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School Turnaround in the Rural Context

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June 2, 2015

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In the research and debate over turning around our nation’s lowest performing schools, one important sector of the educational community seems to get short shrift. Rural schools, which make up about a third of all U.S. schools, are rarely the focus of rigorous studies and policy analyses. Painted with the same broad brush as their urban and suburban counterparts, they often must adhere to regulations and requirements that fail to consider the unique qualities associated with rurality.

In editing an issue of the Peabody Journal of Education, published in May, we unpack some of the reasons behind “The Myth of the Little Red Schoolhouse” and how a one-size-fits-all approach to school turnaround may be inappropriate—or even detrimental—to our rural schools.

First, we learn that there is no simple definition of “rural” and the stereotype of the isolated country schoolhouse is no longer accurate. As Greenough and Nelson point out, “Rural schools may or may not be remote from towns and cities. They include schools in low-density, fast-growing ‘exurbs’ around the largest metropolitan areas, but also ‘bush villages’ in Alaska that have no road access.”

As in many struggling schools, low-performing rural schools can be challenged by a lack of student motivation and recruiting and retaining a qualified teaching staff. But, these issues can be exacerbated by the schools’ distance from urban areas and the commute between the schools and the students’ and teachers’ homes. In a study of rural schools that received federal School Improvement Grants (SIGs), Rosenberg, Christianson, and Angus found that “the schools’ remote locations and large geographic catchment areas could hinder school improvement efforts, such as engaging families and the community, and increasing student learning time as mandated by SIG turnaround and transformation models.” Replacing school leadership also presents a problem in rural schools that have trouble attracting staff. While participants in this study described the small size of their schools and communities as a challenge to school improvement, they also considered the close relationships in such schools as a strength to draw on.

Scott and McMurrer also looked at the impact of the SIG program, through a case study of rural Idaho schools. They report that SIG allowed schools stretched by small staffs to add instructional coaches and special administrators who assisted in implementing and managing the grant requirements. SIG also helped to improve the curriculum and provide more time for students to learn, contributing to school culture and climate. However, the authors state that “SIG implementation was perceived by study participants as difficult in rural settings and perhaps not easily aligned to rural school needs and strengths. Our survey data showed that fewer states with large proportions of rural SIG schools believed SIG activities were key to improving schools. Furthermore, significantly fewer states with large proportions of rural schools (compared to other states) said that replacing the principal was key to improvement.”

Several articles in the issue highlight promising initiatives to improve rural students’ academic outcomes and to prepare them for postsecondary education and careers. Hargreaves, Parsley, and Cox look at networking schools for improvement, a reform strategy gaining traction both in the U.S. and abroad. Focusing on a large-scale project in the Northwest to connect “like with like” rural and remote schools, they discuss how the NW Rural Innovation and Student Engagement Network is working to bring educators in far-flung places together to identify and share promising and innovative school reform practices. They point out that “two key 21st century skills—effective communication and facility with digital technology—are core requirements of modern professional networking and can enable today’s pioneering educators to conquer the tyranny of distance and isolation that still bedevils many rural Americans more than 200 years after the opening of the frontier.”

By bringing together various perspectives and highlighting some of the unique challenges and opportunities faced by rural schools, we hope our issue of the Peabody Journal of Education inspires more research and debate about how to improve schooling for this large, often forgotten segment of our population.