Tragedy of School Consolidation

The Road to Columbine

As the school bells ring in another fall, let us recall those benighted days before the 2,000-student high school, with its Olympic-sized swimming pool, gleaming array of computers, and anonymous enrollees falling through gilded cracks.

Variety, local accents, and grassroots involvement marked the old American educational system. By the late nineteenth century, though, the Expert Class was hawking “consolidation”—abolishing tiny district academies and herding children into centralized schools. As the Nebraska superintendent of public instruction remarked in 1873, “Parents are often very poor judges of what a school should be.”

The centralization of schools was bitterly resisted at the local level: The stakes were nothing less than community pride and autonomy. “The conversion of the people through propaganda is essential to successful consolidation,” U.S. Bureau of Education chairwoman Adelaide S. Baylor said in 1923. So urban papers were filled with horror stories of forlorn young’uns, mis-educated in one-room shacks, learning that the world is flat and dental hygiene is the devil’s trade.

But researchers found little difference between the achievements of students in one-room schools and those in consolidated education factories, so by the 1950s, the consolidators came up with a new rationale: rural schools were a threat to national defense.

The high priest of Cold War consolidation was James B. Conant, the chemist and Harvard University president who had been a major in the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service during the First World War and a Manhattan Project administrator during the Second. Mustard gas, the atom bomb...consolidation was the logical next step in the career of Conant the Barbarian. With a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, he produced a series of scowling, widely publicized reports on American education.

The first order of business, Conant demanded, must be “the elimination of the small high school.” He declared that no graduating class of fewer than 100 students ought to be tolerated. Defenders of small schools were “still living in imagination in a world which knew neither nuclear weapons nor Soviet imperialism.” The “struggle between the free nations and Communism” creates “a special national interest which ought to affect educational planning.” The fewer the schools and the more uniform the curricula, Conant argued, the easier to achieve “democratic unity” and high scores on science tests.

But how to wipe out small schools across the fruited plain? Public opinion ruled out the atom bomb, so Conant urged “compulsory measures...without recourse to popular vote.” Conant was in no mood to hear a lot of guff about long bus rides or sentimental attachments to the old hometown. “Geography may sometimes be legitimate justification for a small high school, but all too often it is merely an excuse.

Human nature—not geography—offers the real explanation.” By “human nature” he meant such immeasurables as love, kinship, and loyalty, factors that had no place in his equations.

Though Conant groused that of all his recommendations consolidation was “the one most vigorously attacked,” it proceeded apace. The number of school districts fell faster than Christa McAuliffe’s Challenger: from 127,531 in 1932 to 83,718 in 1950, 40,520 in 1960, 17,995 in 1970, and fewer than 15,000 today.

Tens of thousands of little schools disappeared, and the communities that drew their distinct identities from these schools melted into the Great American Nothingness. In his marvelous volume The Old Country School, Wayne E. Fuller wrote, “To close a country school was to destroy an institution that held the little rural community together. It was to wipe out the one building the people of the district had in common and, in fact, to destroy the community.… Even more important, as far as the farmers were concerned, the destruction of their school meant that their power to set the length of the school terms, to employ their teacher, and determine how much they would spend for education would be taken from them and given to some board far removed from their community.”

Years after the great eradication of rural schools, and their combination into megaschools full of CD-ROMs and Social Security numbers, scholars are reaching a new consensus: In the words of one, small schools—“those enrolling no more than 400 students in high school”—“may provide better education than their large counterparts, as a function (at least in part) of their small size.”

These schools were precisely the ones that James Conant wished to kill. And did kill. But, gee, Columbine sure did have a nice swimming pool.