One-room schools were widespread in America until the 1960s. Almost always located in rural areas, very small schools evoked strong feelings. Most educators criticized them and sought their elimination. Yet most rural citizens valued their local schools and fought efforts to merge tiny school districts. At the start of the twentieth century, there were nearly 200,000 oneroom schools. The numbers fell steadily, to 60,000, by mid-century, and then the rate of change accelerated, leaving only 2,000 by 1970. As one-room schools disappeared, so did 90 percent of the districts that governed those schools. What accounts for the consolidation of tiny schools and small districts? This entry offers answers to that question and briefly describes the renewed interest in small schools as the twentieth century drew to a close.
What the Smallest Schools Lacked
When educators assailed the smallest schools, they stressed the problems of an “ungraded” organization. Having students of widely different ages in the same room precluded good teaching, most experts agreed.
Only an extraordinary teacher could provide suitable instruction to students far apart in academic preparation and social development. What the students shared—similar neighborhoods, common relatives, comparable experiences on the farm—mattered less than their differences, the experts said. Thus, students should be grouped by age in separate rooms.
Educational leaders thought that in high school, students should also be classified by ability and interests. It seemed impossible for a small school to do that. According to an influential report in 1959 by former Harvard University President James Conant, a decent high school needed at least 400 students in order to offer rigorous courses in mathematics, science, and foreign languages. Yet on the eve of World War II, 75 percent of the nation’s high schools had fewer than 200 students.
The smallest schools could not afford the facilities that a “modern” school offered. A large school could more readily provide the space and equipment for vocational coursework, especially home economics for girls and various shops for boys. Art, music, and drama could be taught in small schools, but the buildings lacked ample space for storage and performances. Athletics, the fastest-growing part of the curriculum during the enrollment surge of the 1930s, required extensive space, indoors and outdoors.
Rooms to serve the entire school could be justified if hundreds of students used those costly sites. Libraries, lunchrooms, auditoriums, swimming pools, and study halls were otherwise considered too expensive. The economies of scale seemed compelling, although educators acknowledged that financial savings were not guaranteed by larger size. The per-capita annual operating costs of new and larger buildings were sometimes less, sometimes more, than those of smaller schools. The educational advantages of larger schools were worth the price, educators argued.
Careers Paths That Led To The Cities
Most small rural schools could not match the professional attractions of a teaching career in a larger school and district. The chance to specialize in one subject was rare in the small school, and educators had little respect for the notion of the teacher as generalist beyond the elementary grades. To save money and avoid surprises, most rural school boards hired young women who lived in or near the area. Typically, they taught for a few years and then either married or moved. Few supervisors were close at hand to lend assistance. The collegial support that was available—specialists from the state department of education, summer “institutes,” college courses—was sparse and patchy, in part because many officials and professors yearned to close small schools, not find ways to improve them.
For teachers interested in a lifelong career, the larger urban districts beckoned. Usually, the salaries and benefits were better than rural compensation. Tenure was more common. So were opportunities to earn advanced degrees in the evenings and summers. Of great importance was the liberation from constant surveillance. Well into the twentieth century, teachers in many small towns were expected to act like saints, forsaking leisure-time activities that might be controversial. Smoking, drinking, dating, or skipping church were out of the question. In the cities, by contrast, there was far less oversight of teachers’ personal lives.
An ambitious young administrator’s career path also led to larger districts. Salaries were significantly higher. Opportunities to innovate abounded because most urban districts, before the 1960s, were seen as leaders in school reform. School boards usually deferred to the credentialed experts who ran the sprawling systems like huge corporations. In contrast, the rural districts’ superintendents not only lacked the training of their urban counterparts but usually were at the mercy of school trustees who made a wide range of picayune decisions that were handled in the cities by educators.
Provincial Character Of Small Rural Schools
To most prominent educators, the devotion of rural residents to small schools and districts reflected deeper problems with rural life. In some areas, especially the South, the challenge was poverty. In more prosperous regions, the residents were criticized as being too cheap and too conservative to support educational progress. They tolerated rickety buildings without adequate sanitation, ventilation, and lighting. The tiniest villages supposedly did not know what was in their own best interest—they hurt themselves by not aligning with larger towns where wealthier farmers and businessmen were increasingly in control of agrarian life. Only by becoming more cosmopolitan could remote outposts keep their young people from leaving.
In response, many rural residents defended their local school as the heart and soul of the community. It was the one place where everyone could share the pleasures of music, drama, sports, and other wholesome entertainment. It was also a safe place where parents could feel assured that their values would be passed on and their way of life would be respected rather than questioned by teachers. Without its own school, a village might not survive. Newcomers would go elsewhere in the absence of the local school.
Consolidation therefore hinged on the willingness of state legislatures to intervene. Rather than mandate change, most legislatures relied on substantial financial incentives to rural districts if they would merge. The legislators were especially generous in providing assistance for transportation and construction costs. One upshot of casting school size as a question of rural folkways was a lost opportunity to debate the shortcomings of larger schools. Rarely did the rural proponents of small schools resist consolidation on the grounds of instructional practices. They would defend “the basics” and assail the larger schools’ broader curriculum as “frills,” but the opponents of consolidation usually presented no original vision of schooling. A fresh approach to agricultural education, creative roles for volunteer instructors, rigorous use of correspondence courses and educational television— those efforts to enrich rural education were rare. When there was a progressive educator in a small school, she usually tried to show that she could match what larger schools did rather than seek novel approaches designed for very small schools.
Renewed Interest in Small Schools
After decades of believing that bigger was better, the American faith in large schools diminished from the 1970s on. Big schools felt inhumane. Many students without special abilities or disabilities lacked close connections with anyone on the faculty. Guidance counselors advised too many students to know most of them well, and high school teachers with 150 students could not tailor their instruction to individual needs. Moreover, some large schools were not safe. Although media reports of violence and drug abuse exaggerated the dangers, many parents felt that large urban schools were full of mischief.
No one called for a return to one-room schools, although the growing popularity of home schooling marked a commitment to a version of that format. The innovations that took hold were usually in the form of teams of teachers working together with the same students, several subdivisions (“houses”) within a large school, or the construction of new schools of significantly smaller size than their predecessors. No one enshrined the history of rural education—there was no distinctive pedagogy or curriculum associated with it for anyone to emulate. The value of knowing each student well was the legacy left by the tiny rural schools, and personal attention was attractive to educators in all sections of the country by the end of the twentieth century.
- Fuller, W. E. (1982). The old country school: The story of rural education in the middle West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Hampel, R. L. (2002). Historical perspectives on small schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 5, 357–363.
- Link, W. A. (1986). A hard country and a lonely place: Schooling, society, and reform in rural Virginia, 1870– 1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Peshkin, A. (1982). The imperfect union: School consolidation and community conflict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Reynolds, D. R. (1999). There goes the neighborhood: Rural school consolidation at the grass roots in early twentieth century Iowa. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
- Weber, J. (1946). My country school diary. New York: Harper.
- Weiler, K. (1998). Country school women: Teaching in rural California, 1850–1950. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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