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November/December 2012

Viability of rural, small schools can be defended
by Greg Reynolds and Vicki Van Tuyle

Greg Reynolds is a visiting assistant professor in educational leadership at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.  Vicki Van Tuyle  is an assistant  professor of  educational  leadership at SIU-E.

Despite the efforts of 70 years, school consolidation remains an issue of discussion and concern for rural and small districts in Illinois.

In 1942, Illinois had 12,000 districts (more public school districts than any other state) with more than “10,000 one-room schools having an average enrollment of 12 students,” according to Illinois School History. Three years later, Illinois citizens voted to accept consolidation to reduce district numbers.

By 1950 there were 4,480 school districts; by 1955, 2,242 districts; by 1966, 1,340 districts. Currently we have 861 districts, with the dissolution and annexation of three districts effective July 1, 2012. Of these, the majority are rural.

In 2011, Governor Pat Quinn recommended consolidation of Illinois’ school districts to no more than 300. His reasoning: consolidating smaller districts could make schools more equitable and efficient, as well as enhance education.

Those supporting Quinn’s plan believed substantial savings would be experienced throughout the state. Even though the push for forced consolidation stalled, the belief lingers that the small, rural school district is no longer a viable option for children’s education. But is that really true?

Since the Compulsory School Attendance Law passed in 1883, Illinois’ public education system has been dominated by small schools. The Condition of Education 2011 study found the largest percentage of public schools were in rural areas (32 percent), followed by suburbs (28 percent), cities (26 percent) and towns (14 percent).

Before television, interstate highways, calculators and microcomputers, hundreds of thousands of children learned arithmetic, civics, geography and other lessons in a small (often one-room) school. In most cases, students learned independently and progressed at their own rate.

While older pupils helped younger ones, the teacher was able to take time to individualize lessons and provide personal contact with each student daily. Younger pupils were aware of what was expected of them in the next grade because they could see and hear older children working on advanced lessons.

What the research shows

Existing research and literature on small schools indicates that students in small schools do well in a number of different areas, including having higher attendance rates and being much more likely to graduate from high school.

• In 2001, Patricia Wasley and Richard Lear reported in “Small Schools, Real Gains,” that schools-within-schools in Chicago showed a significantly lower dropout rate (4.8 percent) versus their host schools (12.9 percent) or the district (10.8 percent), even after only one or two years.

Building a Grad Nation (2012) reported the national graduation rate increased by 3.5 percentage points, from 72 percent in 2001 to 75.5 percent in 2009. State statistics show Illinois’ graduation rate increased from 77.1 percent in 2002 to 77.7 percent in 2009, but more importantly, the rural high school graduation rate in Illinois was at 88 percent for 2008-09.  

• Kathleen Cotton, while reviewing 31 studies in 1996, found that students in small schools performed equal to or better than their larger schools counterparts.

• Newer research, Consolidation of Schools and Districts: What the Research Says and What It Means, found that “increasing the size of elementary schools (partly by school consolidations) lowered student achievement significantly, with a predictable future economic cost that, according to the researcher, far outweighed the marginal fiscal savings of sustaining smaller schools.”

The authors of that information also summarized: “Research also suggests that impoverished regions in particular often benefit from smaller schools and districts, and they can suffer irreversible damage if consolidation occurs.”


While a popular notion, curricular offerings also may not be better in larger schools. Almost 50 years ago, R.G. Barker and Paul Gump proposed that even though larger schools were more impressive on the outside, on closer look a small school provided a better quality of education.

Robert Pittman and Perri Haughwout studied the influence of school size on curricular diversity and in 1987 reported that a 100 percent increase in enrollment corresponded to only a 17 percent increase in curricular offerings. Furthermore, size alone has not been found to guarantee an adequate curriculum, let alone a superior one.

For example, researcher Craig Howley argued in 1994 that the value of offering a wide range of specialized courses might be overstated, and that a small school with a strong required core curriculum could produce student achievement at high levels. In fact, an excessive number of elective courses can detract from the basic curriculum.

One of the weaknesses described in 1984’s A Nation at Risk was the dilution of the curriculum by elective courses. In 1994, Herbert J. Walberg and Herbert J. Walberg III found that course offerings available in small schools served the students well because almost all students took a strong core curriculum. They also found that small schools were less likely to continue ineffective programs than were large schools.


Advantages also spilled over into extracurricular activities as well, with students in small schools more involved in clubs and teams. With fewer students, it is easier to participate in a small school environment. Students report that they have a greater sense of belonging; they feel like they are a part of something.

The Rural America report also stated that “in 2003, greater percentages of students in rural areas than in cities had parents who attended a school event (74 versus 65 percent) or served as a volunteer or on a committee (42 versus 38 percent).   In addition, a larger percentage of students in rural areas had parents who reported taking their children to an athletic event outside of school than students in cities and suburbs (42 versus 34 and 38 percent, respectively).

A 2011 National Education Policy Center report asserted that a study of the aftermath of a consolidation effort in West Virginia found students “had fewer opportunities to participate in co-curricular and extracurricular activities (a result of both increased competition for limited spots and transportation issues).” This same report indicated that parents had fewer opportunities to participate in their children’s education either formally as board members or informally as class room volunteers.  

‘Climate’ advantages

In addition to the issues above, small schools also offer students a personalized learning environment, where they are well known by local teachers. Students in large schools sometimes fall through the cracks because it is easier for them to go unnoticed. In a small school, a student is usually only one in 300 to 400 students, rather than maybe one in 2,000.

Teachers talk about how students are doing, and compare information across classes and over the years. All of the students know each other. If a student is having trouble, all the student’s teachers can meet with the student and/or parents to talk about the problem and create a plan to help. Two researchers, Faith Dunne in 1977 and Weldon Beckner in 1983, each found that a small school can offer benefits in several areas: personal relationships, students, teachers, administration, and curriculum and instruction.

A sense of pride exists in a small school, as well as an attitude and sense of personal possession and involvement for all involved, from students to the greater community. To a great degree, the school is the community center in many small towns and rural areas.

The size of the school does not inhibit personal interaction; it encourages it. Small schools typically serve a community ownership. This invites strong support from parents and community members as well as closer working relationships among the school staff.

In a small school, it is not unusual for teachers, administrators and school board members to know each other well. This can lead to easy acceptance of new ideas among friends as well as a strong sense of identification and belonging.

The 2007 Status of Education in Rural America report indicated “a larger percentage of public school teachers in rural areas than in other locales reported being satisfied with the teaching conditions in their school in 2003-04.”

Small schools also are significantly safer than large schools. For example, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), only 7.9 percent of urban small schools reported an incident of serious violent crime (physical attack or fight with a weapon) while 26.5 percent of urban schools with an enrollment of 1,000 students or more reported such a crime to police.

The Rural America report states, “in general, smaller percentages of public school teachers in rural areas than across the nation as a whole reported problems as ‘serious’ and behavioral problems as frequent (occurring at least once a week) in their schools in 2003-04.”

Rural schools are generally considered less threatening, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics: “During the 2007-08 school year, a greater percentage of teachers in city schools (10 percent) reported being threatened with injury than teachers in town schools (7 percent) and suburban or rural schools (6 percent each) … . A greater percentage of teachers in city schools (5 percent) and suburban schools (4 percent) reported being physically attacked, compared to teachers in rural schools (3 percent).”

Still viable

The small country school of the past was the impetus from which many of today’s better known educational “innovations” originated. Notions such as non-graded classrooms, individualized instruction, low student/teacher ratios, cross-age grouping, peer tutoring, using the community as a resource, “mainstreaming” mildly handicapped pupils, and emphasizing the basics all have their roots in small schools of the past.

Public schools with populations of 2,000 to 3,000 students were built on the premise that their large size allowed economies of all kinds. They were theoretically more efficient at delivering the educational product.

The problem is that these large schools are too big. Their students become numbers, not individuals. Children fall through the cracks and their needs, both academic and personal, fail to be addressed. They feel even more isolated, frustrated and hopeless. Discipline problems escalate. Security becomes a serious issue. Teachers end up becoming nothing more than traffic cops. Quality of instruction deteriorates. The vast majority of these students simply do not have a chance to achieve their fullest potential.

So even with the push for consolidation, small size in education is still a viable option for today’s students.


Susan Aud, William Hussar,Grace Kena, Kevin Bianco, Lauren Frohlich, Jana Kemp and Kim Tahan, The Condition of Education 2011, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2011

R.G. Barker and Paul V. Gump, Big school, small school, Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press, 1964

Weldon Beckner, The case for the smaller school, Bloomington, Indiana: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1983

Robert Belfanz, John M. Bridgeland, Mary Bruce and Joanna Hornig Fox, Building a grad nation: Progress and challenge in ending the high school dropout epidemic, retrieved from, 2012

Kathleen Cotton, New small learning communities: Findings from recent literature, Portland, Oregon: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, retrieved from , 2001

Kathleen Cotton, School Size, school climate and student performance, Northwest Regional Education Laboratory, 1996

Faith Dunn, “Choosing smallness,” Education in rural America: A reassessment of conventional wisdom, Jonathan Sher, Editor, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1977

Emil J. Haller, Daniel H. Monk and Lydia T. Tien, “Small schools and higher-order thinking skills,” Journal of Research in Rural Education, 1993

Craig Howley, The academic effectiveness of small-scale schooling: An update, Charleston, West Virginia: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 372 897), 1994

Craig Howley, “The Matthew principle: A West Virginia replication,” Educational Policy Analysis Archives, retrieved from , 1995

Craig Howley, “ Dumbing down by sizing up,” The School Administrator, 1997

Craig Howley, Jerry Johnson and Jennifer Petrie, Consolidation of schools and districts: What the research says and what it means, Boulder, Colorado: National Education Policy Center, retrieved from, 2011

Illinois School History , retrieved from

Indicators of school crime and safety: 2009, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, retrieved from

Robert B. Pittman and Perri Haughwout, “Influence of high school size on dropout rate,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis , 1987

Stephen Provasnik, Angelina KewalRamani, Mary McLaughlin Coleman, Lauren Gilbertson, Will Herring and Qingsha Xie, Status of education in rural America, National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2007

Marty Strange, Jerry Johnson, Daniel Showalter and Robert Klein, Why rural matters 2011-12: The condition of rural education in the 50 states, Washington, D.C.: Rural School and Community Trust, 2012

Herbert J . Walberg and Herbert J . Walberg III, “Losing Local Control,” Educational Researcher, (June/July 1994)

Patricia A. Wasley and Richard J. Lear, “ Small Schools, Real Gains,” Educational Leadership, March 2001

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