Tag Archives: rural education

The Complications of Educational Returns in Rural America

The latest paper from ROCI, our rural ed-reform task force, is a totally fascinating study of the economic “return on schooling,” how much do individuals in a given location benefit financially from higher educational attainment. Although it focuses on Idaho, its lessons are applicable everywhere.

Image from http://visualoop.com/blog/1930/how-to-measure-the-return-of-education

Image from http://visualoop.com/blog/1930/how-to-measure-the-return-of-education

In “Economic Returns to Education in Idaho,” Paul A. Lewin and Willem J. Braak begin by calculating that, in the US, an additional year of education currently provides an average return of about 7.7 percent for full-time workers.

Good news for sure, but things get more and more interesting the deeper you dig.

Between 1929 and 1977, Idaho’s per capita income was near the national average. The recessions of the early 1980s and late 2000s briefly decreased the state’s income level, and the recoveries never returned the state to its original growth path. By 2014, Idaho’s per-capita income was one of the nation’s lowest.

Is education the cause?

Idaho ranks 46th in the nation in the percentage of high school students going on to college, and its graduation rate from four-year institutions of higher education is among the lowest in the nation. Continue reading

Innovation, Technology, and Rural Schools

According to Washington elites, rural schools’ greatest challenge is finding and keeping teachers. Ask the inside-the-beltway crowd for a solution, and, considering all the buzz over blended learning and innovation, they’ll probably shout, “technology!”

One small problem: Rural superintendent don’t consider teacher recruitment and retention among their biggest challenges…and mixing rural schooling and technology is more complicated than you might think.


Thank goodness for “Technology and Rural Education,” by Bryan C. Hassel and Stephanie Dean of Public Impact, the latest paper from Bellwether’s rural-education project, ROCI.


Image from Northfield Community Primary and Elementary School

The report begins as you might expect, arguing that technology holds great promise for rural schooling. “It can give students access to great teachers…enable them to tap into resources they would never find in a school’s media center…help them personalize their learning…open doors to forge networks with other students across the world.”

But unlike many tech-focused reports, it also recognizes the special characteristics of rural schools, especially as they relate to educators.
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The Return on Investment of Rural Schools

In a recent post about the rewrite of NCLB, I noted that a growing number of voices are now calling for greater transparency about K-12 spending. One recommendation is that this federal law should require states, districts, and schools to report exactly how much they spend per student and how these investments translate into academic results.

The latest release from ROCI, our rural-education project, (‘Innovation Amid Financial Scarcity: The Opportunity in Rural Schools,” by school finance expert Marguerite Roza) sheds light on this subject.


Image from www.stltoday.com\

Though rural-schools policy and K-12 finance formulas aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, Roza’s work is exactly the kind of report most consumers of edu-research want. It provides data in an important area currently dominated by conjecture; it asks and answers an intriguing new question; and it presents a completely unexpected finding that can serve as the launching point for future research.

The paper begins by discussing the funding levels received by rural districts relative to non-rural districts. Many believe that rural schools are dramatically underfunded because they lack the clout of their rural and suburban peers and the economies of scale necessary to make the most out of their resources. Those familiar with school funding formulas know, however, that at least some states “plus up” rural districts in a number of ways (e.g. special rural-schools programs, appropriations line items for rural-school staff).

Roza’s analysis shows that both are true. Most, but not all states, “have structured their state education finance systems in ways that ensure rural districts receive more funds per pupil than do their more centrally located counterparts.” However, relative funding levels vary significantly state to state.

In California and Georgia, smaller districts receive about 15 percent above the average per-pupil spending levels in their larger-district peers. In 12 states, small districts get a bit extra; in Minnesota and Wisconsin, they get amounts almost identical to larger districts. But in 12 states, small districts operate with fewer dollars than the state’s per-pupil average.

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The Estrangement of Rural Schools and Uncle Sam

Today, a group of outstanding scholars gathers for the fourth time to continue the multi-year rural education-reform initiative known as ROCI.

Sponsored by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, chaired by Dr. Paul Hill, and supported by the Bellwether team, this task force is meeting in Boise, Idaho to review an impressive series of second-year papers focusing on rural students and post-secondary enrollment and attainment.

Photo from ed.gov

Photo from ed.gov

At the same time, in Washington, D.C. Congress continues its multi-year effort to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). More than 2,000 miles separates the two cities, and, unfortunately, a similar yawning gap stretches between the projects of these two groups. That is, for entirely too long, federal policy has underserved rural America.

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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?