Mission Impossible? Improving Leadership in Rural Low-Performing Schools


November 3, 2015


For much of my research career, I have worked to build awareness of the challenges people face in implementing educational policy. In particular, I have looked closely at federal School Improvement Grants (SIGs), a competitive program designed to turn around the lowest achieving 5 percent of schools in each state.

One of the challenges for SIG schools in rural areas has been that, prior to the current school year, the program only allowed schools to implement specific federally designed improvement models. The four models required schools to do a variety of things, and all mandated either replacing the principal or sending students to a different school. In rural areas, the number of alternative schools is limited, so the majority of rural SIG schools chose to replace their principal.

My recently published study in the Peabody Journal of Education, coauthored with Jennifer McMurrer of the Center on Education Policy at The George Washington University, reveals challenges to replacing principals, especially in rural areas. The study finds that in states with larger proportions of rural SIG schools (in comparison to states with more urban and suburban districts), significantly fewer school leaders reported that replacing principals to meet SIG requirements helped improve student achievement. Interviews with state, district, and school-level personnel suggest that many rural schools are simply not able to attract and retain highly effective principals who have the ability to turn around schools.

The U.S. Department of Education has shifted this policy as of the 2015–2016 school year to allow for a variety of locally adapted models that don’t necessarily force SIG schools to replace their principals. This policy shift opens the door for rural SIG schools to develop leadership and turnaround skills in current principals, rather than replace them. For me, it also raises a question. What does effective leadership look like in a rural SIG school?

Personally, I believe that school leadership does not reside in the principal alone. Instead, I believe leadership is, and should be, distributed among all the adults working at a school. In rural schools, distributed leadership may be particularly important, because these schools often have smaller numbers of staff members than urban and suburban schools. This requires many adults to take on multiple roles and shoulder greater responsibility for school success.

Therefore, an approach that develops the skills of ALL adults in a rural school and district seems integral to school improvement. One such approach is fostered by the Northwest Rural Innovation and Student Engagement Network (NW RISE), an education improvement community in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. (Full disclosure: I know well, and have the utmost respect for, my Education Northwest colleagues who work on NW RISE, so my views of their work are positively skewed.)

Launched in February 2014, this network supports rural educators in implementing Common Core State Standards, with the goal of improving student engagement and achievement in rural areas. Through monthly virtual sessions and semi-annual in-person meetings, district and school staff members learn about innovative and promising approaches to improving schools; share resources and experiences; and provide each other with professional feedback and support. They do this work in job-alike groups to develop action inquiry projects.

The jury is still out on how effective NW RISE will be. However, unlike traditional SIG models, NW RISE doesn’t rely on recruiting and retaining a single leader in the form of a superhero principal. Instead, through networking, the schools strengthen existing staff and maximize skills across districts and states.

I look forward to seeing the results of NW RISE and the possibilities of applying this approach in other rural low-performing schools. With new federal guidance allowing rural schools to replace one requirement of the federal models—as long as that modification meets the original intent and purpose of the grant—states may want to explore improving rural school leadership through efforts similar to those of NW RISE.

Learn more about the issue of the Peabody Journal of Education we edited, and see our related blog posts on rural students and STEM in Washington state and on ways to help teachers feel successful (and stay) in rural Alaska.