To Improve Rural Schools, Focus on Their Strengths

A consistent criticism of education reform is that much of the agenda has been based on what some call a “deficit mindset.” That is, reformers saw individuals, institutions, and communities as broken and in need of fixing (or worse, saving), not as individuals, institutions, and communities with culture, history, and potential that could be cultivated and built upon. As education reform enters rural schools, it can learn from this mistake and not make it again.

Most rural schools and the communities that they serve are not broken. These communities are often home to 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 people in the community look out for each other. Rural communities also see the largest percentage of two-parent families raising children (and those families are more likely to read to their children regularly). When it comes to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scores, rural 8th-grade students outperform their counterparts in towns and urban communities (Figure 1).

Rural Students Outperform City-Dwelling Students (Figure 1)

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

Rural communities have problems, as well. We suspect that many education reformers are unaware that, for more than 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 without a high school diploma are idle. This demographic is particularly at risk for substance abuse, the effects of which have been tearing rural communities apart for some years now.

Something should be done. This is not because city-dwelling education reformers know more about what is best for rural students than their own families and communities, but because uniting urban and rural communities is better for our polity than dividing them. Finding educational reforms that work for both rural and urban communities (or at least don’t help one at the expense of the other) is a worthy pursuit.

There are two primary areas where these policies are important: improving the pipeline of teachers and leaders into rural schools and broadening the options available to rural school students.

Getting Great Teachers into Rural Classrooms

There are many ways in which the challenges facing urban and suburban schools are similar to those facing rural schools. Every school is looking for great teachers and leaders, trying to find a curriculum that is rigorous and appropriate, and working under budget constraints to maximize offerings. But there are distinct challenges that rural schools face, and they are worth thinking about.

The last decade has seen a tremendous amount of effort put into teacher-effectiveness reform. Most of these have been “demand side” reforms, focusing on how schools and districts attract, retain, and evaluate their teachers. One high-profile part of this reform agenda has been identifying minimally effective teachers and removing them from the classroom. This strategy does not fit so well in labor markets that struggle to attract many teachers. If a school cannot find a better teacher to replace the one that it is 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. In fact, some of the potential school turnaround plans that required an overhaul of the school’s faculty had to be taken off the table, because the schools could not find alternative teachers.

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

First, rural schools can heavily recruit their own graduates to come back to teach. Nationwide, most teachers end up working close to where they grew up. Whereas a prospective teacher in a denser urban community might have scads of schools within a few miles of her childhood home, a rural teacher has far fewer options. While this presents challenges for both rural schools (with a limited supply of prospective teachers) and prospective teachers (with a limited number of possible employers), there are 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 of the University of Virginia have outlined, states and rural districts can create programs to help paraprofessionals become full-fledged and certified teachers. This can increase the supply of teachers and staff with knowledge of the school and connections to the community.

Third, when drafting school turnaround programs or identifying strategies for improving chronically low-performing schools, state and federal policymakers must remember the wide variety of labor market conditions that different schools face. Incentivizing or requiring schools to replace large numbers of their staff is not a viable solution in many rural areas. Flexibility must be built into these programs to take 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 have made the protection of agricultural land a policy priority and written property-assessment rules that, as a result, inadvertently make raising local funds more difficult. It is often assessed at 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 too small to generate the revenue schools believe they need. There are important tradeoffs to be made when it comes to changing property assessment rates, but hamstringing communities based on the industries in their geographic catchment areas deserves reconsideration.

Offering Real Choices for Rural Students

Deindustrialization and lack of economic opportunity breeds a vicious cycle for rural communities. There are fewer good jobs for young people in rural areas, or the good jobs that exist require middle-skills training they don’t have. As a result, employable young people often move to cities with better opportunities, draining the local labor market and decreasing the number of talented potential employees available to the businesses (and schools) that remain. Fewer businesses are eager to move in and existing businesses close, further exacerbating the problem. This then hurts the tax base for schools and makes it to recruit great teachers and leaders.

Preparing students for a changing workforce is important, so schools need to be able to offer a wide variety of potential courses, from advanced math and science to career and technical education. Rural schools often struggle to run this gamut due to limited manpower, resources, and demand. It’s tough to justify hiring an AP Physics teacher for a class of two or building an entire woodshop for a single student interested in 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 have been applied to rural communities for some time now and have, understandably, generated resistance and resentment.

One potential solution is course access. Course-access programs allow students to take two or three courses per day from outside providers instead of their public school. If a student wishes to take calculus, for example, 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 other provider when her classmates head to math class. Rather than pushing schools to invest in costly technical education facilities, states can certify courses in carpentry, welding, or a host of other skills offered at community colleges or at trade unions’ apprenticeship centers. Students can take the one-sixth or one-seventh of their funding that would otherwise pay for an in-school class to these outside providers. They would then get credit for the class, just like if it were offered within the four walls of their school. This approach can combine the best of school choice without sacrificing the cohesion of the school community or the operations of an existing school.

There is also, as Juliet Squire of Bellwether Education Partners persuasively argues, potential for charter schooling in rural communities, though this potential differs from that in urban communities. (In fact, there are already some 800 rural charter schools across the country.) Charter schools can help solve two problems that rural schools have: compliance burdens and specialization. This can, in turn, stave off calls for 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 allow for existing public schools to become charter schools. When district schools convert to charter schools, they are often freed from the state or district regulations and compliance decrees that sap the time of their generally smaller staffs. Charter-school regulations are written with independently operated schools in mind; traditional public school regulations often aren’t. Whereas larger urban and suburban districts have the central-office staff to comply with state requirements, rural schools are often stretched too thin to do so. Chartering could solve this problem and allow the school to be more nimble, agile, and student-focused.

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

The Path(s) Forward

Given that most statistical definitions simply define rural as whatever is left after we have classified everything else, rural communities and the schools that serve them are vastly different from one another. Some rural areas are affluent, some are incredibly poor. Some are flat farmland, other are rugged mountains.  Any category that groups a town in the thick forests of Vermont with towns in the cotton fields of Mississippi and the high desert of New Mexico and the chaparral of California leaves out as much as it explains. Demographically, rural schools vary widely as well, with rural schools that are predominately white, rural schools that are predominately black, rural schools that are predominately Hispanic, and rural schools that are predominately Native American. When it comes to performance, there is more variation within rural schools than between rural schools and 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).

Rural Students’ Achievement Varies Based on Locale (Figure 2)

If we want these schools to perform better in the future, education reformers will have to put a finer point on their analysis than statisticians. What rural schools do share are families’ pride in their schools and trust in those running them, and the widespread belief that these schools are linchpins of their communities. Reforms built on this understanding have promise. Likewise, reforms that are seen 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 will help all rural schools, given the incredible variation in the needs of these schools. Some schools are thriving and need help to get even better. Some have fallen far behind and need substantial support to get their heads above water. Within a given state or region, let alone the entire country, different schools will have different needs with respect to staffing, infrastructure, and more, and they will need bespoke solutions. One size will not fit all.

Rural schools also 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, needs to build on this foundation, and policymakers need to understand where there are unmet needs and then tailor solutions to individual communities.

Michael Q. McShane and Andy Smarick are the editors of No Longer Forgotten: The Triumphs and Struggles of Rural Education in America, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (November 8, 2018).

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