Rural Reform Matters, ROCI Is Different

For more than a year now, a group of top-flight researchers have come together (with the generous support of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation and under the leadership of Dr. Paul Hill) to apply fresh eyes and introduce new voices to the study of rural K-12 education. Over the next several months, this “ROCI” task force, with the support of Bellwether, will release its first round of papers and, hopefully, grow our field’s understanding of the strengths, needs, and complexities of rural schooling.

This first of these publications, “Breaking New Ground in Rural Education,” is Hill’s introduction to the effort. Those new to rural K-12 will learn a good bit, those knowledgeable about the field will understand how ROCI differs from previous efforts, and K-12 stakeholders (including policymakers, researchers, and philanthropists) will see why rural education merits more consideration.

On that last score, the number of rural students alone demands attention. As Hill notes, more than 5.5 million kids attend remote-rural or small-town schools. That’s more than the enrollment of the 20 largest urban school districts combined. In half of the states, rural kids make up more than 25 percent of student enrollment.

As importantly, rural results are worrisome. Though rural students graduate high school at a higher rate than their big-city peers, they are far less likely to attend college or enroll in post-college graduate or professional programs. This helps explain the Hoxby-Avery finding that, apart from those attending a handful of elite urban secondary schools, high-performing disadvantaged students have constrained post-secondary opportunities.

So why do rural-school issues seem to fly below the radar? Hill argues, provocatively, that perhaps rural schools suffer “relative neglect” because “there is no dramatic civil rights connection.” Although in half of states, more than 40 percent of rural students are poor, apart from the Southeast (where rural students are disproportionately African-American), “they are mainly white elsewhere.”

Another possible explanation is that the most compelling urban reform strategies of the last two decades (e.g. increased parental choice, school replacements, human capital approaches) don’t easily translate to low-density rural areas. Rural solutions seem hard to come by.

One big reason for this is rural schools face a different set of challenges than schools in other locations. For example, even a slight economic downturn can cause a rural avalanche: A few businesses close; a significant number of families move searching jobs; the tax base shrinks; with schools receiving fewer resources, even more educated adults relocate; the area attracts fewer business and teachers; the remaining businesses are threatened…

Even when the economy is relatively healthy, a school’s success can, perversely, jeopardize the community’s long-term health. If students are looking for a way to “escape” the confines of a small town and its limited opportunities, a great high school can help large groups of kids go to college far away and, potentially, not return.

Policy can pose particular challenges, as well. For example, state requirements that might make sense in general (e.g. teacher-certification regulations, class size rules, seat-time policies) can cause serious problems for rural areas where acquiring and retaining talent is exceptionally difficult.

ROCI is by no means the first group of academics to study rural K-12. But Hill points out that much of today’s literature shares an important characteristic: it takes an oppositional stance—against much of today’s reform agenda, against policies thought to prioritize urban America, against approaches deemed to devalue the rural experience. Indeed, Hill writes that some scholars give the impression that they “would prefer that the rest of the country leave rural schools alone and let enlightened rural educators focus on educating children in ways that motivate them to ‘reinhabit’ rural environments in an egalitarian, non-oppressive, and environmentally sensitive way.”

As Hill notes, though ROCI members learned a great deal from past research, they are cut from a different cloth. “Readers will readily see that our work comes from a different premise…(rural students) need education that broadens, rather than narrows their horizons.”

I hope you get the chance to read Hill’s paper. I bet many that do will find themselves eagerly awaiting the future installments from ROCI’s members.