Size Matters In Educational Outcomes

Fifty years ago, they were the latest thing in educational reform – big, modern, suburban consolidated high schools with students counted in the thousands.

Big schools promised economic efficiency, a greater choice of courses, and, of course, better football teams.

“West Virginia joined the trend based on money. Too many small schools costing too much. Big schools save money. Of course that has never happened,” said Thomas Ramey, coordinator of Challenge WV.

West Virginia was slow to get on the consolidation bandwagon, and equally slow to get off.

Years later there is reflection on the creation of lumbering educational bureaucracies, and the difficulty of forging personal connections between teachers and students.

SAT scores began dropping in 1963.

Thirty percent of students do not complete high school in four years, a figure that rises to 50 percent in many poor areas.

While the emphasis on teaching to higher, test-driven standards embodied in No Child Left Behind has resulted in significantly better performance in elementary and some middle schools, high schools, for a variety of reasons, seem stuck in a rut.

Size isn’t everything, but it does matter.

“All the research says children learn and flourish better in smaller community schools,” Ramey said.

In the past decade there has been a noticeable trend to go back to smaller schools nationwide, while West Virginia has been set on building mega-consolidated schools, putting kids on long, long bus rides to get there.

While many of West Virginia’s high schools have experienced what Challenge WV calls the “bloody hammer” of closure, a large number of elementary schools were slated for consolidation.

There are a few instances in the Mountain State, where state school officials are backing off.

The trend toward smaller community schools has been nurtured by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has invested $1.8 billion in American high schools.

The Gates projects has helped open about 1,000 small schools