How Large Should a District Be?

Here are some assorted thoughts on district size:

PAY: Not surprisingly, superintendents of larger districts are paid more. (Source: Education Week)

TOO BIG FOR FLORIDA?: In 2006, there was an unsuccessful move to break up that state’s large school districts, many of which take up an entire county. “Supporters of the initiative, which would allow current systems to split into as many as 18 separate districts, argued that the measure could eliminate bureaucracy and improve local control of schools. Opponents worried that the move could engender more racial and economic segregation in schools and districts.” (Source: Education Week)

EFFECT ON TEACHERS: Superintendents of larger districts tend to favor a more standardized approach. “Leaders of larger systems were more likely to favor standard approaches across their schools, such as “pacing guides” that show teachers what content to cover at what time throughout the year.”

EFFECTS ON DROP-OUTS: Does having larger districts make for worse educational outcomes? One scholar says so. “The results of the analysis indicate that decreasing the average size of a state’s school districts by 200 square miles leads to an increase of about 1.7 percentage points in its graduation rate.” (Manhattan Institute)

THE FUTURE IS BIGGER: Joseph M. Cronin, who has served as a top education official in Massachusetts and Illinois, speculates on what will happen in the next 10 years, writing from the vantage point of the year 2020. On the subject of district size, he says: “Public school superintendents and business managers of districts serving fewer than 1,500 students became an endangered species. The number of superintendents was slashed by 50 percent, while the average district size ballooned to include 5,000 students.” (Education Week)

CONSOLIDATION DOESN’T WORK EXCEPT WHEN IT DOES: “We found evidence to support several assertions in the literature, both supporting and opposing consolidation. ” (A University of Arkansas study of individuals involved in district consolidation in Arkansas).

WE DON’T KNOW: “Despite the dramatic scale and breakneck pace of these reforms, little is known about the consequences of district consolidation and the movement toward larger schools …. Of the handful of studies on the subject, a few find that students in smaller districts do better, while a few others find just the opposite. … I found that smaller schools had a significant positive effect on students’ wages as adults. … the findings presented here suggest that students who attended small schools fared better in the labor market. While there may have been modest gains associated with increasing the size of districts (or with other reforms adopted at the same time), these gains were far outweighed by the harmful effects of larger schools.” (Education Next)

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