RSC Advocate Paul Theobald Speaks to Nebraska Group on School Consolidation

Group working against consolidation in Burt County, Nebraska listens to different perspectives on the issue.

October 28, 2016 |

Dr. Paul Theobald is a rural historian and leading advocate for small and rural schools.

School consolidation has become a fact of life for many rural regions. Sometimes it is state-mandated; sometimes it is done on a voluntary basis. It is typically promoted as an avenue for cost savings, which is often parlayed with a commitment to enhancing opportunities for students. This magic elixir of getting more for less is universally appealing, and who can argue with what are often touted as the following consolidation outcomes:

  • better facilities
  • more academic course offerings
  • improved student achievement
  • stronger extracurricular and athletic programs
  • reduced expenditures in the long-term

In many school consolidation discussions these "results" are simply taken for granted. Why else would rural school consolidation have been so prevalent for the better part of a century?

Certainly, at face value, school consolidation from the historical perspective seems to make sense. In 1900 approximately 60% of Americans lived in rural places compared to around 20% today. Obviously, these altered population dynamics lead to change, especially when other factors related to technology, transportation and agriculture are considered. However, the proportional decline in rural population does appear to be leveling off, and it is equally important to note that today approximately 60 million Americans live in rural settings as compared to 46 million in 1900. So while the horse and buggy, one room schoolhouse days are certainly a thing of the past, the notion that rural population decline mandates widespread rural school closures is clouded by complexities.

In addition to the inherent contradictions of raw population statistics, there is little evidence that school consolidation has universal outcomes that strengthen rural schools or their communities. Undeniably, some school consolidation efforts have gone well, but there is also tangible evidence that many school consolidation efforts have not produced the promised results and instead have left visible scars on small towns and the rural landscape.

The current election debate in rural Burt County, Nebraska provides an opportunity to re-examine the school consolidation issue and think critically about it.

Thinking Otherwise About School Consolidation: A Critical Perspective

Paul Theobald currently serves as Visiting Professor of Educational Innovation, University of Southern Indiana in Evansville. Previously, Dr. Theobald held the Woods-Beals Endowed Chair in Urban and Rural Education at Buffalo State College in New York and was Dean of Education at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. A former high school social studies and English teacher, he has published more than 50 journal articles and book chapters on professional education and is probably best known as one of the nation’s leading authorities on the history of rural education. His most recent book, Education Now: How Re-thinking America’s Past Can Change Its Future, was discussed on MSNBC’s morning news program, Morning Joe, and also won the Critic’s Choice Award from the American Educational Studies Association. Paul is also an Advocate for the Rural Schools Collaborative.

Dr. Theobald is not a positivist, and he certainly recognizes that school consolidation questions involve any number of unique and varied situations. However, Paul believes that many of the facts and realities related to school consolidation are often ignored, and he has committed a large part of his career to encouraging people to think critically about this issue.

Recently, Paul was invited to speak to citizens of Burt County by Knights Vote No on his findings and beliefs on school consolidation. Paul has graciously allowed us to post his comments. At the end of Paul's text you can watch a short video with highlights of Paul's presentation. Then we encourage to watch a video from the pro-consolidation group, Better TOgether, which presents their perspectives on why the consolidation is important. Note: Paul's comments accompanied a slide show, which will be apparent with some of his remarks.

Text of Paul Theobald's Comments:

I’m going to do a little presentation here on the research surrounding school consolidation and then open it up for questions—I’ve listed my email address in case you think of questions subsequent to this meeting. I will do my best to answer them. You’re faced with a decision that will have far-reaching consequences—a decision that could profoundly change the history of these communities. It’s not something to be taken lightly.

I’m going to get right to this. I’ll say more about the Howley, Johnson, and Petrie study a little later—but you need to know this, there has scarcely been a research study in the last 40 years that has recommended school consolidation to 1) raise test scores, or 2) save tax dollars. You might say, well, researchers disagree all the time, they come act things from different angles, so surely there are researchers out there that argue in favor of consolidation? The answer is no, test scores are test scores and tax rates are tax rates. You can’t bend them to fit an argument. There are researchers who get into arguments about more subjective issues, like what’s the right size for a class, or do students like school after a consolidation takes place. But as far as 1) improving student performance, or 2) saving tax dollars, no there isn’t research to support these things.

So, how can that be? You have no doubt heard that consolidation is best for kids—why would that message be so prevalent if there’s no research to support it. That’s a very good question, and I’m going to take just a little bit of time here, and risk having some of you nod off as I do so, to attempt a rather academic answer to this question.

I’m going to start by introducing you to this guy (shows slide picture of Jean-Baptiste Say). Unless your hobby is dabbling in the history of economic thought, you’ve very likely never heard of him, but he played a huge role in the lives of your grandparents and great grandparents. Say was a professional economist, among the first generation of such folks. In 1803 he argued that production creates its own demand, meaning that recessions are necessarily temporary, and no governmental action is required to end them. This became known as Say’s Law. If you went to college in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, and took an economics class, you very likely memorized Say’s Law. Among the emerging professionals calling themselves economists, this grew to be a taken-for-granted, a part of the ideological commitments of all main-stream economists. I say “mainstream,” because there were economists who questioned it, and said “I can’t see why a recession couldn’t go on for years, even decades.” In saying that, in questioning Say’s Law, they sealed their fate as an outsider to the profession, someone lacking good ol’ common sense.

Fast forward to 1929—bad timing for Herbert Hoover, right? Less than a year in office and the stock market crashes. By this time, though, presidents were surrounded by economic advisors, all of whom told Herbert, “Don’t worry, by the time you stand for re-election, this will all be a distant memory.” So, while it wouldn’t be fair to say Hoover did nothing about the depression, he did very little. And by 1932 the depression was far worse than anything anyone had ever seen before. My father, just a boy, was given a couple pennies each day for a large chunk of a year during the depression, and was told to go to the back of the local produce company and beg for cracked eggs. Sometimes he got them, sometimes he didn’t. I’m sure most everyone in this room has a family depression story, an experience directly attributable to Jean-Baptise Say and the willingness of an entire profession to cling to something that, as it turned out, wasn’t true. Say’s Law was totally discredited. When we came near to a total economic collapse in 2008, George Bush’s advisors weren’t saying, this will be short and it will take care of itself. No, he, and then Obama, threw money into the economy hand over fist, and consequently the worst scenario was averted. John Kenneth Galbraith said of Say’s Law that it is the best example of an economic idea directing policy for decades, even though it was wrong. So what has all of this to do with school consolidation? I’m arguing here tonight that school consolidation is the best example of an educational idea that has directed policy for decades, even though it was wrong. So let me introduce you to this guy:

This is Ellwood Cubberley. He served as the superintendent of San Diego schools, very successfully, before being lured up to Stanford University, where he immediately began to operationalize graduate programs for the professional training of school administrators—a movement that quickly spread across the country. These future principals and superintendents were taught the principles of scientific management with an eye toward producing ever greater efficiencies in instruction and in school finance. In short, they were taught Cubberley’s Law: School consolidation equal school improvement.

With an almost missionary zeal, graduates of these programs, all across the country, took aim at the nation’s one room schools, and after a few decades, small-town schools, as well. For Jean-Baptiste Say, that production creates its own demand was self-evident, for Cubberley, that school consolidation equals school improvement was also self-evident. Neither felt compelled to produce empirical evidence to prove it; it wasn’t necessary, and no one was asking for proof. Anyone remember that great basketball movie, Hoosiers? There’s a scene in that film where the little equipment manager has to give an oral report in Gene Hackman’s class. The report is called, “Progress” and he ends it by citing examples of progress, the last two of which were “indoor plumbing and school consolidation.” For the emerging profession of school administrators, this grew to be a taken-for-granted, a part of the ideological commitment of all main-stream school administrators. I say “mainstream,” because there were school administrators who questioned it, and said “I can’t see why it’s good for kids to inflict such damage on their community.” In saying that, in questioning Cubberley’s Law, they sealed their fate as an outsider, someone lacking good ol’ common sense.

Fast forward to the 1950s and the emergence of a public school crusader in the form of Harvard’s president, James Bryant Conant. In the midst of the Cold War, Conant criss-crossed the country speaking with school administrator groups and school board groups in almost every state. Really good schools could vanquish the Soviet threat, he argued, but in order to be a really good school, you had to have a minimum of 100 kids per class. Needless to say, with the successful Sputnik launch and Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba, school administrators double-downed on an educational policy they were already ideologically committed to. More and larger consolidations were the order of the day—and they remained so even as the twentieth-century closed.

Then this happened. Two Ivy League researchers started asking questions about school consolidation, because in their research, they could find no empirical support for the policy—which led them to wonder, "Did consolidation actually produce better student outcomes?" So they set out to see if a century’s worth of consolidation was a good idea. They had a lot of tough decisions to make in order to do this task well. For instance, could they rely only on test scores and college completion? Or would they need to get more evidence? Finally, because they are economists and because economists believe everything must be measured in dollars, they decided that in order to do the job right, they would need to get lifetime earnings—to do that, they had to study schools that were in session, well, a lifetime ago. That created another problem, because a lifetime ago, very few women stayed in the workforce after the first child, and many never entered it at all, which meant they had to focus on males. And that’s what they did.

Once all of those decisions were made, they set to work and discovered that graduates of unconsolidated schools went to college at a higher rate, they completed college at a higher rate, and they had higher lifetime earnings than their peers who went to consolidated schools. Now keep in mind that there is nothing about the act of producing that research that allows the authors to say that future researchers will find the same results when today’s graduates retire. Their research nevertheless provides a clearer picture of a policy that’s been in place for decades resting only on assumptions related to its merits.

Another landmark study, the Berry and West study, also caught education researchers off guard. In particular, if all of that consolidating didn’t improve student outcomes, did it at least save tax payer dollars? Berry and West sparked a lot of new research, some of it even making it to the mainstream media. I apologize, I tried to be clever with the bubbles (Theobald is referring to a slide, here), but it didn’t work. But you get the message, regarding improved student performance and reduced tax rates, consolidation fails on both counts. Studies in Pennsylvania demonstrated that within two years of a consolidation, all districts were outspending their unconsolidated peers. This little explosion of consolidation research prompted the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado to commission a meta-analysis of consolidation research, that’s here:

I’ve listed the URL because anyone can easily get their hands on it and I would encourage everyone in this room to do so. Again, the main finding:

So in the absence of saved tax dollars or improved test scores, what do advocates of consolidation use to support their plans? This is often one thing: class-size research.

Researchers try to produce the “ideal” number. Keep in mind that the genesis of this research was to combat the tendency of large schools to keep adding more and more kids into classrooms. Well over 30, sometimes approaching 40, was not uncommon in Buffalo, NY, for example. Class size research did not stem from questions about how many is too few for a class—but, some researchers will argue that their ideal number is better than more students AND fewer students. But here’s the problem with class size research—there are too many confounding variables to make it empirically defensible.

Okay, if not class size research, there’s this argument: How about a broader curriculum? Here’s what Howley, Johnson, and Perie had to say on the question.

"based on the assumption that offering a greater variety of courses equates with expanding educational opportunities for contradicted by the evidence."

And here’s some of the research they cited. The first few are a little dated, but take note of the third study.: Johnson, J., (2006) "More Doesn't Mean Better: Larger High Schools and More Course Offerings Do Not Boost Student Achievement in Iowa." Arlington, VA: The Rural School and Community Trust (ERIC Document # ED497981).

You will also hear references to better socialization for kids in a larger, consolidated school. I’m dumbfounded by this one. I know my own kids would have been better off with a lot less socializing. The world does not care how big your high school class was. It just doesn’t. Do you think editors said to Willa Cather, “We can’t possibly publish this story, there were only six kids in your high school class.”

But, for my money, this is the crux of the matter: "The influence of school and district consolidations on the vitality and well-being of communities may be the most dramatic result, if the one least often discussed by politicians or education leaders. Put simply, the loss of a school erodes a community's social and economic base...and permanently diminishes the community itself, sometimes to the verge of abandonment." Howley, Johnson, Petrie. .

For decades, the response to this concern has always been the same: "It’s about kids, not the community."

I’ve never met a parent who wouldn’t sacrifice anything for their children. It’s part of what makes us human. To me, it’s about kids alright, kids growing up in vibrant communities with role models of civic-minded elders, it’s kids growing up in the midst of a familial heritage, it’s about kids educated to the point that they can stay or return to their home town and expect that they might have a legitimate shot at dignified employment, It’s about maximizing opportunities for kids to participate in extracurricular activities, not doing the opposite. In short, yeah, it’s about kids, it’s about what you want for your kids, and if you have reduced that to “getting them into a bigger school,” it’s my opinion that you’re shortchanging them.

I’ll do my best to answer any questions you have.

The end of Dr. Theobald's comments.

Below are links to two short videos from both the pro and con consolidation side in the Nebraska debate:

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