Tag Archives: rural education

Want to Bring Equity to Rural Schools? Start With Ed Tech Infrastructure

Last month, EdWeek published a Q&A with education technology experts discussing the future of technology use in classrooms. Their comments echoed what I learned during my teacher training: data-driven instruction is essential for student growth, and ed tech is the key to delivering quality, personalized learning.

Yet what many of those experts failed to mention is that the best learning technology is only successful if the basic infrastructure is in place — and for rural students, this lack of infrastructure has turned into a technology equity gap.

One in five students attends school in a rural district, where teachers often lack access to reliable internet and hardware. Rural schools located in low-socioeconomic communities struggle to provide teachers and students with updated technology. When teachers are able to introduce ed tech into the classroom, the new devices are often not supported with necessary broadband or storage improvements.

Two of my 4th grade students collaborating in the computer lab.

I saw this firsthand as a rural educator in South Carolina, where frequent computer failures made it nearly impossible to implement technology-enabled personalized learning. In my former school district, using ed technology wasn’t just suggested — for many classes, it was required. Each week, my class went to the computer lab to work on a literacy program purchased by the school. When the computers worked, the program was a hit — it allowed my students to advance at their own pace and to focus on personalized standards and skills.

Each time we visited the lab, however, a new problem emerged: often, the internet didn’t work at all. If the internet worked, then half of the desktops were down. Sometimes we’d make it all the way through the login stage before the desktops began crashing, and I’d watch as a sea of hands flew up around the room. After five failed visits, I quit going to the lab completely.

One-to-one iPad programs and community-wide internet may be part of ed tech’s future, but for my former students, it is far from a working reality. And this isn’t just a rural issue: students and teachers in some underserved urban communities also lack the necessary tech infrastructure.

Some districts are taking on this infrastructure challenge: one county in rural Virginia is building a DIY broadband network that will bring internet access to schools and homes in remote areas of the district. Other districts are increasing their broadband capability through the federal government’s E-Rate program, which allows rural schools to apply for technology infrastructure funding. Efforts like these demonstrate that improving a school’s tech infrastructure is a possibility for all schools, regardless of location.

As the new school year approaches, principals and administrators will continue looking for ways to bring ed tech into classrooms. While their efforts are valuable, I challenge these leaders to consider if their schools have the necessary technology capability — and if not, how they will first build a working infrastructure to benefit students and teachers alike.

All children deserve the opportunity for personalized learning, but until underserved students receive the same basic access as their more affluent peers, the tech equity gap will continue to widen.

Rural Communities Don’t All Agree on the End Goal of Public Education

Should schools push all students to go to college or are alternatives like career and technical education (CTE) appropriate? The debate is far from settled. As the “college for all” mantra has taken hold over the last decade, CTE has gotten a bad rap as a dumping ground for underachieving kids. But critics of “college for all” point out that, done well, CTE can motivate students and help them build skills needed in the labor market. Nowhere is this debate more salient than in America’s rural schools.

For a recent report, Voices from Rural Oklahoma, Juliet Squire and I spent two weeks traveling throughout Oklahoma, conducting focus groups with members of rScreen Shot 2017-02-22 at 3.12.57 PMural communities across the state. We covered a lot of ground in these conversations, touching on issues like education funding, high school students’ course options, post-high school opportunities, and school consolidation. In each and every focus group, participants conveyed uncertainty and disagreement about what Oklahoma’s rural schools ought to be preparing students to do once they graduate.

In some cases, aversion to “college for all” was rooted in fear — fear that sending kids away to school would mean they wouldn’t return home, thus hurting their communities. There is evidence that suggests this does happen, that it is often the best and brightest that leave rural areas, leaving behind those with less education who are less prepared to help their communities prosper. A participant in one of our focus groups explained it this way: “If you drive them to college, they may have to go to Kansas City…You know, you’re setting them up to go away [rather than] return and develop our economy.”

Other participants’ views about about the necessity of higher education were shaped by the realities of their communities. We heard many stories about families who needed a welder or a plumber or an electrician — but none exist in their communities. In others, high school graduates working in the oil fields or wind farms were able to make a real, living wage without higher education. One participant told us: “A large percentage of our kids need to have a trade — be it carpentry, welding, plumbing, heat and air — ‘cause I know in our area, we don’t have enough of any of those.”

But these stories were far from universal. We also heard from parents desperate to send their kids to college, a desire stemming from their own struggle securing employment. One participant told us his story:

Just from my experience, I’ve been a welder for 16 years. I’m currently unemployed because of the market falling, bottom falling plum out of it. My boy, since he was big enough to follow me around, was putting my welding hood on. And I tell him, “You better get an education.” […] My dad grew up doing construction. I grew up doing welding. That’s no longer — not going to be available for very much longer. So education is very high and especially with us, you know, I’m telling my kids, “You got to get an education. You got to go to college.”

The economic realities of rural communities have changed significantly in recent decades, and in Oklahoma they fluctuate with the volatility in oil and gas markets. Community members may know well what skills and education credentials are necessary to get a job in their small town. But they have less information about what is needed to be employable in a different city or state, and even less understanding of the skills and knowledge that will be needed ten years from now.

Thankfully, rural communities don’t need to choose between “college for all” and high-quality CTE. Instead, state policymakers, business leaders, and education leaders can work together to help students and families understand and navigate their options. This includes listening to and accounting for the perspectives of students and parents, as we sought to do in our report. But it also involves a broader understanding of where the economy is, where it’s headed, and what skills and education will be necessary for students to thrive. With thoughtful coordination among the various actors and decision-makers in rural communities, students and families can be better positioned to make informed decisions about their educations and careers.

Rural Education is for Everyone

Rural education wasn’t on my radar until I started to manage the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho (ROCI), a joint initiative between Bellwether, Paul Hill, and the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. Like many others working in education policy and reform, my attention had been focused on urban America.

Over the past two and a half years, ROCI has released 19 reports on various issues related to rural education—from economic development to talent pipelines to funding formulas. Here’s some of what I have learned about why rural education is important to our field and our future:

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Are Rural High Schools Short-changing Graduates?

A paradox is at work in rural America.

On the one hand, students in rural schools demonstrate high levels of academic achievement. A higher percentage of students in rural schools achieve proficiency in both math and reading on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) than urban or suburban students. And high schools in rural communities post among the highest graduation rates. On the other hand, graduates from rural high schools are less likely to pursue post-secondary education than their non-rural peers, and rural parts of the country have lower educational attainment levels overall.

With over 65 percent of jobs projected to require some type of post-secondary education in a few short years, ensuring that rural graduates access and complete post-secondary training is critical. So why aren’t rural students going on to college?

Certainly multiple factors contribute to any student’s decision about pursuing post-secondary education regardless of where they live—financial concerns and family factors among them. And these factors are all at play in rural communities. But given the systematic difference in achievement data and graduation rates among rural schools, is there also something systematic about the fall off in post-secondary pursuits among their graduates? And if so, what role can public policy play in addressing it?

In a new paper released by the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho (ROCI), an effort by the JA and Kathryn Albertson Foundation to bring attention and apply rigorous new research efforts to rural education, we aim to address the first question by asking whether the level of rigor in high school academics differs between rural and non-rural high schools. Rigor in high school coursework is the strongest predictor of post-secondary success, eclipsing even external factors like income and other student background characteristics. And while data limitations prevent us from drawing firm conclusions, all the data we analyzed point in the same direction—that rural students may, in fact, experience less rigor in high school.
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The Hand-off of a Lifetime for Native American Students

This is the first post from our newest team member, Senior Advisor Allison Crean Davis.

Inasmuch as an hour and a half can sufficiently examine an issue that exemplifies “a long history of broken promises” (per Chairman John Kline), last Thursday’s Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on Native American schools provided a public mea culpa from a government that has consistently failed to provide quality education for Native American students. While the hearing, entitled “Examining the Federal Government’s Mismanagement of Native American Schools,” allowed us a peek into the challenges at hand and emphasized hope moving forward, nagging questions remain.

First, let’s talk about what was clear. There were an abundance of grim words used to describe the longstanding status of Indian education: “bungling bureaucracy,” “bleakest outcomes,” and “individual and national economic tragedy.” As cited during the hearing, approximately 93% of Native children attend traditional public schools and 7% attend schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), part of the Department of Interior. Within the public schools, only 69% of Native American children graduate high school. For those in BIE schools, the number is barely 50%. There is a long list of BIE school facility issues documented over a decade ago and still being addressed, which includes heating problems, gas leaks, buckling floors, and popping circuit breakers. There are also the problems of mobility: students and families move frequently, there have been 33 BIE Directors in the past 36 years, and a heap of restructuring attempts has left educators in the system chasing moving targets.

The jury’s out on what’s required to provide adequate financial support for schools serving Native American students both on reservations and in our towns. At first blush, BIE schools have the highest per-student spending in the country at over $20,000 per year. That’s nearly double the national average. Then how is it possible that there are crumbling walls in these schools? As BIE Director Charles Roessel suggested, some of these schools are so remote they have to allocate their own resources to areas typically covered by city and town infrastructure, such as water and fire safety. We also know that funding formulas for rural education may not sufficiently address these additional and necessary supports.

It is indisputable that change is needed. Generations of Native American students have failed to thrive academically within the public school and BIE systems. The consensus during last week’s hearing was that this change needs to address a fundamental yet long neglected concern: the need to better integrate the rich history, languages, and cultures of Native American students into the educational content and process to bolster a stronger sense of identity. How to do so? Transfer control for the education of these children to their tribes. Continue reading