Transforming Rural Schools Under the Every Student Succeeds Act: Learning from the Past

By Caitlin Scott
May 2016
school bus on a rural road

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has loosened many of the federal requirements governing school improvement efforts, but the imperative to improve low-performing schools remains. Education leaders now have the opportunity to reshape school improvement efforts, especially in rural areas that — because of their remote locations — don’t have easy access to school improvement support. To assist in these revisions, our new REL Northwest study, gathered lessons learned from 135 rural school principals in the first cohort of schools implementing federal School Improvement Grants and using the “transformation model.”

This model required a number of strategies aimed at ensuring high-quality staff, improving instruction, and engaging families and communities. Our study confirmed the challenges of implementing the transformation model in rural schools but also pointed to technical assistance as a way to help schools fully implement the strategies. Key findings include:

Few rural schools fully implemented the SIG transformation model.

Only 5 percent of the principals surveyed said their schools had fully implemented the 12 transformation strategies that the survey examined.

More schools reported facing implementation challenges related to ensuring high-quality staff and engaging families and communities than challenges related to improving instruction.

For example, almost half (47 percent) of principals reported challenges to rewarding staff financially and roughly one-third (34 percent) reported challenges to engaging families and communities. In contrast, fewer principals (26 percent) reported challenges to expanding learning time to improve instruction.

Almost all schools received technical assistance from at least one provider.

Most principals (93 percent) reported that their school had received technical assistance from at least one provider for at least one of the transformation strategies examined in the survey. The support came from states (70 percent), districts (91 percent), universities (19 percent), and other types of organizations (42 percent)

The more strategies for which principals reported receiving technical assistance, the more strategies they reported their schools had fully implemented.

When principals reported receiving technical assistance for more than 7 strategies, they also reported their schools fully implemented an average of 7.2 strategies. In contrast, when principals reported receiving technical assistance for 7 or fewer strategies, they reported their schools had fully implemented an average of only 5.7 strategies.

For 7 of the 12 strategies, when principals reported receiving technical assistance, they were significantly more likely to report full implementation of that strategy. These included:

  • Using data to identify and implement a new research-based curriculum
  • Using operational flexibility (such as staffing, calendars/time, and budgeting) to improve student outcomes
  • Identifying and removing staff who have not improved student outcomes
  • Using staff evaluation systems that account for student growth
  • Implementing strategies to recruit staff who are highly qualified
  • Identifying and rewarding staff who have improved student outcomes
  • Providing mechanisms for community engagement

That strategy of using data to identify and implement a new research-based curriculum is especially important because approaches to improving Title I schools under ESSA must be “evidence-based.” The 135 SIG schools in our study had federal funds to do this work, yet only 74 percent were able to implement this fully. Those that did fully implement were likely to have support from their state, their district, or other providers of technical assistance.

Our big takeaway from this study is that rural schools cannot do this work alone. As leaders reshape rural school improvement efforts under ESSA, technical assistance can make a difference. State and district leaders should consider strengthening their supports to rural schools, as well as engaging universities, nonprofits, and other entities to work with rural schools to implement improvement strategies.

Caitlin Scott is the lead author of Reshaping Rural Schools in the Northwest Region: Lessons from Federal School Improvement Grant Implementation.