Learning a lesson from America's rural schools

I am pretty good at math. Unsurprisingly, the story about why I am good at math has a lot to do with a few exceptional teachers I had growing up in a small coal-mining town in Illinois.

One in particular was Mr. Nagrodski, my high-school math team coach, who seemed to conjure talented mathematicians out of thin air. In the late 80s, he pushed for a major acceleration in the junior-high math curriculum in our district so that more kids were ready for tough math classes in high school. He convinced the district to let him teach those tough math classes, which hadn't been offered before he arrived. As a result, his teams won state math competitions year after year after year—and not incidentally, turned out far more talented students of mathematics than anyone would have guessed could come from a little town of four thousand. (Among many other accolades, Mr. Nagrodski, was profiled in Fortune magazine back in 1991 as one of “25 Who Help the U.S. Win.")

By the time I was a middle schooler gearing up for Mr. Nagrodski's infamously difficult math team practices, roughly half of my class of 75 or so kids had been identified as gifted and was placed in advanced math courses. I doubt there was much red tape to cut through to get to this point--just a superintendent and a couple of principals to convince. 

Not all rural schools work well, but when they do, they can be truly transformational. Most schools in small, rural districts operate on a thin dime and without the huge talent pool a well-funded suburban district can draw on. Yet students from rural districts outperform kids from cities and larger towns on NAEP in both reading and math at all grade levels, and rivaled the results of suburban schools on the 2009 test at the 4th and 8th grade levels. These schools leverage the human capital available to them, engage parents deeply in their children's learning, set high expectations, and empower teachers to play outsized roles not only in the school district, but in the wider community. 

Tomorrow, we are releasing a documentary by our own Joe Portnoy, profiling a pair of Fordham-sponsored community schools in Sciotoville, Ohio, a small town similar to the one I grew up in. Schools like these get less attention than they deserve from education reformers. It may not be trivial to translate the practices they use to deliver a great education in rural America directly to the classrooms of our cities and suburbs. Their stories point the way to important components of all great schools, however: community engagement, high expectations, and high-performing, empowered teachers.

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