Rural School Reform: A Dialogue

Two West Virginians discuss what "school reform" should mean in the rural communities of their state.

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After Education Secretary Arne Duncan talked to rural reporters, West Virginia school researcher Caitlin Howley wrote about the exchange for the Daily Yonder. 

Howley was critical. “Duncan offered little in the way of a meaningful reason for supporting and improving rural education, aside from the usual rhetoric about the need for the country to compete effectively in the global market and trounce students from other nations on measures of academic performance,” she wrote, summarizing the Obama Administration’s offerings for rural schools.

That led to an exchange between Howley and Tim McClung, an IBM engineer and a supporter of school reform efforts in West Viginia led by West Virginians for Education Reform

The exchange was so good, we thought we’d package it for general consumption. It begins with an email Tim sent to Caitlin after reading her Yonder article:

TIM:

Dr. Howley, I would like your thoughts on how to advance education reform in West Virginia, particularly since chartering is viewed as an urban-only solution. 

People that know me, know that I support chartering to allow schools to be created or re-constituted so they can have the flexibility to create the learning opportunities and environments that work for them.  I am particularly interested in models that are fundamentally different and are designed for our rural state.

Tim McClung
Minnesota’s New Country School is an example.  Big Picture Learning has some great ideas on how to design a rural solution.

Let’s create some unique choices in our rural communities. 

CAITLIN:

I do remember your interest in charter schools and opening up the WV law to allow them. But I don’t know that I can add anything about how to advance education reform in the state. 

I think we’re constrained in part by our overall poverty compared to other states (although many of them are feeling quite a pinch now), and I think that chartering faces some challenges because of dis-economies of scales in small, rural places. But the economies of scale issue can be addressed by forming cooperatives, either among schools or among districts, and federal monies can help too.

John White, the US Dept of Ed rural outreach guy, sent a link to an article yesterday about the Walton 21st Century Rural Life Center, a rural charter school in Kansas. You might be interested to read about it: http://www.ed.gov/blog/2011/02/rural-charter-school-makes-education-real-for-students/  There’s more here: http://www.newton.k12.ks.us/sch/w/

I think rural places are fantastic places to learn. There’s math and science right outside the door; local history is everywhere in the community; and literacy is a tool to unlocking it all. And it can all MEAN something to kids — because, frankly, what kid you know is fired up by the idea of becoming “a competitive worker in the 21st century global economy”?

TIM:

I have had several coversations with charter school operators on how to “ruralize” their models and am very excited about what they have come up with because they do not look like or operate like traditional schools so the economies of scale are really based on an entirely different version of school and schooling.  

I really want a better sense of what matters in rural education for the students.

CAITLIN:

I don’t have “answers” (and, oh, how I sometimes wish I did–but that presupposes a much less complicated, more legible world), so I offer a few rural education principles that you might want to take into account as you move forward with this work.

1) It’s important that rural charter efforts not (both in appearance and in actuality) siphon off resources from existing local schools. In a zero sum game, that’s always a worry. Innovation shouldn’t come at the expense of other students. Lots of communities have already felt burned by consolidation.

2) Keep it local. 

Schools get plenty of intervention from state departments of education, the federal government, and national consortia (e.g., the Common Core Standards movement). While these are sometimes to the good for rural schools (e.g., Title I monies are vital to schools serving large populations of impoverished students), other times they necessarily (because of scale, abstraction, or cosmopolitan values) aren’t responsive to rural context.

3) Rural doesn’t equal less than. 

Rural places have challenges, but so do suburban, urban, and exurban places. And rural places have especial strengths—tight knit communities, multigenerational relationships, lots of opportunities for youth involvement, abundant environmental resources (into which educators can situate learning), sense of and attachment to place, valuation of local knowledge, etc. These are not the kinds of things that you’d necessarily find other places, and in some respects they are undervalued by the wider culture.

4) Combine instruction with community development. 

Part of the issue with developing rurally responsive schools is that some rural educators have bought into the idea that talented kids must leave the community to do well. (In lots of cases, kids who want postsecondary schooling do need to leave for college. However, some kids then find that there are no jobs back home that align with their new credentials.) 

But to stem the tide of brain drain, rural communities would probably do well to combine their efforts to nurture their academically strong kids with efforts to improve their communities—so that kids will have a thriving community in which to live and work as adults. Place-based education is one promising approach to this. And it’s a flexible approach, intended to vary by community and local priorities.

Thanks, Tim, for your attention to rural issues!!

TIM:

Caitlin,  thanks for the heartfelt feedback.  Your knowledge in this space far exceeds what I know or hope to learn, but I sure want to try.    

That is why I wish my state had permission for folks like you to start a new school, rural by design. Maybe one day, but it will not come without honest dialogue and solutions to all the issues you raise. (Tim then responds to Caitlin’s four numbered points.)

1) So how do we make it not a zero sum game?  

New schools will have a financial impact.  Converting existing schools should have a financial impact if they have the autonomy to control their budget.  A lot of this is buried in the fine print of a state’s charter school bill.  No simple answer, but fiscal impact should be very transparent and detailed.  

Your other comment regarding innovation at the expense of other students really caught my eye. It has a lot of nuance to it.  I have heard of some rural charters that were opened because the district did not want to operate a school so remote from the central office, or as an option to consolidation, or right across the street from the consolidated school. 

In all cases, students choose to go there, but what was the impact on the students who chose not to go there or could not go there?  I could use your research skills on this one. 

2) The vast majority of charter schools are mom & pop operations. The stronger the charter law, then the less the intervention and the stronger the oversight by the authorizing body.  

To me, chartering is a platform to give schools the authority to make decisions about what students do, see, hear and read.  I think we are on the same page here. 

3) As I write this I am clapping loudly. 

The traditional definition of school cannot signficantly leverage our rural context and create customizable solutions to the challenge of rural place.

4) See what I mean?  If you could create Caitlin High, I have a notion that your school would be “rurally responsive.” 

 

Topics: Education
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