ERIC Identifier: ED459969
Publication Date: 2001-12-00
Author: Howley, Aimee - Howley, Craig
Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Rural School Busing. ERIC Digest.
The familiar image of the yellow school bus making its way over a winding
country road serves as an emblem of rural education in the United States. At the
same time, its nostalgic connotations may contribute to the tendency to accept
at face value the centralizing and standardizing agenda that rural school busing
enacts. Policymakers and school administrators have routinely attached positive
connotations to this agenda--improvement of school conditions, a higher quality
of instruction, and robustness of outcomes. But do the projected improvements
actually materialize? And, when they do, is there a hidden price tag? This
Digest summarizes information that suggests that long bus rides are part of the
hidden costs of school and district consolidation.
Even before the 1800s, families in small
rural towns began to establish schools so that their children could learn to
read and write. For much of the 1800s, these schools were organized informally,
provided with little support or supervision from states, and positioned to
address community interests and needs. The school year was short and attendance
poor. Children, of course, walked to these schools, and many children who lived
in the countryside were unable to attend. For many rural children, therefore,
instruction--mostly practical in nature--came from parents, nearby relatives, or
These circumstances did not, however, mesh well with states' interests in
compelling student attendance. Policymakers and education leaders saw
considerable value in using the system of common schools to accomplish national
political and economic aims. To do so, they were willing to structure schooling
in ways that would affect the routines of family life and farm production, at a
time when most Americans farmed or lived in the country. As early as the 1880s,
policymakers began to call for school consolidation as a way to improve the
conditions of rural schools. Without innovations in the mechanics and
infrastructure of transportation, however, these proposals had comparatively
By the 1930s, transportation technologies had caught up with proposals to
create new consolidated schools, and the smallest rural schools began to close.
Since that time, rural students have been bused to increasingly larger schools,
located at greater and greater remove from their homes. In fact, consolidation
has cut the number of U.S. school "districts" by 91 percent since about 1930,
and the number of "schools" by 67 percent, while the number of "students" has
simultaneously increased by 83 percent (Snyder & Hoffman, 2001).
The effect on rural school transportation budgets is seldom appreciated.
Today, school districts in rural areas spend more than twice per pupil what
urban districts spend on transportation (Killeen & Sipple, 2000, p. 18).
THE EXPERIENCE OF RIDING THE BUS
Despite the fact that for
more than half a century generations of rural children have been riding school
buses, educators know very little about that experience from the perspective of
communities, families, or students. Important questions, however, concern the
length of rides experienced by rural students, the effects of those rides on
school participation and academic achievement, and the impact of widespread
school busing on rural ways of life.
Rural educators, of course, know that many of their students board buses
early in the morning and arrive home in the very late afternoon. Still, as
Killeen and Sipple (2000) note, "on the national level ... no data or statistics
exist which account for the bus ride time for children" (p. 12). A recent study
(Howley, Howley, & Shamblen, 2001), however, provided some rudimentary
comparisons between ride times for elementary students in rural and suburban
schools. (This study focused on rural and suburban locales because urban
districts often make extensive use of public mass-transport systems.) Overall,
the study showed that rural schoolchildren were more likely than their suburban
counterparts to have bus rides of 30 minutes or longer. Their rides also tended
to be more arduous, traversing poorer roads and more hilly or mountainous
terrain than those experienced by suburban students. In addition--for good or
ill--rural elementary children were quite likely to be "double-routed," an
efficiency measure placing them on buses with middle and high school students.
These circumstances may seem to some educators a fair price for rural
children to pay in order to derive benefits from larger, more centralized
schools. But are there hidden costs? Certainly costs in academic terms would
offer serious cause for concern. One of the best studies in the literature (Lu
& Tweeten, 1973), now quite dated, confirmed a negative effect of duration
of bus rides in Oklahoma on student achievement.(1) In the absence of more
recent studies on achievement impacts, the most reasonable basis for evaluating
the costs and benefits of long bus rides comes indirectly from research
addressing the effects of large scale schools on the achievement of
low-socioeconomic-status (SES) students. Findings from this research are
relevant because shorter bus rides have been found to be positively associated
with smaller school size (Howley et al., 2001). Moreover, attention to the
achievement of low-SES students makes particular sense in rural locales, where
so many families' incomes fall below the national median (U.S. Department of
An extensive literature on the size of schools and districts, including those
in rural communities, speaks quite clearly to the issue of achievement. As this
literature shows, smaller size tends to improve the overall achievement of
schools and districts serving large proportions of impoverished students (e.g.,
Bickel & Howley, 2000; Howley & Bickel, 1999). Although these studies
use school- and district-level data, they do provide a reasonable basis for
making inferences about how well low-income students who attend large, remote
schools are likely to perform. And this reasoning leads to the conclusion that
such students' academic achievement is likely to suffer. Whether rural students'
long bus rides directly contribute to this deleterious outcome, of course, has
yet to be shown.
Long bus rides also take students away from their homes and communities for
many hours during each school day, and this effect on children's lives has been
studied in another of the best studies in the literature (Fox, 1996; see also
Spence, 2000). In an investigation of rural Quebec families, Fox found that long
rides reduced the number and variety of household activities and reduced
students' sleep time, recreational time, academic attentiveness, and
extracurricular participation. Moreover, Fox found that rural farm families were
the ones most seriously inconvenienced, because their schedules were the least
adaptable. Fox's assertions, though rare, are not unique. Beaumont and Pianca
(2000) report that school busing is part of a set of institutionalized school
practices that contribute to the erosion of neighborhood cohesion. "School
sprawl" deprives rural and small-town neighborhoods of children and their
activities, but the possible harm done to social capital and community cohesion
by this removal has not been studied.
Such findings connect to theories of social coherence and resourcefulness.
For instance, the decision to close small local schools restricts rural
residents' engagement with and support for schools (e.g., Spence, 2000).
Moreover, when the two major institutions of socialization--the family and the
school--are at odds, community integration and the well-being of community
members tend to suffer (e.g., Peshkin, 1982). One might well theorize that rural
school busing erodes the "social capital" of rural communities (cf. Coleman,
1988; Putnam, 1993).
Clearly, school closure, school size, and length of bus ride are complexly
related issues. But, with an insufficient research base, their separate and
combined effects are difficult to pinpoint. Important as these dynamics may be,
moreover, they are somewhat removed from the direct experience of rural students
who ride school buses. What, then, in more concrete terms, is that experience
THE RURAL BUS RIDE
A preliminary picture of the rural
school bus ride has been provided in a recent study by Howley (2001). Based on a
five-state survey of elementary school principals, the researcher discovered
that most rural children experience rides of excessive length. Whereas almost
all such children (85 percent) experience one-way bus rides of more than 30
minutes, approximately one quarter of them experience one-way rides of more than
Not only do long bus rides extend the length of the school day for many rural
children, so too do long wait times at school (i.e., before the start of and
after the conclusion of the instructional day). On average, the morning wait
time for rural students in the responding schools was an estimated 14 minutes.
Their average afternoon wait time was 13 minutes.
Rural students also travel to school over relatively rough roads. Although
there is considerable variation by state, approximately 36 percent of rural bus
routes traverse paved major roads, about 43 percent paved minor roads, and about
20 percent unpaved minor roads. Moreover, in many rural locales, sizable
proportions of the roads used to transport children cross hilly and even
Given the challenging bus rides that rural students face, many districts
appear to be taking steps to ensure the safety and effectiveness of their
transportation systems. Approximately 50 percent of rural districts employ a
full-time transportation director. Sixty-nine percent provide regular first-aid
instruction to bus drivers, and about 77 percent equip all of their buses with
two-way communication devices.
POLICY, RESEARCH, AND PRACTICE ISSUES
The effect of the
school bus on schooling is likely to be as profound as the effect of the
automobile on shopping. Extant literature strongly suggests that more is at
stake in rural school busing than cost efficiency and safety. Rural and suburban
differences exist widely, but one study (Howley, 2001) documented widespread
differences by social class and ethnicity in the "rural" bus ride (e.g.,
impoverished rural schools have longer rides than more affluent rural schools).
Clearly, busing is not a neutral part of the school day, but exhibits instead
the systemic contradictions and complexities that structure American society
Studies into the influence of length of bus ride are sorely needed,
particularly into the relationship of long rides to student achievement (or,
more broadly, school performance) and to levels of, or the experience of,
parental involvement. Lu and Tweeten's unreplicated study of the effect that
riding the bus has on student achievement, clearly the best in the extant
literature, remains an incentive for further study.
In the meantime, community members, school administrators, and policymakers
can begin to connect the findings about length of ride to those on the effects
of smaller school and district size. Three facts--that (1) rural students in
impoverished areas confront longer rides, (2) longer rides are a function of
larger attendance areas, and (3) smaller size benefits lower-SES students--are
significant, taken together. It seems unlikely that longer rides constitute an
academic benefit for poor students and communities.
Another study from the 1970s (Thibeault, Zetler, & Wilson, 1977) found no
such effect in Montana; however, this study has several methodological flaws,
rendering it inconclusive in this discussion.
Beaumont, C., & Pianca, E. (2000). Historic
neighborhood schools in the age of sprawl. Washington, DC: National Trust for
Historic Preservation. Retrieved October 1, 2001, from
Bickel, R., & Howley, C. (2000). The influence of scale on student
performance: A multi-level extension of the Matthew principle. Education Policy
Analysis Archives, 8(22). [On-line serial]. Retrieved October 1, 2001, from
Coleman, J. (1988). Social capital in the creation of human capital. American
Journal of Sociology, 94 (supplement), S95-S120.
Fox, M. (1996). Rural transportation as a daily constraint in students'
lives. Rural Educator, 17(2), 22-27.
Howley, C. (2001). The rural school bus ride in five states. Randolph, VT:
Rural School and Community Trust. Retrieved August 31, 2001, from
Howley, C., & Bickel, R. (1999). The Matthew project: National report.
Randolph, VT: Rural Challenge Policy Program. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service No. ED 433 174)
Howley, C., Howley, A., & Shamblen, S. (2001). Riding the school bus: A
study of the rural versus suburban experience in five states. Journal of
Research in Rural Education, 17(1), 41-61.
Killeen, K., & Sipple, J. (2000). School consolidation and transportation
policy: An empirical and institutional analysis. Randolph, VT: Rural School and
Community Trust. Retrieved August 31, 2001, from
Lu, Y-C., and Tweeten, L. (1973). The impact of busing on student
achievement. Growth and Change, 4(4), 44-46.
Peshkin, A. (1982). The imperfect union: School consolidation and community
conflict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Putnam, R. (1993). What makes democracy work? National Civic Review, 82(2),
Snyder, T., & Hoffman, C. (2001). Digest of education statistics: 2000.
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education
Statistics. Tables 87 & 3, retrieved December 5, 2001, from
Spence, B. (2000). Long school bus rides: Their effect on school budgets,
family life, and student achievement. Rural Education Issue Digest. Charleston,
WV: AEL, Inc. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 448 955)
Thibeault, R., Zetler, A., & Wilson, A. (1977). The achievement of bus
transported pupils. Journal of Teaching and Learning, 2(3), 17-22.
U.S. Department of Commerce. (1998). Money income in the United States: 1997
with separate data on valuation of noncash benefits (Consumer Population Reports
No. P60-200). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.