Arnold Kling  

Size of School Districts

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Joshua Bordoff, Jason Bendor, andn Jason Furman wrote,

Smaller school districts may also be more efficient (Barrow and Rouse 2002, p. 29, Fowler and Walbert 1991). This may result from the difficulties in dealing with a large organization that may not benefit from economies of scale. For example, the problems facing school budgets--that they are often opaque and convoluted, inhibiting proper management and parental engagement--may be exacerbated in large districts (Roza and Hill 2004).

Where I live, the school district is ginormous. The teachers' union won again in this election, booting off the two school board members who were the most independent of the union. My guess is that the larger the school district, the less likely it is to serve its customers rather than the unions.

The paper by Furman and friends was referred to by Nicholas Kristof, to which I was referred by Greg Mankiw. It is mostly a "can-do" paper about education policy. Such papers are easy to write if you ignore on-the-ground reality of who has real power in the public education system.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Alan Bickford writes:

If organizing schools into large districts improved education, you'd probably see more private schools banding together this way. The parents would demand it. Instead you only see large districts in public schools, presumably those who listen more to teachers and administrators than parents.

PJens writes:

I am not sure what "ginormous" or "smaller" equates to in numbers.

I once read an article (I can not find it) that reported on a study that found the optimal school district size (in Wisconsin) to be ~2500 students. Anything larger, the students got lost in the system. School districts that had fewer students were not able to efficiently or effectively serve the needs of all students.

mjh writes:

Here's a link from 2007 that lists the top 20 school districts.

Steve Sailer writes:

The most important factor is that small school districts compete more against neighboring school districts for young families looking for good schools. So, the quality of the schools have a big impact on home prices. Huge school districts compete less. It's the old surface area to volume problem. Small districts have huge surface areas relative to their volumes.

It's easy to see with something trivial but measurable: high school football success. The best high school football teams these days tend to be either Catholic schools or exurban schools from districts with just a handful of high schools, while big city schools with more top college prospects are far inferior.

In effect, each exurb's high school football team serves as advertising for that town. Citizens pour huge resources into their exurb's football team in order to make their exurb more fashionable and drive up their home's price.

The same is true for school quality, but it's not as easy to measure.

another bob writes:

a relevant zen proverb (so i'm told); the way out is through the door, why do so few take it?

this paper is such pablum.

no matter how much money is spent,
no matter how much pressure is put on teachers and administrators,
no matter if college is 'free',
all the children will not be above average.

this ain't lake wobegon. singapore is lake wobegon. california and the US are not.

furthermore, scores on state administered tests do not determine economic growth. if that were true then GDP per capita (or some such economic measure) would exactly correlate to test scores. it does not.

the best way to break the government school monopoly is to abandon the government schools. don't send your kid there.

stanfo writes:

Weird, I was just reading this paper the other day, considering this topic to write my thesis on.

Marley writes:

This concept is unreasonable. It has been evidentially proven that the reduction of classroom size drastically improves a student’s overall success in the class, particularly when dealing with younger children. Smaller classroom sizes give students a chance to receive more on-on-one attention with the teacher, allowing the teacher to be flexible with her teaching methods. This idea I think would also seem to cut back on the noise level. Less kids, less distractions.

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