D.C. is Missing the Mark on Rural Ed

Rural education issues aren’t a priority in D.C. –  and even when they are, policymakers have trouble understanding what those issues are. That’s not just a hunch – now there are data, too. In a new paper released this week, Andy Rotherham, Lars Johnson, and I surveyed rural school superintendents and education policy “Insiders” about federal education policy in rural communities. We tried to gauge areas of convergence and divergence between superintendents and Insiders on their understanding of rural education. The results were disconcerting.

When we asked about the top challenges facing rural school districts, Insiders got them very wrong. Insiders said teacher recruitment, teacher retention, and lack of technology. The superintendents’ answers? Special education funding, paperwork and compliance, and lack of flexibility in spending federal dollars. Insiders ranked those issues at the bottom of their lists. Insiders also missed the mark on the issues rural districts face in implementing online learning. Online learning is supposed to be one of the more promising practices for improving rural education. The chances of that are exceedingly slim unless Insiders start to pay attention to what the actual issues are.

What was even more concerning was where Insiders and superintendents agreed: everyone agreed that life in rural America is markedly different than life in urban in suburban places, but most education policies are poorly suited to rural districts. Couple that with the Insider cluelessness about the challenges facing rural districts and the fact that no one, inside or outside the Beltway, thinks that rural education is a priority to the U.S. Department of Education, and we have a serious problem.

The problem isn’t just that Insiders don’t “get” rural superintendents. It’s possible that the Insiders have a different field of vision, or that the superintendents we surveyed (all from Idaho) are more unique in their perspective. The real problem is that rural communities educate 5.6 million students, and about one in three of the nation’s public schools are in rural communities. That’s more students than the 20 largest urban school districts combined. A lack of alignment around a part of the education sector that large should worry us. And while rural students perform better than their urban district peers in high school, they’re less likely to attend college or a graduate or professional program after college.

So the status quo in rural districts isn’t good enough, and federal policy bears some responsibility for improving outcomes for rural students. But how are Insiders supposed to drive the right reforms if rural education isn’t a priority to education leadership, and if they don’t even know what the real problems are?