Academic journal article Academy of Educational Leadership Journal

To Consolidate or Not to Consolidate, That Is the Question: Optimal School Size and Teacher Incentive Contracts

Academic journal article Academy of Educational Leadership Journal

To Consolidate or Not to Consolidate, That Is the Question: Optimal School Size and Teacher Incentive Contracts

Article excerpt


Given the realities of ever-tightening public budgets and the directives inherent in the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) school districts have been required to do more (with more direct accountability) with less (funding) than ever before. These two forces are, of course, conflicting. One approach to the funding dilemma has districts consolidating schools in order to pool enrollment and resources, in an attempt to reduce pressure to increase class size that would likely reduce student achievement. Another is to create incentive contracts for teachers so that student achievement would directly affect teacher salary. We introduce monitoring technology into an agency-based model of teacher incentive contracting to determine optimal school size, bringing both sides of this debate together.


Over the last few decades the US school system has received much attention from researchers and administrators on a variety of issues such as incentive pay and accountability (Holmstrom & Milgrom, 1991; Kane & Staiger, 2002); school size (Lee & Smith, 1997; Umphrey, 2002); school consolidations (Antonucci, 1999); curriculum decisions (Goodlad & Su, 1992); education accessibility (Dunn, 1992); and overall school reform (Allen & Dale, 1995). The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 motivates further research in to these areas of study. We bring together several facets of these discussions by examining the cross implications of optimal school size and consolidations with incentive teacher pay and accountability in the classroom.

A general trend over the past century, and the main motivation for our inquiry, has been the wide-scale consolidation of elementary and secondary schools and districts. Enrollment per school has substantially increased since 1900, from 62.44 to 506.29 while the number of districts has correspondingly decreased; see Table 1.

While consolidation of disparate community schools is frequently justified by appealing to economies of scale, it has precipitated many difficulties. One such difficulty is the loss of teacher and curriculum control suffered by formerly localized school administrators and parents, losses that can be attributed to the increasing physical and bureaucratic distance between teachers, administrators, and parents.

To address these difficulties, various accountability schemes have been implemented in recent years, including incentive pay. The general premise of incentive-pay is straightforward: replace the eroded control structure with a formal incentive structure that optimally aligns teacher effort with administrative objectives. Unfortunately, even within incentive pay paradigms, any number of pervasive inefficiencies can arise when designing and implementing an incentive contract. For this reason, it is crucial that the design phase be guided by sound theory that is flexible enough to incorporate the relevant institutional features of the education system. Designing just such a framework and its implication on optimal school size is the focus of this paper.

Cutshall (2003) describes a number of recent political events that suggest a growing concern over the negative effects of consolidated schools, and thus a general call to open a serious dialogue about optimal school sizes. In particular, there is an important interaction between incentive contracts and optimal school size. Bard, Gardener, and Wieland (2005) provide an excellent review on the history of school consolidation in the US, issues, solutions, and the literature related to optimal school size (see also Barker and Gump (1964), Driscoll, Halcoussis, and Svorny (2003), Garbarino (1980), and Lee and Smith (1997)). One conclusion of Bard, Gardener, and Wieland is that the estimates of "optimal school size" range dramatically depending on researcher and time period. Indeed, their further conclusion that the literature lacks a cohesive model for the determination of optimal school size partly motivates this work. …

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