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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response


November 2021


What does the research say about rural districts’ organizational and instructional policies related to declining enrollments and educational outcomes?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, literature reviews, and descriptive studies on rural districts’ organizational and instructional policies related to declining enrollments and educational outcomes. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to district operating efficiencies. For details on the databases and sources, key words, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Bard, J. , Gardener, C., & Wieland, R. (2005). Rural school consolidation report: History, research summary, conclusions and recommendations. National Rural Education Association.

From the ERIC abstract: “The consolidation of rural schools in the United States has been a controversial topic for policy-makers, school administrators, and rural communities since the 1800s. Issues in the consolidation movement have been concerns of efficiency, economics, student achievement, school size, and community identity. Throughout the history of schooling in America, school consolidation has been a way to solve rural issues in the eyes of policy makers and many education officials. Today, faced with declining enrollments and financial cutbacks, many rural schools and communities continue to deal with challenges associated with possible school reorganizations and consolidations. This paper, developed by the NREA Consolidation Task Force, provides a review of the literature on rural school consolidation, defines consolidation, addresses current research and issues related to consolidation with respect to school size, economies of scale, and student achievement, and concludes with proposed recommendations for the NREA Executive Board. Most importantly, it is concluded that there is little if any proven benefit to consolidation, and that rural communities should make every possible effort to maintain a physical school presence, while rural community and school leaders should take into account every possible variable to decide if consolidation is really the best option.”

Cooley, D. A., & Floyd, K. A. (2013). Small rural school district consolidation in Texas: An analysis of its impact on cost and student achievement. Administrative Issues Journal: Education, Practice, and Research, 3(1), 45–63.

From the ERIC abstract: “Historically, the number of public school districts in the United States has decreased despite a dramatic increase in the number of students enrolled. Although public school district consolidation has impacted districts of all sizes, since the late 1930’s smaller rural districts facing dwindling community resources have merged or consolidated with each other, resulting in fewer school districts. When school districts consolidate, all aspects of the newly-formed district are affected. Each year, lawmakers and rural public school district officials face dwindling finances, and each year these decision makers question whether to consolidate to avoid fiscal perils. Proponents tout the benefits of fiscal efficiency, a broadened curriculum, and a projected increase in student achievement. Critics argue that the community suffers when the community school closes, students are burdened with new transportation issues, increased academic opportunities do not necessarily impute to greater student performance, and a host of tangible and non-tangible arguments are put forth. This ex post facto quantitative study examines the fiscal efficiency of small, rural, consolidated school districts by comparing per-pupil expenditures with matched non-consolidated school districts in the state of Texas. The study also examines student achievement levels by comparing passing rate percentages on all Texas state assessment tests for 3rd, 5th, and 8th grade students attending these schools. For before and after consolidation comparison purposes, rural community public schools were matched according to Texas state designated ‘paired’ protocol. Districts meeting Texas Education Agency (TEA) Snapshot criterion for Absorbing districts were matched with Joining districts. Expenditure and student achievement data for Absorbing and Joining districts were collected for the ten-year period from 1999 to 2009. A paired samples t-test measured differences in the district’s efficiency, and the Lawshe-Baker Normative t-test measured differences in student achievement. Four null hypotheses were examined with an a priori alpha level = 0.05. This study, when the data for the joining and absorbing districts was subjected to appropriate t-tests, supports other research that suggests per-pupil expenditures increased and student achievement decreased for the absorbing district.”

Duncombe, W., & Yinger, J. (2007). Does school district consolidation cut costs? Education Finance and Policy, 2(4), 341–375.

From the ERIC abstract: “Consolidation has dramatically reduced the number of school districts in the United States. Using data from rural school districts in New York, this article provides the first direct estimation of consolidation’s cost impacts. We find economies of size in operating spending: all else equal, doubling enrollment cuts operating costs per pupil by 61.7 percent for a 300-pupil district and by 49.6 percent for a 1,500-pupil district. Consolidation also involves large adjustment costs, however. These adjustment costs, which are particularly large for capital spending, lower net cost savings to 31.5 percent and 14.4 percent for a 300-pupil and a 1,500-pupil district, respectively. Overall, consolidation makes fiscal sense, particularly for very small districts, but states should avoid subsidizing unwarranted capital projects.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Eacott, S., & Freeborn, A. (2020). Regional and rural school consolidation: A scoping study of research literature. International Journal of Educational Management, 34(3), 477–491.

From the ERIC abstract: “Purpose: School consolidation reforms are underway in regional New South Wales (NSW), Australia. The purpose of this paper is to establish an evidence base of research literature on school consolidation in regional, rural and remote locations. Design/methodology/approach: A scoping study of empirical literature on school consolidation, with a particular focus on regional, rural and remote education, since the year 2000 was undertaken. A corpus of 35 papers were identified and subjected to analysis based on: year of publication, country of origin, unit of analysis, data sources, timeframe and theoretical model. Findings: There remains a limited evidence base for the success of school consolidation reforms for turning around student outcomes. In addition, a number of social implications are experienced by communities losing their local school. These issues are amplified in regional, rural and remote locations. Practical implications: School consolidation reforms are used by governments/systems wanting to reduce costs and address issues of student disengagement and under-achievement. Despite a lengthy history internationally, there is at best mixed evidence regarding these reforms. With a consider disparity gap between urban and regional, rural and remote school outcomes, robust evidence on the success of reforms has major policy implications for government, systems, educators and communities. Originality/value: With reforms already underway in NSW (and elsewhere), the need for a rigorous and robust evidence base, such as this scoping study, is timely and significant.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Gordon, N., & Knight, B. (2006). The causes of political integration: An application to school districts (Working Paper 12047). National Bureau of Economic Research.

From the ERIC abstract: “This paper examines the forces behind political integration through the lens of school district consolidations, which reduced the number of school districts in the United States from around 130,000 in 1930 to under 15,000 at present. Despite this large observed decline, many districts resisted consolidation before ultimately merging and others never merged, choosing to remain at enrollment levels that nearly any education cost function would deem inefficiently small. Why do some districts voluntarily integrate while others remain small, and how do those districts that do merge choose with which of their neighbors to do so? In addressing these questions, we empirically examine the role of potential economies and diseconomies of scale, heterogeneity between merger partners, and the role of state governments. We first develop a simulation-based estimator that is rooted in the economics of matching and thus accounts for three important features of typical merger protocol: two-sided decision making, multiple potential partners, and spatial interdependence. We then apply this methodology to a wave of school district mergers in the state of Iowa during the 1990s. Our results highlight the importance of economies of scale, diseconomies of scale, state financial incentives for consolidation, and a variety of heterogeneity measures.”

Howley, A., Howley, M., Hendrickson, K., Belcher, J., & Howley, C. (2012). Stretching to survive: District autonomy in an age of dwindling resources. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 27(3).

From the ERIC abstract: “This case study focuses on a four-district collaborative that shared services for more than 15 years in an effort to retain rural schools and thereby to preserve community identity. With population losses in the four districts and suburbanization in the largest, the collaborative made extensive use of distance education in addition to itinerant teachers and shared administrators. Data concerning dynamics in the collaborative came from interviews with administrators, teachers, students, and parents. Qualitative data analysis surfaced two themes relating to shared services: tenacity in the face of decline, and strategies with limited sustainability. Findings also pointed to a disjuncture between the way administrators and parents, on the one hand and teachers and students, on the other viewed the success of shared services and the probable future of the collaborative. A review of changes in the written plans of the collaborative over a several-year period revealed that sharing of buildings through school consolidation was the inevitable next step. This finding fits with research showing that shared services in rural locales—a strategy initially used to forestall reorganization—often leads to consolidation.”

Howley, C., Johnson, J., & Petrie, J. (2011). Consolidation of schools and districts: What the research says and what it means. National Education Policy Center.

From the ERIC abstract: “Arguments for consolidation, which merges schools or districts and centralizes their management, rest primarily on two presumed benefits: (1) fiscal efficiency and (2) higher educational quality. The extent of consolidation varies across states due to their considerable differences in history, geography, population density, and politics. Because economic crises often provoke calls for consolidation as a means of increasing government efficiency, the contemporary interest in consolidation is not surprising. However, the review of research evidence detailed in this brief suggests that a century of consolidation has already produced most of the efficiencies obtainable. Indeed, in the largest jurisdictions, efficiencies have likely been exceeded--that is, some consolidation has produced diseconomies of scale that reduce efficiency. In such cases, deconsolidation is more likely to yield benefits than consolidation. Moreover, contemporary research does not support claims about the widespread benefits of consolidation. The assumptions behind such claims are most often dangerous oversimplifications. For example, policymakers may believe ‘We’ll save money if we reduce the number of superintendents by consolidating districts;’ however, larger districts need--and usually hire--more mid-level administrators. Research also suggests that impoverished regions in particular often benefit from smaller schools and districts, and they can suffer irreversible damage if consolidation occurs. For these reasons, decisions to deconsolidate or consolidate districts are best made on a case-by-case basis. While state-level consolidation proposals may serve a public relations purpose in times of crisis, they are unlikely to be a reliable way to obtain substantive fiscal or educational improvement. As is evident in the above summary, findings based on available research suggest that decision makers should approach consolidation cautiously. Specifically, the authors recommend that policymakers: (1) Closely question claims about presumed benefits of consolidation in their state; (2) Avoid statewide mandates for consolidation and steer clear of minimum sizes for schools and districts; (3) Consider other measures to improve fiscal efficiency or educational services; and (4) Investigate ‘deconsolidation’ as a means of improving fiscal efficiency and improving learning outcomes.”

Irvin, M. J., Meece, J. L., Byun, S.-Y., Farmer, T. W., & Hutchins, B. C. (2011). Relationship of school context to rural youth’s educational achievement and aspirations. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40(9), 1225–1242.

From the ERIC abstract: “Though the poverty encountered by many rural youth encompasses numerous developmental challenges and substantially increases the chances for educational problems, the school context is central to promoting and constraining their development. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to investigate the relationship of school characteristics and schooling experiences to the educational achievement and aspirations of youth from high-poverty rural communities. Differences in the relationship of school characteristics and schooling experiences to the educational outcomes of students from high- versus low-poverty rural communities were also examined. Participants included 6,247 high school students from 43 low-poverty and 21 high-poverty rural communities. Approximately 51.7% of participants were female and the sample was racially/ethnically diverse (66.4% White, 9.2% African American, 8.1% Hispanic/Latino(a), 4.4% Native American, and 11.8% Multiracial). After controlling for student and family background, school characteristics (e.g., lower student-teacher ratio) were predictive of achievement for rural youth from high-poverty communities. Schooling experiences (e.g., positive perceptions of their ability, a sense of school valuing and belonging, and preparation for postsecondary education) were predictive of educational achievement and aspirations for rural youth from high- and low-poverty communities. Overall, the study highlights unique ways schools can positively shape the educational outcomes for rural youth despite community poverty.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Jakubowski, C. T., & Kulka, L. (2016). Overcoming state support for school consolidation: How schools in the Empire State react. Journal of Inquiry and Action in Education, 8(1), 66–80.

From the ERIC abstract: “Since 1958, the New York State Education Department has officially promoted the policy of consolidating small, rural schools. This policy is delineated in the Master Plan for School Reorganization, and while the centralization of most one-room rural schools has been successful, the state has been less successful in the consolidation of smaller, centralized rural school districts. This paper examines some of the efforts made by those smaller, centralized rural schools to overcome the outside pressures that have emerged within the process of state-backed consolidation. Based on findings in literature explored and data collected concerning consolidation, it is clear that New York State’s policy of supporting consolidations has not proven effective. Schools that are allowed creative freedom are examples for rural schools across the nation.”

Jimerson, L. (2006). Breaking the fall: Cushioning the impact of rural declining enrollment (Rural Trust Policy Brief Series on Rural Education). Rural School and Community Trust.

From the ERIC abstract: “For those rural schools and communities across the country facing declining student enrollment, there are no easy answers. But there are steps policymakers and communities can take to help cushion the negative impact of declining enrollment on schools to ensure that ‘no child left behind’ also means ‘no place left behind.’ This report details 20 policies that can help provide students in communities experiencing declining enrollment with a high quality education and also buy time for communities to rebound, improve, or adjust to changes in population and revenue.”

Jimerson, L. (2006). The Hobbit effect: Why small works in public schools (Rural Trust Policy Brief Series on Rural Education). Rural School and Community Trust.

From the ERIC abstract: “Across the country, states are pushing to close their small rural schools with the mistaken hope of saving money, in spite of overwhelming evidence that smaller schools are beneficial for students, and that they frequently function as the glue that binds together small communities, serving as their economic and social hub. The battle is even more illogical, the author contends, when compared with the opposing trend in urban areas, where reform efforts concentrate on breaking down dysfunctionally large schools and forming new, smaller learning communities. To investigate why small works, this report examines current literature, looking for typical attributes of smaller schools that have a positive effect on student learning and well-being. Research indicates the following ten reasons for small schools’ effectiveness: (1) There is greater participation in extra-curricular activities, and that is linked to academic success; (2) Small schools are safer; (3) Kids feel they belong; (4) Small class size allows more individualized instruction; (5) Good teaching methods are easier to implement; (6) Teachers feel better about their work; (7) Mixed-ability classes avoid condemning some students to low expectations; (8) Multiage classes promote personalized learning and encourage positive social interactions; (9) Smaller districts mean less bureaucracy; and (10) More grades in one school alleviate many problems of transitions to new schools.”

Mills, J. N., McGee, J. B., & Greene, J. P. (2013). An analysis of the effect of consolidation on student achievement: Evidence from Arkansas (EDRE Working Paper No. 2013-02). University of Arkansas, Department of Education Reform.

From the ERIC abstract: “The consolidation of schools and districts has been one of the most widespread education reforms of the last century; however, surprisingly little research has directly investigated the effectiveness of consolidation as a reform strategy. We provide new evidence on this topic by taking advantage of a natural experiment in Arkansas that occurred when policymakers required the consolidation of all districts with average daily attendance of fewer than 350 students for two consecutive years. Using both regression discontinuity and instrumental variable models, we attempt to tease out the effects of state mandated consolidation. In general, we find that consolidation has a positive, yet practically insignificant performance impact on students from consolidating districts and a small negative performance impact for students in districts that merged with consolidating districts. School closure, a consolidation related phenomenon, is found to have a strong negative impact on affected students.”

Nitta, K. A., Holley, M. J., & Wrobel, S. L. (2010). A phenomenological study of rural school consolidation. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 25(2), 1–19.

From the ERIC abstract: “This study is an investigation of how school consolidation between 2003 and 2006 affected the lived experience of students and educators in four Arkansas high schools. We present findings from twenty-three interviews with students, teachers, and school administrators who moved to a new high school because of consolidation, as well as those who were already in the receiving schools. While educators’ and students’ lived experiences were diverse and sometimes contradictory, two themes emerged in the interviews. Because of the study design, these findings cannot be generalized to all consolidation contexts, but they were common across the four consolidations studied. First, students adapted better than teachers to the social disruption created by consolidation; teachers struggled with new relationships, both with other teachers and students. Facing the same social disruption, students described more successful transitions. Educators and students alike explained that because ‘kids are kids,’ initial tensions tended to resolve themselves eventually. The second theme that emerged from our interviews was that nearly all students and all teachers, moving and receiving, reported experiencing at least some benefits from consolidation. Students experienced broader course offerings and more diverse social opportunities. Teachers had fewer courses to prepare and better professional development opportunities. However, moving teachers and students experienced special challenges. Although students described a ‘blended’ community after consolidation, moving students typically reported having greater challenges fitting in. Finally, the consolidation experience tended to be most difficult for moving teachers.”

Piontek, M. E., Kannapel, P. J., Flory, M., & Stewart, M. S. (2016). The implementation of dual credit programs in six nonurban Kentucky school districts (REL 2016–136). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia.

From the ERIC abstract: “A key strategy of the Kentucky Department of Education’s and Council on Postsecondary Education’s College and Career Readiness Delivery plan is to provide opportunities for high school students to earn college credit. Districts across Kentucky are implementing dual credit programs, but there is little sharing of information about the implementation of these programs. REL Appalachia researchers identified six districts in consultation with Kentucky College and Career Readiness Alliance representatives. Profiles describing each district’s dual credit programming were created using data from 45 individual interviews conducted with seven distinct stakeholder groups. Each of the six districts offered dual credit programs, with variations in configuration, course offerings, costs, and student supports. Each of the six districts partners with at least one two-year and one four-year postsecondary institution to offer dual enrollment courses. The most prevalent configuration of courses is where courses are offered at a high school and taught by credentialed high school teachers. In cases where high schools are located near postsecondary institutions, this geographic proximity enhances the ability of school districts to offer a variety of courses and program configurations. Assurance of program quality was limited and varied across postsecondary institutions. Dual credit programs offer students the opportunity to earn college credit at reduced costs, but costs and funding support vary by district, postsecondary institution, and program design. Dual credit programs were viewed favorably and heavily promoted in each district, but their expansion is limited by key challenges. These challenges include needing to (1) increase the number of instructors credentialed to teach dual credit courses; (2) increase access to dual credit opportunities, especially in remote, rural locations; (3) ensure student readiness for college coursework; (4) make dual credit programs affordable for all eligible students across the state; (5) ensure course quality; and (6) provide adequate staffing to effectively manage dual credit programs.”

REL Northeast & Islands. (2020). What does the research say about the benefits and challenges of different middle school configurations in rural settings?

From the description: “Following an established REL Northeast & Islands research protocol, we conducted a search for recent research on middle school configurations in rural settings.”

Surface, J. (2011). Assessing the impact of twenty-first century rural school consolidation. International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, 6(2), n2.

From the ERIC abstract: “The purpose of the study was to make a qualitative assessment of the impact of school consolidation on several rural Nebraska communities that have recently lost their schools. This research uses a multiple-case study design with interviews conducted in three Nebraska communities. The data from this research fell into four broad themes: social capital changes resulting from consolidation, the effect of the consolidation on the children of the community, the future of the community, and circumstances driving consolidation. Data indicates very differing views about consolidation; respondents with children in school were generally supportive of the consolidation and felt that it benefited their children; the respondents all expressed a concern about the loss of the community although, the majority of the respondents did not have an alternative to the loss and decline of the community; the consolidations in the study were all second or third consolidations and respondents believed the original consolidation were the beginning of the decline of the community.”

Warner, W., & Lindle, J. C. (2009). Hard choices in school consolidation: Providing education in the best interests of students or preserving community identity. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership, 12(1), 1–11.

From the ERIC abstract: “Educational leaders face difficult decisions in ensuring that all students learn despite ongoing scarcity of resources. School communities play an important role in establishing positive learning environments and supplying the resources for student learning. Declining community conditions often present school leaders with tough choices between facilities management and instructional needs. This case illustrates how school districts maintain a focus on the best interest of students in the face of economic decline in surrounding communities. How does a district address school consolidation? How can two communities focus on their children’s futures rather than grieving over past distinctions in community identity?”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Additional Organizations to Consult

National Rural Education Association –

From the website: “The National Rural Education Association (NREA) is the voice of all rural schools and rural communities across the United States. In an increasingly confusing system, we help rural educators navigate through the noise by finding and helping you use the resources needed to educate today’s students. Whether that’s a rundown on current legislation and how it affects rural communities or guidance on how to meet specific educational needs within your community, our national organization can help. We also help in the publication of your research because we believe in the value of shared knowledge. We are your advocates—your voice—in education.”

The NREA links to the latest education research and issues relating to rural schools at

Rural Education Research Alliance –

From the website: “In six of the seven states in the REL Central region, at least 25 percent of the population is designated as rural. The Rural Education Research Alliance (RA) brings together stakeholders from across our region to work on initiatives and issues in rural districts. The alliance has two areas of focus: Teacher Recruitment and Retention; and Closing the Achievement Gap The goals of the Rural Education RA are to provide assistance in examining these issues in rural districts as well as to provide coaching, technical support, and applied research to support partners in addressing these challenges.”

Rural School and Community Trust –

From the website: “The Rural School and Community Trust is a national nonprofit organization addressing the crucial relationship between good schools and thriving communities. Working in some of the poorest, most challenging places, the Rural Trust involves young people in learning linked to their communities, improves the quality of teaching and school leadership, and advocates in a variety of ways for appropriate state educational policies, including the key issue of equitable and adequate funding for rural schools.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “Rural schools”

  • “Rural schools” “school consolidation”

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2006 to present, were include in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.