More Doesn't Mean Better: Larger High Schools and More Courses Do Not Boost Student Achievement in Iowa High Schools

Last Updated: March 31, 2006

More Doesn't Mean Better

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News Release (80 KB)
By Jerry Johnson, Ed.D, State Policy Studies Manager

In March 2005, Governor Tom Vilsack and a committee of 12 legislators endorsed a set of proposals intended to "make Iowa's public schools more efficient and improve student achievement." Among the proposals was one calling for an education commission that would recommend to the 2007 Legislature a minimum school district and high school size.

This is not the first time that Iowa's smaller school districts and high schools have been described as a barrier to improving public education. In January 2003, then Iowa Department of Education Director Ted Stilwill presented a set of rural education recommendations which included calls for reorganizing districts to ensure a minimum high school size of 200 students. Of note, the reasons given for the intent to create larger districts were academic, not financial—i.e., the report dismisses the notion that district consolidation might improve fiscal efficiency and focuses on the influence of high school size on curricular offerings and academic achievement. The state's findings with regard to small districts and fiscal efficiency are consistent with other research suggesting that consolidation is not likely to save much money in Iowa.

And it's not just policymakers. A November 25, 2005 Op Ed piece in the Des Moines Register drew on findings from the state's annual Condition of Education Report to offer support for consolidating school districts as a means of addressing "the obvious inefficiency of operating so many school districts and the difficulty many small districts have, particularly at the high school level, in providing a first-rate education."

More recently, the Institute for Tomorrow's Workforce, a group comprised of Iowa business people and educators, issued a report in January 2006 that recommends reviewing whether high schools with fewer than 400 students and school districts with fewer than 700 students can offer the rigorous courses that will adequately prepare students for the workplace.

In light of these calls for consolidating school districts to create larger high schools offering more course units as a means of raising student achievement, we set out to investigate the relationship between student academic performance and enrollment size/number of course units offered.

Our intent was to determine what influence, if any, enrollment size and the breadth of curricular offerings has on student performance. Two primary research questions guided the analyses:
1. In what ways and to what extent does student academic achievement vary among Iowa school districts of varying enrollment size?
2. In what ways and to what extent does the number of high school course units impact academic achievement in Iowa school districts?

The research questions were addressed using standard statistical procedures (independent samples t-tests, bivariate correlation analysis, and multivariate regression analysis). The analyses included all districts operating a high school during the 2003-2004 school year (a total of 344 districts), and used the most recent data available (achievement data from 2002-03 and 2003-04; demographic data from 2003-04 and from the 2000 Census). All data were obtained from the Iowa Department of Education, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the U.S. Census Bureau, and are available to the general public.