Tag Archives: rural education

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?

Rural Values and Beltway Rhetoric: Arne Duncan at the Rural Education Forum

Just over a month ago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan presented remarks at the Rural Education Forum for the third time in five years. With both Andy Smarick and I blogging on the topic of rural education here at Ahead of the Heard, I thought it would be interesting to look at how these speeches have changed over the last several years in order to look at how the Department of Education’s approach to rural education has evolved – or stayed the same. While Secretary Duncan’s remarks must be viewed in light of their place as a speech – a type of political rhetoric – they also provide a lens into his department’s views on rural education and its place within the larger education policy landscape.

Secretary Duncan first spoke at the Rural Education Forum in 2010, giving remarks entitled “Rural America: Learning Opportunities and Technology,” an optimistic speech that showcased all that the Department had to offer rural schools.  In this first speech, Duncan focused on the notion that leaders in Washington understood the challenges of rural education and were standing by, ready to lend a helping hand. He brought along senior staff members from the Departments of Education and Agriculture, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to discuss programs that the administration had to offer rural schools and policies they had crafted to improve access to technology.

Three years later, when Secretary Duncan next spoke at the Rural Education Forum, several things had changed. His party had undergone a “shellacking” in the 2010 midterm elections held shortly after his first speech, but the administration won reelection two years later and maintained control of the Senate. Still, tensions were higher this time around and Duncan gave remarks that seemed to indicate that the “beltway and blogosphere” don’t care about rural education. He was on the defensive, focusing on an “us against them” situation wherein the administration believed in rural schools but a crowd of naysayers— “armchair pundits”— believed that investments in rural schools would be foolish, with schools unable to meet application requirements for programs such as RTT and i3.

In his most recent speech to the Rural Education Forum, Secretary Duncan gave remarks entitled, “Leadership by Principle: How Rural Values Contribute to Success in the Classroom.” However, the rural values identified here – caring about a child’s education, perseverance, humbleness, dedication – seem to be the sort of values that help to make many education initiatives work – no matter their location. Here, they just happen to be applied to rural anecdotes, which probably does then make them rural values in a sort of roundabout way.

While Secretary Duncan has had to align his rhetoric to political reality, this isn’t good for rural kids. Instead of saying that there are people who “think of rural education as the poor second cousin of education reform,” as Duncan remarked in 2013, it is important, as Paul Hill writes in a recent paper for the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho, to acknowledge the institutional factors that have disadvantaged rural schools compared to their urban counterparts. What is needed — instead of the division of 2013, the “squishiness” of 2014, or even the optimism of 2010 — is for Secretary Duncan to not only address the problems of rural education but to discuss how his Department can begin to address changes in its programs and policy-making and rule-making processes to help ensure that rural kids get a fair shake and a fair shot at a quality education.

This series on rural K-12 education is supported by a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.

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.

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