ERIC Identifier: ED384484
Publication Date: 1995-08-00
Author: Fanning, Jim
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Rural School Consolidation and Student Learning. ERIC Digest.
State officials and local boards, operating under pressure to run schools
efficiently and meet national goals, have exercised their authority to
consolidate schools. This Digest examines (1) the pressures that have led to
school consolidation, (2) the effect of consolidation in addressing social and
fiscal pressures, (3) the role of community in education, and (4) the ways
school consolidation undermines that role. This examination is designed to help
readers assess the relationships of community, student learning, and the logic
of consolidation. Such a discussion is uncommon. Usually, a discussion of
consolidation focuses on curriculum and school finance. See EDO-RC-94-1,
EDO-RC-91-10, EDO-RC-94-6, and EDO-RC-90-11 for more information on related
PRESSURES SPURRING CONSOLIDATION
The logic for
consolidating schools springs from an idea born in the late 19th century
industrial era: "Economy of scale" is the idea that you can reduce your
production cost by increasing the size of the facility. Since that era, school
systems have based their organizational structures on the belief that education
can contribute to an optimal social order using techniques adapted from industry
An external force that may influence decisions about recent consolidation
efforts has been a series of federal reports, beginning with "A Nation at Risk,"
that have prescribed national goals for education. According to these reports, a
chief national goal is to produce a work-force that will help the U.S. remain
economically competitive in the global economy (Spring, 1990). The dual
commitments to principles of economy of scale and pursuit of national goals
encourage contemporary school leaders to seek what David Tyack describes as the
one best system of schooling. For most people, the one best system translates
into the large comprehensive high school with feeder districts.
Other external forces at work in the consolidation of schools include
powerful technological and economic changes and the demands of the consumer
culture. For example, in farming communities, a handful of large agribusinesses
now manage most of the property (Davidson, 1990). The consolidation of farms has
fractured the culture of rural towns as family members or whole families migrate
away from their agrarian roots. Schools and other social institutions and local
enterprises follow. A one-way flow of resources has drained much of the vitality
from farming and other rural communities. Local crops, timber, and minerals flow
out of the local economy to supply and bolster the nation's consumer culture
(Nachtigal, 1994). This one-way flow also includes many youth.
Today, low-paying service jobs that are dependent on the metropolitan
consumer economy typify the work in rural communities. Weak local economies
provide weak financial support for rural schools, which has to be supplemented
with state funds to meet equitable education standards. The pressure for a more
equitable distribution of limited state monies has led to funding and
accreditation formulas that are tough for rural community schools to meet.
School consolidation becomes the official solution.
WHAT CONSOLIDATION HAS ACHIEVED
People inside and outside
the decision-making arena have begun to question the role schools can and should
play in improving the social order in their communities. Many adults express
strong concern about the character and behavior of young people in this country,
including disruptive and often violent behavior of students (Elam, Rose, & Gallup, 1994). Other concerns include the disintegration of families, the loss
of stable communities to support families (Eitzen, 1992), and the lack of
clarity about who should teach values and beliefs (Kaplan, 1994; Noddings,
There is evidence that school consolidation may worsen some of these
problems. Most school district administrators emphasize a standard sequenced
curricula, prescribed instruction, and narrowly focused evaluation
(Cherryholmes, 1988). Common problems that come with such standardized systems
include impersonal climate, increased bureaucracy, and low levels of student
participation. In turn, these problems are indirectly linked to social conflict
in schools (Lee & Smith, 1994). The intensity of these problems increases as
schools get larger.
Besides social concerns, many rural people face intense fiscal concerns in
the running of their schools. There is growing evidence that school
consolidation offers little or no financial advantage in controlling costs
(Young, 1994). Still, there are other, less discussed, reasons for hesitating in
the rush to consolidate schools.
COMMUNITY AS TEACHER
In small towns that still have a
school, community members recognize it as the hub of local activities and a
major resource to the town (Nachtigal, 1994). However, people often overlook the
reverse--the important role the community plays in education. An example of this
lack of recognition was evident in testimony given during a recent school
consolidation hearing. One observer commented that no one mentioned the
potential loss of family involvement in school affairs. Several writers have
addressed the role of a healthy local culture in the nurturing of healthy
First, consider what is meant by a healthy community. Wendell Berry (1993)
offered this definition:
Such a community is (among other things) a set of arrangements
between men and women. These arrangements include marriage, family
structure, divisions of work and authority, and responsibility
for the instruction of children and young people (119, 120).
Edward Sapir offers a similar definition in his comparison of genuine culture
to spurious culture (in Bruner, 1990). Genuine culture exercises a great deal of
control over the roles, relationships, and responsibilities of their members.
Such cultures are highly viable and can sustain internal social, political and
economic activities without depending overly much on outside sources. In
contrast, spurious cultures suffer internal instability due to the influence of
an external culture, and are far less viable. The good news is that people
living and working in rural towns still have many qualities needed to build and
sustain a genuine culture (Spindler, Spindler, Trueba, & Williams, 1990).
Jerome Bruner (1990) and Donald Oliver (1989) clarified the importance of
culture, as defined by Berry and Sapir, in the development of a person's
personality and social disposition. Oliver said there were two ways culture
influences what people know. The first, grounded knowing, results from
experiencing fully an event as it unfolds. For example, you might experience a
wheat harvest by rubbing a few heads of wheat in the palms of your hands and
separating the chaff from the kernels by gently blowing into your palm. Do this
while you watch the grain pour from a truck into the hopper at a storage
elevator, and while standing in a cloud of flour dust. This is grounded knowing.
The second way of knowing, technical knowing, has to do with using charts,
calculations, documents, and technology to guide a harvest. Technical knowledge
is important for managing resources, among other things. It can link us
rationally and strategically to the larger economy, but it is grounded knowing
that links us personally to the natural phases of our habitat.
Bruner (1990) explained the ways people use technical and grounded knowing to
understand the events of their lives. Two kinds of thought--narrative and
paradigmatic--enable people to understand situations and events. Paradigmatic
thought arrives at explanations based on technical knowing. Students'
experiences in schools are mostly technical and paradigmatic. The narrative mode
is the stories people tell about their grounded experiences, their interpretive,
Both modes of interpreting experience are influenced by beliefs, traditions,
and values learned while participating in the community--the more genuine the
better. Local cultures, according to Bruner, can help people integrate their
different ways of knowing, so they can function and find meaning in what they
experience. Thus, the primary way to help people learn to make good decisions is
through the collective wisdom, beliefs, and values of their community, or in
other words, its culture.
Reuven Feuerstein (1980) also wrote about the importance of culture in
helping people use their technical and grounded ways of knowing. Qualities such
as learning to plan, knowing how to cooperate, recognizing and applying accuracy
and precision, developing a work ethic, and understanding change are the result
of culturally focused experience and thinking. When the culture is weak (i.e.,
more spurious than genuine), a child's potential to learn is reduced.
Taken together, these scholars have told us that reasonable and responsible
behavior depends on sound, logical thought, based on shared values that result
from both technical and grounded experience mediated by community. Small, rural
towns and urban neighborhoods can offer community naturally. Schools can offer
only certain aspects of community. When the school is an interwoven part of the
community, both are potent educators.
Most school leaders and citizens have a strong
and deep-seated faith in technical and structural solutions to the problems of
schools (Orr, 1992). Thus, discussions about school improvement get expressed in
purely economic terms, leaving out powerful cultural considerations. By
separating schools from communities, consolidation may be contributing to the
social problems that concern parents and educators. The sound development of
children is closely linked to the well-being of communities. Consolidating
schools often destroys those links.
Perhaps deliberations about school reorganization should begin by answering
the question "What should our young people have the chance to learn?" If your
response is that children need help in interpreting the events of their lives
(grounded knowing) by understanding the connection of these events to the larger
human experience (technical knowing), then consolidation may not be a good
Alternatives exist. School staff could help communities find new ways to tap
the talent and resources both within and outside the community. Districts could
explore ways to organize collaboratives and enter partnerships with public and
private institutions and foundations. They could also work closely with local
decision makers to focus schools' instructional programs on subject matter found
in or near the town or neighborhood (Nactigal, 1994; Shelton, 1994).
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Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Cherryholmes, C. H. (1988). Power and criticism: Poststructural
investigations in education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Davidson, O. G. (1991). Broken heartland: The rise of America's rural ghetto.
New York: Anchor Books.
Eitzen, D. S. (1992). Problem students: The sociocultural roots. Phi Delta
Kappan, 73, 584-588, 590.
Elam, S. M., Rose, L. C., & Gallup, A. M. (1994). The 26th annual Phi
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alternative view of the future. Paper presented at the International Conference
on Issues Affecting Rural Communities. James Cook University, Townsville,
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delivered at the annual National Rural Education Association Conference,
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