The challenges facing struggling rural schools

When it comes to SIG, my mind is obviously made up. So I’d forgive you for skipping anything I write about it; you have every reason to think I’m going to be bearish. That goes double for a post about a new federal study finding different but still discouraging SIG results.

Another opportunity for Smarick to beat up on this federal program? Pass.”

But if you’re still with me, please stay for a few more minutes. Yes, the new federal IES report A Focused Look at Rural Schools Receiving School Improvement Grants offers additional reasons to rue our decision to spend billions on “turnarounds.” But that’s not the big takeaway—at least not for me.

Over the last year or so, as my colleagues at Bellwether and I have worked on a large project related to rural K–12, I’ve become more attuned to the particular needs of rural communities and schools and how these needs differ from those of urban America. (In full disclosure: I have a personal interest in this subject, as one side of my family comes from a small working farm in a rural area.)

This study takes an in-depth look at the experience of nine rural schools that received School Improvement Grants; its goal is to understand how the schools’ rural location influenced efforts to improve student performance. The brief has limitations: it does not look at student achievement, and the nine schools are neither a representative sample of rural SIG schools nor of rural schools in general.

But some findings may be generalizable to other rural schools because some of the factors that hindered improvement efforts in all nine schools appear to be directly related to their rural-ness: “(1) distance to an urban center or metro area, (2) geographic spread with a low population density, and (3) small community size.”

The report focuses on two of the most challenging issues: recruiting and retaining teachers and increasing parental involvement. As the study shows, while both also confound urban reform efforts, in rural areas, the distance between school and home gives both issues different contours.

Three factors in particular seem to complicate efforts to recruit and retain highly effective teachers in rural SIG schools. Long commutes dissuaded teachers willing to teach in a rural school but wanting to live in a town or a city; one school reported that two of its teachers left when they could no longer afford the cost of their hour-long commutes.

The geographic isolation of many rural communities can mean limited housing options and even more limited job opportunities for teachers’ spouses. While housing costs may be lower in rural areas, “barely competitive” salaries eat up those margins quickly.

The SIG schools’ human-capital strategies included increasing teacher pay via performance-based compensation, pay for additional hours worked, and signing bonuses. These were not always effective.

Working additional hours—even if compensated—was seen as a deterrent (possibly because it adds to the length of a work day already expanded because of long commutes). Along those lines, two schools were requesting SIG funds to help reimburse teachers for commuting costs, and two schools offer existing, non-SIG support for commuters.

Administrators reached out to local colleges of education to encourage graduates to consider their rural SIG schools, but they were generally only able to recruit interns. Other principals tried to improve school climate. Nearly all schools formed professional-learning communities (PLCs), but the small size of the schools necessitated that PLCs cross subject areas and grade levels—cutting against the theory behind PLCs.

As for parental involvement, work schedules were the largest barrier to engagement and attendance at events such as parent-teacher conferences, report card pickups, and volunteer activities. Respondents from more than half of the schools also believed that “parents don’t value education.”

A lack of public and private transportation in rural areas and the distance between home, work, and school also prevented parents from becoming more involved. At one school, a teacher noted that good attendance at parent-teacher conferences and other events was facilitated by the school’s proximity to student homes. Only 47 percent of teachers at this school cited parent involvement as a “major or moderate” challenge to school improvement, the lowest of the nine rural schools.

However, almost all parents attended athletic events, which were seen as “the one unifying force in the community.” One high-school teacher reported attending football and basketball games in order to engage with parents.

Early student-achievement results suggest that rural SIG schools are seeing similarly paltry gains as urban SIG schools. This report, however, suggests that the causes of these struggles may be quite different, calling for different interventions.

Indeed, as our recent report on rural charter schools notes, while a new-schools strategy may be appropriate in some cases, such practices—which were initially developed and then evolved over years to address the an urban context—might not easily translate to rural America.

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