Small schools and rural communities are critical to Texas’ success, and anything negatively impacting small schools or the communities they support hurts us all. Our world is changing rapidly, but the need for rural communities and small schools still exists.
In fact, the education, experiences, environment, and goods provided by rural communities are critical to our state and our society. Time changes almost everything, but society’s basic needs and the benefits of a positive education have not. Small schools and rural communities must not be neglected.
The educational methods, standards, and classroom environments of the early 1900s do not translate to today’s classrooms and today’s students. The classrooms of the 1900s were patterned after the factories that were created during the Industrial Age of the 1800s.
Classes were rigidly structured and every child was in a specific place. Teachers were the primary sources and disseminators of information, and students were expected to learn, by rote, what was taught. This system worked well for decades, and fostered young minds which have accomplished miraculous feats and changed our world. This education system produced graduates that created life-saving vaccines, landed humans on the moon, and yes, invented the computer and associated networks that have changed life forever.
Today, our classrooms are radically different from 100 years ago. The nature of the population, the organization of school systems, and the characteristics and duties of teachers differ greatly from the past. Teachers are no longer the owners of knowledge and expected to impart such to their students.
Teachers are now the facilitators of learning, sharing a tremendous amount of resources and information with their students. Today’s students are required to be more active participants in their education and take more responsibility, learning through meaningful and associative means rather than rote memorization. There exists today a more cooperative relationship between teacher and student. Educational systems and standards have changed, but some of the basic principles of human interaction and needs have not.
One critical factor that has not changed between the classrooms of the 1900s and today is the significance of classroom size. Second only to teacher quality, classroom size is the most important factor in learning today. This is supported by a great quantity of research, perhaps the most credible of which is the STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) study conducted in the 1980s, which “found positive effects of early and very large class-size reduction on academic achievement in school and college attendance, with the economic benefits of the program outweighing the costs.” (Krueger’s STAR study analysis, 1980 - Alan B. Krueger, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115(2): 497–532 (1999).
Classroom size is a statistical variant which the Texas Education Agency incorporates in its Texas Performance Report; an annually published assessment of every school in the state. In Kindergarten through third grade classrooms, schools are required to maintain a maximum ratio of not more than twenty-two students per one teacher; unless the school applies for and is granted a waiver from the Texas Education Agency. The importance of individual student – teacher interaction and attention, as well as student inclusion and participation in the classroom environment, is duly recognized. Small class size results in enhanced learning, and smaller schools have reduced class sizes.
If classroom size is an important factor recognized by the Texas Education Agency and verified by numerous studies, why is there so much apparent opposition in the Texas Legislature against smaller schools where classroom size is the smallest. Why is it that large schools are the winners of the HB3 funding sweepstakes and many small schools are all but left out? Why does this happen, when many small schools are our highest performing and highest rated schools in the state? The message perceived from leadership in Austin is that “there are too many small school districts in the state” and that small schools should quietly submit and consolidate with large school districts.
Texas needs small schools. Texas cannot survive without small schools. If small schools are forced to consolidate with larger schools, then those rural communities and small towns which support and are supported by small schools will disappear. As our state’s population rapidly increases, the resources provided by Texas rural communities and small schools becomes increasingly important. These communities and small schools provide necessary human and ecological resources to meet the needs of our country. These critical resources include food, fuel, and fiber.
1. Food. Food production requires space, and the vast majority of our food - whether plant or livestock generated - is grown in rural areas where there are small towns with small schools. There is little food production in large urban areas. Yes, food is packaged, processed, and shipped from urban areas, but if there is no food grown to package…?
2. Fuel. The vast majority of our fuel comes from rural areas where there are small towns with small schools. There is little fuel production in large urban areas. Texas leads the nation in the raw production of the fossil fuels, wind, and solar energy our state depends upon. Yes, our fuel is refined in urban areas, but it originally comes from rural areas. How many wells, windmills, and solar farms are in urban areas?
3. Fiber. The vast majority of our fiber (cotton, wool, mohair) is grown in rural areas where there are small towns with small schools. Yes, fiber is made into material and then into clothes in urban areas, but the raw material comes from rural areas. There are no cotton fields in DFW, Austin, or Houston. El Paso does not have ranches that raise sheep and goats.
Educational methods have changed but the basic needs of society have not, and many of these basic resources are produced in rural areas where small schools exist and form the cornerstone of rural communities. How many young people will enter the food, fuel, and fiber industries if there are no small towns to live in because those towns have disappeared due to the loss of their small community schools? How many young people will enter these industries if there are no small schools in small towns to educate their children?
How many Texans (except West Texans) have ever heard of the communities of Barnhart, Pandale, or Juno? These are all real examples of small towns that lost their small schools due to consolidations. While it may be easier to create school funding and accountability systems if all schools are large, the ultimate cost to the state and our future will be crippling. It takes hard work and dedication to create a funding system that will equitably fund schools of 200 students as well as schools of 200,000 students, but our students, our environment, and our state are worth it.
Any act that negatively affects small, rural schools directly and negatively impacts the rural communities supporting, and supported by, those schools. Subsequently, anything that negatively affects Texas rural communities negatively affects the entire state. The future of our small schools and rural communities must not be jeopardized.
The next time you speed through rural Texas and quickly pass through small towns, be thankful they are there - producing your food, fuel, and fiber. Be thankful that those small towns have small schools in them, ensuring the future of these vital industries. Be thankful that they are educating future citizens of our great State.