrates that having a smaller class size not only increases student achievement but also helps to minimize the achievement gap among different groups of students particularly among majority and minority students.  


“Smaller is better” and it should not be surprising that research supports this.  Having fewer students in the classroom enables the teacher to dedicate more time to each child.  Consequently, students pay more attention to class work and participate more in academics.  Because the students are more involved with their studies they learn more and behave better.  Is it any wonder then that test scores are significantly higher for students who attend small classes?   Based upon the findings of the STAR project and other studies there seems to be little doubt that students taught in small classes enjoy significant and lasting educational advantages. 


The greater is the shift to larger class sizes nationwide, the more teachers will probably be let go.  However, larger class sizes often lead to lower test scores and make it more difficult for students, schools and districts to achieve adequate yearly progress (AYP) as required by NCLB.  As a result, school districts are likely to be subjected to many of the more stringent penalties of NCLB.  This will further reduce the financial resources available to support quality education and contribute to a downward spiral of education nationwide.    


Concentrating decision making at the district level rather than at the county, state or federal level will increase accountability not only by focusing more resources on those most affected by education policy, the students, but also by enabling those who are the most intimately involved in providing education, the school districts, to provide improved instruction.  It is the districts that not only are closest to the school systems and students but also have the necessary expertise to most effectively decide how best to provide a quality education. 


But the greatest reduction of our state’s property tax burden would be to eliminate the unnecessary and overly expensive layer of county government (i.e., Freeholders) as the majority of states have already done.  For example, Connecticut had a system similar to the one in New Jersey in which Connecticut not only had the Freeholder level of government but also had the counties involved in the running of local schools as New Jersey does through such legislation as A4S which created the Office of the Executive County Superintendent.  Because those associated with both levels of county government, Freeholder government as well as the County Department of Education, were not only too far removed from local taxpayers but also too expensive, Connecticut’s solution to cutting property taxes while improving the resources available for education was to eliminate county government. 


However, there is perhaps an even greater irony within debate over how best to improve student achievement while minimizing property taxes.  The dilemma facing our schools is that while districts must comply with the requirements of unfunded and under funded county, state and federal mandates, too many school districts are forced to spend much more to meet these requirements than they receive in combined financial aid from all county, state and federal governmental sources.  



2 responses to “Smaller is Better when it comes to Running Our Schools

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