The federal government is rewarding schools for innovations that don't work particularly well in rural areas. And the problem is likely to continue.
The $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTT) competition was established in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment ACT (ARRA) (otherwise known as the economic stimulus bill). The money was set aside to make competitive awards to states willing to implement a series of reforms deemed innovative by the U.S. Department of Education.
This was a unique program. Never has a Secretary of Education had so much money to award at his discretion. And never has an education funding competition played such a large role in driving state level education reform.
With this much money at stake, many states, already suffering recessionary budget challenges, moved quickly to change state policy to align with RTT priorities — and make their proposals more competitive.
A first round of competition was conducted earlier this year, with only Delaware and Tennessee receiving funding. Round Two awardees—all on the East coast, with the exception of Hawaii—were announced this Tuesday.
The announcement elicited some consternation from rural states and states in the Midwest and west of the Mississippi — with good reason.
RTT requires that proposing states implement reforms in four key areas:
• Adopting common standards and assessments
• Developing data systems that measure student academic growth and inform educators how they can improve instruction
• Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals
• Turning around (that is, rapidly improving) the lowest-achieving schools
At first glance, these core reform areas appear reasonable and of potential help to rural schools and districts. But on closer examination, RTT asks states to implement reforms that are difficult, if not impossible, for many rural places.
For one, RTT requires that states allow a large number of charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded, but operate with some independence from local school district administrations.
There is considerable debate about the effectiveness of charter schools. But of more concern to rural states is the difficulty of establishing, funding, and running charter schools in communities already straining to support one public school. Rural districts may simply lack the students, resources, and personnel to pursue charter schools.
Another reform sought by RTT is the implementation of one of four reforms in low-performing schools. These favored four are
• Turnaround: The school’s principal and all of its teachers are fired. A new principal may rehire up to half of the former teachers and must implement strategies defined by the U.S. Department of Education to improve student achievement.
• Restart: The district must either convert the school to a charter or close it and reopen it under outside management, such as charter operators, charter management organizations, or education management organizations.
• School closure: The school is closed and students are transferred to other, higher-achieving schools.
• Transformation: The school principal is replaced if s/he has been at the school longer than two years and the school must choose from a set of strategies defined by the U.S. Department of Education to improve student achievement.
Some of these options are untenable in rural remote districts. For example, transferring students to other schools may require long bus rides or arrangements with other districts to allow student attendance.
Moreover, given the significance of local schools to the health of rural communities, the school closure model may herald the rapid decline of some rural towns, a kind of federal mandated community suicide.
The turnaround option may also pose challenges for some rural districts. Given the well-documented difficulty of attracting and retaining teachers and principals in rural schools, firing entire staffs may leave schools unable to serve children.
Also of concern to small rural schools is the RTT emphasis on evaluation systems that relies on student achievement as a way to evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness. Although it’s probably reasonable to consider student achievement growth when evaluating teacher performance, there are some issues associated with small class size that bedevil rural schools.
For example, the scores of a few students in a small class can significantly impact the class’s average score. And because socioeconomic factors play a huge role in achievement and achievement growth rates — and because many rural schools serve large proportions of students from families in poverty — teachers in rural schools may appear less effective than schools in richer, more urban areas. Although there are ways to take demographics into account in these measurements, there is no guarantee that winning states will employ them.
As Jerry Johnson of the Rural School and Community Trust noted in and interview with rural education blogger Mary Schulken, several of the RTT Round Two finalists were “prototypically high-priority rural states,” including Kentucky and Louisiana.
He also noted that the finalists included states with large absolute populations but low proportional rural enrollment, such as Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Even if these states won, rural constituents would largely be left out.
So which states prevailed in Round Two? Funds ranging from $75 million to $700 million were awarded to the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island. Of these states, only Georgia and North Carolina are appreciably rural, at least in terms percent of the total student population that is rural (32.4% and 47.8%, respectively) and the percent of schools serving rural communities (36.2% and 48.5%, respectively), according to Why Rural Matters. (See a chart below from the Why Rural Matters report.)
It is also interesting that no state further west than Tennessee was awarded funding in either round of the competition, with the exception of Hawaii. This is in part because several Midwestern and Plains states opted not to apply for the funding, citing concerns with devoting scarce resources to a risky proposal and skepticism that the required reforms would work in their rural states.
Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, and Wyoming elected not to pursue Round Two funding. Other states choosing not to participate included Alaska, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia offered a number of reasons for opting out, including an inability to change state law to align with RTT requirements and commitment to existing state standards.
RTT requirements seem best suited to densely populated and urban states. Awards have born this out, with funding going to states on the East Coast rather than to Midwestern or Western states with low population densities and high proportions of rural schools.
And it only gets worse from here. RTT seems destined to continue exacerbating rural funding disparities. President Obama has requested $1.35 billion in the FY 2011 budget to support another round of competition, but he has made no changes to the reform requirements.[img:percentruralschools.jpg]