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Illinois School Chief Seeks Reorganization of Districts

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Springfield, Ill--Illinois's superintendent of education, Ted Sanders, citing a new state study linking student achievement to high-school size, has called for a thorough reorganization of school districts.

Mr. Sanders called the study, which was conducted at his request by staff members of the state board of education, "a major breakthrough in effective-schools research."

"These data clearly show that Illinois must undertake a major effort to reorganize its schools," he said.

The study concluded that optimal academic achievement occurs in high schools that enroll between 494 and 1,279 students. More than 50 percent of Illinois's high schools currently enroll fewer than 500 students.

On the strength of the study's findings, Mr. Sanders has proposed legislation requiring that all of the state's 1,004 school districts--of which 433 are elementary-only and 123 are high-school-only districts--be reorganized into districts that in-clude "at least a high-school threshold enrollment of 500 students."

The proposed legislation, which will be considered by the state board in June and could be brought before the legislature as early as this summer, also calls on districts to involve local citizens in planning for reorganization and urges the state to allow reorganized K-12 districts access to a tax base that is equal to at least the combined rate of the districts being consolidated.

In endorsing school-district consolidation, Mr. Sanders has raised an issue that has long been a focus of political controversy in Illinois. In addition to the state board, Gov. James R. Thompson and the Illinois Project for School Reform, a coalition of business and policy leaders, have backed consolidation.

Test Scores Studied

The state board's study, which was conducted over the last four months, divided high schools into four enrollment groups: those with fewer than 215 students, those with 215 to 493, those with 494 to 1,279, and those with more than 1,280 students.

Using students' scores statewide on the American College Test and a representative sample of students' scores on two state-developed tests, the state board's staff found the highest achievement in schools with enrollments of between 494 and 1,279 students.

Schools with fewer than 215 students scored consistently low in mathematics, geometry, reading, social-science, and natural-science tests. Thirty percent of Illinois's high schools have fewer than 200 students.

Comparing achievement data to a state census of schools' course offerings, Mr. Sanders noted, it is evident that "students attending high schools with small enrollments suffer a significant loss of opportunity to learn from advanced courses that are available in larger schools." For example, he said, only 12 percent of schools that enroll about 200 pupils offer calculus or writing courses.

The report also found that almost half of the teachers in smaller schools had at least three different courses to teach. "To the extent that multiple teacher preparations have a negative effect on the quality of the school program, smaller schools are clearly at a disadvantage," the report concluded.

High schools with more than 1,280 students--which make up 25 percent of all secondary schools in the state--did only marginally better than the extremely small schools, the study found.

The largest schools ranked third or fourth among the four categories of schools on act tests in English, social science, and natural science. Only in mathematics did those schools place second in the rankings.

Other studies that have attempted to draw a correlation between high-school size and student3achievement have produced mixed results, according to Elchanan Cohn, professor of economics at the University of South Carolina and the editor of the Economics of Education Review.

According to Mr. Cohn, there have been "literally dozens" of studies in New York, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and other states, many of which have "failed to show any correlation" between school size and achievement.

But Mr. Cohn said that there are strong arguments, "both economic and educational ... that favor consolidation," and that "most educators and economists associated with education" accept those arguments.

High schools of a set-minimum size are more efficient and offer students a wider range of courses and teachers from which to choose, he said. He added that a minimum size of 500 "sounds good to me."

John Riew, professor of economics at Pennsylvania State University, agreed, saying, "When you have small schools, you can't have breadth.'' He added that when schools get too large, "some diseconomies of scale set in."

However, Mr. Cohn pointed out that some educators prefer schools with fewer than 500 students, because they provide for a closer relationship between students and teachers and because the administration is not as rigid as in larger schools. He added that recent research has shown that not all small schools are inefficient.

He also cautioned that the benefits of larger schools do not necessarily imply that consolidation is a good thing. That depends, he said, on which schools are being consolidated, and, in particular, whether students from rural areas would be required to spend a lot of time on buses.

"In general, I think the idea of consolidation is a good one," he said, "but it needs to be done with a great deal of care. Because of the commute, it could have a negative effect."

J.R. Sirkin contributed to this report.

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