In nearly every public school district in the U.S., one can observe the following pattern: There are fewer middle schools than elementary schools. And there are fewer high schools than middle schools. (And the count of students per school goes inversely as the count of schools.)

But why is this the case? Is there any explanation for this based on economic principles?

For example, why is the reverse not the case? Why are there not fewer elementary schools than high schools, let's say?

  • $\begingroup$ The pattern seems to be one of school districts being willing to make older children travel further. There is also greater subject specialism among high school teachers, which brings more benefits from larger (and so fewer) high schools that you might not see with the more general teaching in elementary schools. $\endgroup$ – Henry Oct 3 '16 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ A very interesting Q, but it'd be great if you could back it up with stats. In particular, students for each grade level. For example, one thing I'm thinking is: If elementary schools (usually) span 6 years, middle schools (usually) span 4 years, and high schools (usually) span 2 years, then we'd immediately have (at least part of) the explanation for why # elementary > # middle > # high. $\endgroup$ – Kenny LJ Oct 4 '16 at 2:36

Two relevant economic principles are:

Economies of scale: These are a more significant issue for middle and especially high schools which have a greater need for specialist teachers, as others have pointed out, and also for specialist facilities such as science labs with supporting technicians. Such teachers and facilities would tend to be under-utilised in small schools, resulting in higher costs of provision per child. Elementary schools, on the other hand, rely more on generalist teachers so can operate efficiently on a smaller scale.

Travel costs: Older children are more likely to make their own way to school, while younger children are more likely to be accompanied by a parent. Hence the costs of travel to school, for a given journey, and including not only fares and/or fuel costs (if any) but also and especially the opportunity cost of a parent's time, tend to be greater for younger children. While these costs do not impact directly on a school's budget, they are likely (for state schools) to add to political pressure to provide or keep open smaller elementary schools serving a small neighbourhood.


Interesting question..... I attended public schools at all three levels and they were less than a mile from where I lived --- the elementary school and the high school were less than half a mile away, and probably also the junior high school (as 7th through 9th grades were called). The most conspicuous difference between the way things were done in elementary school and the ways things were done in those later schools is that in the latter, we went to five or six classrooms during the day whereas in the former we remained in one classroom, except for physical education. To me, that latter difference suggests a possible reason why there are fewer: You need teachers specializing in teaching English, some specializing in teaching science, some specializing in social studies, some in math, some in industrial arts, etc. Say three math teachers are employed in a junior high school: if you split it into six junior high schools you'd need a larger number of teachers. But if six elementary schools are merged into one, you'd still have the same number of teachers.

However, I'd have to say I haven't studied the problem, so I reserve the right to alter this view if I learn more.


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