University of Arkansas Researchers Study Effects of School Consolidation on Students, Educators
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - School consolidation affects the students and teachers who move to a new school more than it affects students and teachers in the receiving school, a new study by University of Arkansas researchers found. The study also indicated that students affected by consolidation were more resilient and able to adapt quicker to their new settings than their teachers and parents.
The history of consolidation in Arkansas goes back about 100 years, according to Marc Holley, a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville who was part of the research team. Despite that, consolidation remains a controversial method of education reform, he said.
"Consolidation has been around a long time, but there's not much in the literature about what the experience is like for people who live through it," said Holley, who is working on a doctoral degree in public policy with a specialization in education policy. He formerly worked as a private school administrator and teacher.
Several waves of consolidation reduced the number of school districts in Arkansas in the 20th century. The latest round occurred as a result of the Lake View School District lawsuit against the state in which the Arkansas Supreme Court declared that the state's process of school funding was unconstitutional. By the spring of 2007, 57 public school districts had been restructured as a result of Act 60, which mandated the closing of districts with fewer than 350 students.
The university researchers interviewed students, teachers and administrators at four school districts in the state that were geographically and racially diverse. Several administrators of other districts declined to be interviewed, Holley said.
"The ones that spoke with us had achieved relatively successful consolidation," Holley explained. "Ones that experienced greater controversy refused, and that's a shame. That information could have been very helpful. Some districts that anticipated consolidation took a more proactive approach while others fought it tooth and nail."
Keith Nitta, assistant professor of educational policy at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, will present a paper on the study today at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in New York. The Clinton School is part of the University of Arkansas System and includes faculty from the University of Arkansas.
Because the interviews took place in districts where consolidation was less contentious, that makes it difficult to generalize the research findings, Nitta explained.
The study was unique in including experiences of both people in a school that moved and in a school that received new students, Nitta said. Other researchers either interviewed only those who moved or did not differentiate responses from the two groups in their findings.
Students, teachers and administrators who moved to a new school as a result of consolidation routinely reported they were extremely anxious about finding their place in a new school setting, but students, teachers and administrators in receiving schools rarely reported significant anxiety about the merging of populations. Nitta said the students in both groups appeared more flexible than adults, reporting that their negative feelings disappeared within a few months, while some teachers said they did not feel comfortable in their new surroundings after two years.
The majority of students, teachers and administrators reported that larger class sizes did not have a negative effect on academic support for students. Teachers said curriculum posed challenges, such as merging two sets of textbooks.
"When the teachers in receiving schools saw differences, such as larger class sizes, they didn't always attribute them directly to the consolidation," Nitta said. "People who moved were more likely to see the differences as directly related to consolidation."
Another commonly heard criticism of consolidation is that students will be on buses much longer than otherwise. The researchers found that not to be true.
"Parents are concerned about an increase in commutes," Holley said. "We did not find a significant increase due to consolidation. It was usually 10-15 minutes at the most."
"The experience for those who moved was much more traumatic than for those who received new students and teachers," he said. "You would think it would be equally traumatic. Also, the students adapted easier than the adults. One teacher who moved to a new school said the new students accepted her but the other teachers didn't."
Teachers who moved to a new school also reported a less close relationship with new students and their parents.
The researchers made some recommendations based on their findings:
These measures will help lessen the negative impact on the community, another often-cited argument against school consolidation, Holley said.
"There is a loss of community feeling," he said. "That's why it is particularly important to keep something open in the district that's closing."
An administrator at one school went so far as to require all teachers to change classrooms so that the new ones wouldn't be the only ones required to adjust to new surroundings.
The study found benefits to students in consolidated districts from a greater variety of advanced courses to take and more extracurricular activities, although some students reported greater competition to take part in some activities such as sports.
Other members of the research team are Sharon L. Wrobel, an assistant professor in the Institute of Government at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock; Gary Ritter, who holds an endowed chair in education policy at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville; and Brent Riffel, doctoral student in history and project manager for the Office of Education Policy that Ritter directs.
The paper can be found at http://www.uark.edu/ua/oep/.