To enhance Rural Schools, Concentrate on Their Strengths


A consistent criticism of education reform is the fact that much of the agenda continues to be based on what some call a \”deficit mindset.\” That is, reformers saw individuals, institutions, and communities as broken as well as in necessity of fixing (or worse, saving), less individuals, institutions, and communities with culture, history, and potential that may be cultivated and built upon. As education reform enters rural schools, it may learn from this error and never make it again.

Most rural schools and also the communities they serve are not broken. These communities are often the place to find deep wells of social capital, tradition, and values that educators can build upon to improve schools. In fact, survey data from rural communities shows higher levels of social cohesion, stronger beliefs in community safety, and stronger opinions that individuals locally consider one another. Rural communities also begin to see the largest number of two-parent families raising children (and those people are more prone to read for their children regularly). With regards to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scores, rural 8th-grade students outperform their counterparts in towns and concrete communities (Figure 1).

That said, rural schools have issues. They struggle to recruit and retain high-quality teachers and leaders. This issue becomes particularly acute when state- and Washington-driven turnaround strategies hinge on replacing considerable amounts of staff, or when teacher-quality policies prioritize firing low-performing teachers. Which side hard-to-staff schools find replacements? Rural schools also find it difficult to offer diverse classes for their students. Rural schools lag behind all others with regards to offering AP classes, foreign language classes, along with other dual-enrollment classes.

Rural communities have problems, too. We suspect that lots of education reformers donrrrt know that, in excess of 50 years, the poverty rate in non-metropolitan areas has exceeded the poverty rate of metropolitan areas. Rural communities have higher rates of idleness (individuals neither working nor attending school), particularly for younger people. Forty-five percent of rural 18- to 24-year-olds with no high school diploma are idle. This demographic is particularly at risk for substance abuse, the effects which happen to be tearing rural communities apart for some years.

Something ought to be done. This is not because city-dwelling education reformers know more by what is best for rural students than their loved ones and communities, but because uniting urban and rural communities is better for the polity than dividing them. Finding educational reforms that work for both rural and concrete communities (or at least don't help one in the cost of the other) is a worthy pursuit.

There are a couple of primary areas where these policies are important: increasing the pipeline of teachers and leaders into rural schools and broadening the choices available to rural school students.

There are lots of ways that the challenges facing urban and suburban schools act like those facing rural schools. Every school wants great teachers and leaders, looking for a curriculum that is rigorous and appropriate, and working under financial constraints to maximise offerings. But you will find distinct challenges that rural schools face, and they're worth considering.

The last decade has witnessed a tremendous amount of effort put into teacher-effectiveness reform. Many of these have been \”demand side\” reforms, finding out how schools and districts attract, retain, and evaluate their teachers. One high-profile part of this reform agenda continues to be identifying minimally effective teachers and removing them from the classroom. This strategy does not fit very well in labor markets that struggle to attract many teachers. If your school cannot look for a better teacher to exchange the one which it's letting go, it will be worse off. Research from the School Improvement Grant program highlighted the particular struggles of rural schools in finding effective teachers. Actually, a few of the potential school turnaround plans that required a change from the school's faculty had to be removed the table, since the schools could not find alternative teachers.

So what can rural schools, and also the policymakers who oversee them, do relating to this? Four things:

First, rural schools can heavily recruit their own graduates to come back to show. Nationwide, most teachers wind up working close to where they was raised. Whereas a potential teacher in a denser urban community may have scads of schools inside a few miles of her childhood home, a rural teacher has far fewer options. While this presents challenges for both rural schools (having a limited supply of prospective teachers) and prospective teachers (with a limited number of possible employers), you will find great social-capital and social-cohesion advantages associated with a school's employing a significant number of its own graduates.

Second, as Daniel Player and Aliza Husain from the University of Virginia have outlined, states and rural districts can create programs to assist paraprofessionals become full-fledged and certified teachers. This can increase the supply of teachers and staff with knowledge of the school and connections towards the community.

Third, when drafting school turnaround programs or identifying strategies for improving chronically low-performing schools, federal and state policymakers must recall the wide selection of labor market problems that different schools face. Incentivizing or requiring schools to exchange large numbers of their staff is not really a viable solution in many rural areas. Flexibility must be included in these programs to consider this fact into account.

Finally, states can rework their funding formulae to help rural schools offer better wages for their staff. In many states, legislatures make the protection of agricultural land a policy priority and written property-assessment rules that, as a result, inadvertently make raising local funds harder. It is usually assessed in a lower rate than residential or commercial property and thus generates less revenue for local school districts. Even if rural districts vote to raise their property tax rates, the base can be they canrrrt generate the revenue schools believe they require. You will find important tradeoffs to make with regards to changing property assessment rates, but hamstringing communities based on the industries within their geographic catchment areas deserves reconsideration.

Deindustrialization and lack of economic opportunity breeds a vicious circle for rural communities. You will find fewer good jobs for young adults in rural areas, or the good jobs which exist require middle-skills training they don’t have. Consequently, employable young people often move to cities with better opportunities, draining the local labor market and decreasing the number of talented potential employees open to the firms (and schools) that remain. Fewer companies are eager to relocate and existing businesses close, further exacerbating the problem. This then hurts the tax base for schools and causes it to be to recruit great teachers and leaders.

Preparing students for any changing workforce is important, so schools have to be able to provide a wide variety of potential courses, from advanced science and math to career and technical education. Rural schools often find it difficult to run this gamut due to limited manpower, resources, and demand. It's tough to warrant hiring an AP Physics teacher for a type of two or building a whole woodshop for a single student thinking about carpentry.

Students need choices, but school-choice advocates should look at how funding flexibility can improve what schools are already doing rather than centering their arguments on closing schools, replacing schools, or starting new schools. Efficiency-minded approaches based on school consolidation and closure happen to be put on rural communities for a while now and also have, understandably, generated resistance and resentment.

One potential option would be course access. Course-access programs allow students to take 2 or 3 courses each day from outside providers instead of their public school. If your student desires to take calculus, for instance, but her school only offers math up to Algebra II, she can go to the library to take an online Calculus I course offered by a university or any other provider when her classmates head to math class. Instead of pushing schools to purchase costly technical education facilities, states can certify courses in carpentry, welding, or perhaps a host of other skills offered by vocational schools or at trade unions' apprenticeship centers. Students may take the one-sixth or one-seventh of the funding that would otherwise purchase an in-school class to these outside providers. They'd then get credit for the class, much like if it were offered within the four walls of the school. This method can combine the very best of school choice without having to sacrifice the cohesion from the school community or even the operations of an existing school.

There can also be, as Juliet Squire of Bellwether Education Partners persuasively argues, potential for charter schooling in rural communities, though this potential is different from that in urban communities. (Actually, we already have some 800 rural charter schools across the nation.) Charter schools can help solve two issues that rural schools have: compliance burdens and specialization. This could, consequently, prevent requires closure or consolidation.

A rural district-run school could choose to convert to charter status. Numerous states around the country have language in their charter-school laws that provide existing public schools to become charter schools. When district schools become charter schools, they are often free of their state or district regulations and compliance decrees that sap the time of the generally smaller staffs. Charter-school regulations are written with independently operated schools in your mind; traditional public school regulations often aren't. Whereas larger urban and suburban districts have the central-office staff to adhere to state requirements, rural schools are often stretched too thin to do this. Chartering could solve this issue and allow the college to become more nimble, agile, and student-focused.

Chartering can also help create smaller, specialized schools in rural school districts. If districts wish to target particular populations, such as English-language learners, students thinking about jobs inside a particular local industry, or students that are suffering from substance abuse or whose people are experiencing substance abuse, they might use chartering to create tailored school environments. Schools would then have fewer burdensome compliance mandates to deal with and much more freedom to recruit staff and offer nontraditional calendars or schedules. They might also access federal funds for charter schools to help provide their offerings.

Given that many statistical definitions simply define rural as whatever remains as we have classified everything else, rural communities and also the schools that serve them are vastly different from one another. Some rural areas are affluent, some are really poor. Some are flat farmland, other are rugged mountains. Any category that groups an urban area in the thick forests of Vermont with towns in the cotton fields of Mississippi and also the high desert of New Mexico and the chaparral of California omits as much as it explains. Demographically, rural schools vary widely too, with rural schools which are predominately white, rural schools which are predominately black, rural schools which are predominately Hispanic, and rural schools that are predominately Native American. With regards to performance, there's more variation within rural schools than between rural schools along with other locales. Rural schools in the Northeast and Midwest, for instance, outperform their urban counterparts, while rural schools in the South and West lag behind (Figure 2).

If we would like these schools to perform better later on, education reformers will have to put a finer point on their analysis than statisticians. What rural schools do share are families' pride within their schools and rely upon those running them, and also the widespread belief that these schools are linchpins of their communities. Reforms built about this understanding have promise. Likewise, reforms which are viewed as efforts to villainize schools, undermine social cohesion, or force schools to compete for limited resources will almost certainly be met with resistance.

There is no single policy that can help all rural schools, given the incredible variation in the needs of those schools. Some schools are thriving and need help to get better still. Some have fallen far behind and want substantial support to have their heads above water. Within a given state or region, not to mention the entire country, different schools will have different needs regarding staffing, infrastructure, and much more, and they will need bespoke solutions. One size will not fit all.

Rural schools in addition have a strong foundation upon which school improvement can be built. Cohesive communities built on strong families provide schools with ample social resources to educate children. Policy, whether school funding, teacher recruitment and assignment, or school choice, must develop this foundation, and policymakers need to understand where there are unmet needs and then tailor methods to individual communities.

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