Monday, September 19, 2011

Consolidation and "Hollowing Out the Middle"

The logic of rural school consolidation is pretty simple, I think:

  • Conventionally-structured public schools don't work well at small sizes (e.g., my daughter's in Latin 3, with fifteen students. Will there be at least ten for Latin 4? If not, it won't be offered. Advanced science courses, same deal...etc.)
  • Rural small towns are getting smaller, so what used to be big enough isn't any more, or won't be soon -- I've already talked about demographic projections for my own area.
There are good reasons for the shrinkage: as Ryan Avent of the Economist notes in a Kindle book (location 618) "doubling county-level employment density raises productivity 6%...over half of the variation in output per worker across US states can be explained by density." Other economists find higher figures, especially for "skilled cities", i.e. places that high achievers tend to go. But take the 6% as a conservative estimate -- Madison County, NY is more than 500 times less dense than Manhattan. That's nine doublings, and 9*6% is more than a 50% increase in productivity, as if you'd added a couple of decades to a career. Quite an incentive, usually expressed in the simple form of job opportunities found mainly in the cities. It's a fundamentally intractable problem -- or is it? There are several responses possible:
  • Go with the flow: consolidate, at least for high schools where the advanced-course shortage is an issue.
  • Tinker around the edges: merge some administrative functions, some transportation costs, maybe kill the art class, hope that we can last a few more years (until my daughter graduates, perhaps -- she's my youngest, and my elder granddaughter just started preschool in NYC.)
  • Look at unconventional structures; after all, the limiting case of smallest size is home schooling, and it doesn't seem that home schooling needs to be academically harmful, e.g. this week's research word from Canada is that "Structured homeschooling may offer opportunities for academic performance beyond those typically experienced in public schools". I doubt that home schooling would work outside a self-selected group, but it indicates that small size in itself need not kill academics, and I've noted before that in various states recently, consolidations and (mostly smaller) charters have seemed to go together. I like the charter idea; somewhat looser rules enabling a number of things like Khansolidation. Or maybe
  • Push back against the demographic trends: figure out why these towns are shrinking, and get them to grow again -- that's the path suggested by Carr and Kefalas' Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America. That's what this post is mostly about: Carr and Kefalas have various suggestions, and Carr will be in town this week.

On August 31, our school superintendent, Dr. Bowers, blogged that New York State Releases Money for the Merger Study; in a meeting that same day she spoke about the Hollowing-Out book, so I promptly downloaded the Kindle edition to read on my cell phone (I've really started to like having a few books always with me.)

I don't think that there's much resemblance between the really-truly-rural community of "Ellis" in the book, and the semi-rural village I live in where the major employer is Colgate University, followed by the hospital where my daughter was born -- a lot of our kids are the children of professors, doctors, administrators of various kinds, and so on. There's some resemblance between Ellis and us, though, and it's crucial to the consolidation issue: both are shrinking and aging as young people, especially the "Achievers" and "Seekers", go away at the end of high school and mostly don't become "Returners", i.e. they don't come back except on holidays. How to fix this?

Carr and Kefalas note as they close that "The policies and programs for saving small towns run the gamut" but are not sufficient...

  • they want small towns "to equalize their investment across different groups of young people and to tie education and training for Stayers more closely to...technical computer-based skills."
  • They want small-town high schools to "avail themselves" of community college programs, which should reduce their focus "on those students who are likely to pursue an academic track" and do more about wind energy and welding.
  • There's an important note in the middle of this, which I want to emphasize:
    graduates...mostly flock to metropolitan areas because of the higher returns on education found there, and because this is rational behavior, we should not try to stop them.
  • Instead, they want to emphasize the human capital represented by those who are not Achievers. Specifically,
  • education should be transformed to funnel young people into vocational and preprofessional training that will fill the holes in the countryside's labor force.
    (These holes are in "accounting, business, nursing and medical technology...and computer science."
  • They want to encourage immigration, but with "tighter oversight by state and federal regulatory bodies" along with advertising campaigns to reduce bias and segregation.
  • Finally, they want federal money for infrastructure/clean energy/organic farming.

Well, that's the plan -- there are parts of it that I could partly get behind, I guess. One problem is that the first items sound like they're describing the BOCES service, which we already use:

An example of programs that BOCES might offer are Academics Support, Auto Body Repair, Auto Technology, Building Maintenance, Business Computer Technology, Carpentry, Computer Repair and Networking, Cosmetology, Criminal Justice, Culinary Arts, Early Childhood Education, Electrical Wiring Technology, Forestry & Conservation, Gas/Diesel Mechanics, Life Skills, Medical Careers, New Vision Health, Nursing Assistant, Practical Nursing, Small Animal Care and Visual Communications.
The school we might merge with does it more the way Carr and Kefalas recommend, with BOCES supplemented by dual-credit community college coursework which can indeed be very "practical." One of my sons took BOCES courses. Another took Colgate courses, but those were in ancient Greek -- not a Carr&Kefalas recommendation. Both now live in NYC. I have no objection to these recommendations, but this is what we're already doing. I don't see the evidence that it works to prevent "Hollowing Out." I do favor substantially increased immigration on various grounds, and I'm disturbed by its recent shrinkage, but that's not something a small community can do a lot about. Infrastructure, ditto. I think I'll skip the clean energy and organic farming issues. Overall, I don't see much help here.

Well, maybe there's not much help to be had. I do think there's some reason to expect that telepresence (in medicine as I've written before, in education, in manufacturing, in getting things done generally) will reduce the difference between Here and There for employment purposes, and that will make cheaper locations with better scenery more attractive. But not for some years -- an unpredictable number of years. Meanwhile, I'm thinking about possible ways to restructure schools, and I suspect that this would require reformulation as a public charter.

Update: Well, I've heard Carr speak (as did my daughter's class, earlier in the day.) He commented that this village is more "robust" than the ones he's worrying about; he commented on the central role of the school in small-town existence, and what a disaster a school's disappearance can be. I was surprised by the extent to which it turned into an anti-college talk, arguing that college graduates are overqualified for a large fraction of near-future jobs and that pushing everyone towards college is doing them a disservice. He said that average college debt was $50,000 (and he gave the same figure to my daughter's class, so I don't think I misheard.). This really startled me so I looked it up and find that Consumer Reports says

The average total of debt per student in the class of 2011 will be $22,900.
There is some confusion here; CR agrees that it's rising (but still a good investment), but earlier figures from the NYT say Average College Debt Rose 6 Percent to $24,000 in 2009 - I think the difference is that CR is reporting actual average debt per student (for all students) whereas the NYT had been reporting average debt per student-with-debt (a majority of all students, but by no means all.) I'm not sure of that, though. I am, however, reasonably sure that Carr's figure is quite drastically wrong, which doesn't help his credibility. (My credibility is absolute; I never make mistakes, which is why this blog does not exist.) I do think some of what he said is good: if a region-based training program with certification can connect new high-school graduates with employers, or even encourage employers to move in, that's great. BOCES is a good thing. Welding is a good thing. But robotic welding is growing fast, and I don't think that a career as a welder is a good bet any more. Robotic health care is not as far along, and Carr also talked about certification in health care. Mostly, though, I expect that these certified workers are going to find jobs in higher-density many certified health-care workers is a small town going to absorb? Overall, when it comes to disappearing schools, I don't think that "Hollowing Out the Middle" has much help to offer. A little, especially for states that don't already have something like BOCES, but not much. Too bad. Some of my daughter's classmates apparently summarized his talk to them as "don't go to college, stay at home until you're thirty, work at McDonald's" -- they simply didn't believe in the jobs he spoke of. That's a little unfair, but I'm not sure that it's a lot unfair. I don't believe in those jobs (as local jobs) either.

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