Sunday, February 16, 2014

Are Extra Large High Schools More Cost Effective to Operate?

In my last post, I described the reasons why our school board and school leadership is looking very seriously at building a new Technical High School.  You can jump to that post by clicking here.  In today's St. Cloud Daily Times, former Apollo (and Tech) Principal Paul Kinney writes about some of the factors that must be addressed when considering the optimal size of a high school.   (Click Here)

Recently, I spoke to a group of Tech alums who are concerned with preserving the tradition of Tech excellence.   They urged us to use our imagination to create a high school of the 21st century, one that will prepare our students for the challenges that they will face, one that makes proper use of technology.  "Go Big," one of them said.  But he wasn't speaking of big in size, but big in imagination, and vision.   Don't cut corners when laying a foundation for our children's future, he argued.   If the community decides that its time to replace the nearly 100 year old building, we'll want to assure that we create a learning space that promotes good teaching, that promotes safety, that makes efficient use of space and promotes a quite and welcoming environment.   You can find a thoughtful list of "33 design principles" to be followed by communities contemplating construction of a new school, authored by Jeff Lackey, a leading thinker in school design.  For another later version click here.

But I want to emphasize that the building itself is merely a stage upon which teaching will take place.   Great theater takes place on all sorts of stages, but "the play's the thing."   Great teaching takes place in old buildings and new, and we must not therefore delude ourselves into believing that a better building means better curriculum, better teaching, or a better education.   Good education takes place in
old brick buildings:  second rate education can occur in the taj mahal of school buildings.  The most important work we are doing this year is our effort to reform and improve our currciculum, our approach to teaching, and the way in which we hold ourselves accountable to produce results.  

In recent months, a few advocates for high school replacement have argued that we should replace both of our high schools, not just one, and consolidate those two high schools into one centrally located mega high school.   In this post, I want to examine some of the assumptions behind the extra-large high school proposal.  

My starting point is this:  the cost of replaing both high schools and combining them into a single centrally located high school will be at least $40 million greater than the cost of  building a high school to handle only half of our high school population.   At three percent interest, that's $1.2 million a year in extra interest, not to mention the payments on principal.   Over the life of the loan, the total cost would be an extra $64 million.   Now eventually the district will have to replace Apollo, but by closing the school now, we will be wasting a valuable resource belonging to the taxpayer-- the balance of the useful life of that high school.   We derived almost 100 years of value out of Technical High School; we will have utilized Apollo for less than half of that.

So that leads us to a discussion of whether we really will be significantly better off with a centrally located extra large high school, than with two smaller high schools in different parts of our 250 square mile school district.   There are two primary issues in addressing size, of course.  One is whether a very large high school is cheaper to operate.   The other is whether it delivers a more effective educational environment.    Many people assume that certainly anything that is bigger must automatically be more efficient and cheaper to operate, on a per student basis.   But, in a 2005 publication, two educational researchers discuss the results of research into the benefits and costs of small high schools, large high schools and extra large high schools.   See Literature Review on Effects of School Size.     After reviewing a number of research articles reviewing  the merits of large and small schools, the authors report:   
In spite of the face validity of school consolidation as a solution for educational problems, the research on school size indicates that the economic and curricular advantages of large schools are often exaggerated......
In fact, the research suggests that increasing the size of schools over 1000 does not actually improve economic efficiency--the cost per student--but actually causes it to decline, they argue:  

When school size is considered in isolation, schools between 500 and 1,000 students are probably operating at peak economic efficiency already (Turner & Thrasher, 1970). Thus, with regard to economies of scale, current research does not support school consolidation of schools that already have 500 or more students. Nor does this literature support consolidation that would result in a school of more than 1000 students. [While efficiencies occur from consolidations up to 500 students, the article continues...] Before consolidating schools with fewer than 500 students, educational decision-makers need to consider additional factors such as transportation costs in determining the likely cost effectiveness of this action.
Why might size increases beyond 1000 students result in cost inefficiencies?  What's going on?   One very obvious factor, of course, is that a very large high school, must support a much larger transportation network, because the extra large school must draw students from a larger geographic area.  In my prior post on this topic, I focused on that issue and pointed out that our school district is 250 square miles in area, which would make it, by far, the largest urban school district served by a single large high school.   But the authors of the literature review on effects of school size contend that business research outside public education suggest that growing a business does not always lead to cost efficiencies.  The explanation, in part is that there are "counteracting dis economies that occur when the size of an organization is increased. These costs, which include coordination costs and the need for an increased workforce, can offset the production efficiencies produced by increased size......[For example] in labor-intensive service organizations such as county governments Gooding and Wagner (1985) actually found a negative relationship between size and efficiency."

For example, the principal in a high school supervises professionals, and that involves supervision, coordination, and communication.   When size increases, the number of professionals supervised gets larger and larger, it becomes difficult for the principal to meet and supervise with all staff, and that means that the principal needs assistant principals or other principals to to conduct that supervision, and increasingly, the head principal becomes a supervisors of supervisors, and the supervision is conducted in layers of supervision.    For example, Wayzata High School has five principals, a head principal, and a principal for each of the grades in the school.    As the school gets more people supervising more people, layers of bureaucracy can build up within the school.
Thus, both very small schools and very large schools tend to be very expensive to operate (Alspaugh, 1994). McGuire (1989) concluded that schools with an enrollment above 2000 students were located on the upward slope of the cost curve and that their combination of teaching personnel and course offerings could be made available in a smaller and more economical setting.
If the extra large high school is not clearly cheaper to operate, on a per student basis, is it possible that it provides a better learning environment?   I'll discuss that in a future post.

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