The Obama Administration's Blueprint for Reform mentions "rural" 18 times. But the Education Department still doesn't have a feel for what it means to operate a rural school.
It’s difficult to argue that the Obama administration and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) have overlooked rural schools and districts. At the same time, administration officials don’t appear to have seen rural education either, at least in their major proposals.
A Blueprint for Reform introduces the administration’s priorities: in particular, it spells out how the Obama administration wants to change the nation’s most significant federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), otherwise known these days as No Child Left Behind. Plans range from revising all state learning standards so that students leave school “college- or career-ready” to measuring student academic growth rather than student grade level proficiency.
The Blueprint certainly gives a nod to rural communities. For those of us who like to count things, the word “rural” is used 18 times in the document; by contrast, “urban” is not used at all. This attention is thanks to the efforts of various rural education advocacy groups, including the National Rural Education Advocacy Coalition and the National Rural Assembly, among others, which have worked to ensure that the heavily urban-centric Obama education department acknowledges and grapples with rural issues, too. The administration even appointed a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach, who has been meeting and speaking with a wide variety of rural stakeholders.
The Blueprint proposes several explicitly rural efforts. For example, the administration says it wants to “maintain and strengthen” formula grant programs for rural districts, update the way it classifies districts as rural (the current rural formula grant programs exclude larger rural districts, such as those in the Southeast and Appalachia), and fund technical assistance to rural districts as they apply for competitive funding.
But these priorities aren’t all that rural. As the Rural School and Community Trust puts it, “only one provision would address a real circumstance of rural schools.” This Blueprint recommendation is that teachers in schools in the Rural Low-Income Schools (RLIS) program would have additional time to become “highly qualified” in all the subjects they teach. Because teachers in rural schools often must teach multiple subjects, whether because of teacher shortages or lack of funding, they often have had difficulty meeting NCLB’s requirement that all teachers be “highly qualified” in all subjects they teach.
Other rural-related provisions are of ambiguous benefit to rural places. For example, the Blueprint proposes technical assistance to rural districts applying for new competitive funds, acknowledging that many rural districts lack the staff to develop winning proposals. But an increase in competitive funding may herald a decrease in formula funding based on district or state needs, assuming this is a zero-sum game.
Moreover, competitive funding for federally-mandated programs is especially worrisome. The Blueprint makes no mention, for example, of technical assistance to largely rural states which would need to apply for competitive monies to implement the (proposed and increasingly probable, despite union resistance) federally mandated requirement that states develop teacher evaluation systems that are based in part on student achievement growth.
The recommendations for turning around struggling schools are also of unclear help to rural schools and districts. Federal money flows to states, which in turn award funds competitively to districts with struggling schools. But the Obama administration would pay for school turnaround options that would be difficult to do in rural communities. The school turnaround options associated with such grants require replacement of staff, conversion to charter school status, or outright school closure — options that would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement in rural places. (If you close the only school in a rural community, where are the children going to go? And if you fire all the teachers in a small town, where are you going to hire new ones?)
This problem has led critics to suggest that the competitions don’t have much meaning for rural districts. During a recent discussion among chief state school officers and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Montana’s state superintendent said that this Blueprint provision wouldn’t work for her state’s lowest performing schools; many of them are located on extremely remote reservations and wouldn’t even be able to provide housing for new staff.
Some of the Blueprint’s provisions simply neglect rural challenges. The recommendations for educating English Language Learners (ELL) are an example of this. The Blueprint suggests that districts that fail to improve the achievement of English Language Learners (ELL) should be penalized by losing control of how they may use formula funding for all ELL services. In addition, districts must implement state English language proficiency standards and state identification criteria, and participate in state evaluation of language instruction programs.
None of this is bad, in theory. It’s just that some rural districts aren’t prepared to do all of it without help. Rural schools with new ELL populations will have to put these new state requirements into effect—AND they’ll also have to develop, identify and provide instructional and support services to their ELL students. That’s a lot to handle if you’re the leader of a small, rural district—and you’re also the curriculum director, the Title I director and a part time bus driver/janitor.
Nor does the Blueprint address the needs of rural communities with new immigrant populations that are nonetheless still too small to warrant meaningful amounts of formula funding for ELL services. To provide really excellent services to their ELL students, and to help such students receive a truly equitable education, such rural districts may need more assistance than the Blueprint offers.
Another provision may have implications for how teachers of small rural classes are evaluated, leaving ratings in part up to the vagaries of statistical fluctuations in small numbers. Teacher effectiveness would be gauged by whether or not they are able to improve their students’ achievement by some as-yet unspecified metric.
But if, as this provision seems to suggest, the effectiveness-rating of a teacher in a rural school depends on one year’s worth of data from a small class, that’s about as valid as leaving effectiveness ratings up to chance. The scores of a few students in a small class can significantly impact the class’s average score.
Moreover, because socioeconomic class plays an enormous role in achievement and achievement-growth rates, and because many rural schools serve large proportions of students from families in poverty, our hypothetical teacher may appear “less effective” than her colleague in a neighboring school serving students from more affluent families. Her effectiveness rating may end up being more of statistical artifact than a solid measure of how well she does her job.
In a recent phone conference between rural education stakeholders and ED officials, one participant noted an issue of real rural significance that the Blueprint ignored altogether — the disadvantage engendered by federal Title I weighted grants on small rural districts’ funding. Title I is an ESEA provision intended to help schools address the needs of impoverished students. Districts may choose to use either the percentage or the absolute number of students who are Title I eligible when applying for these funds.
Large, urban districts often choose number weighting rather than percentage weighting because they can receive a higher score by relying on their large numbers of students. As a result, small rural districts receive a far smaller share of Title I funds, even if they serve larger percentages of impoverished students.
Although this issue has been a problem for some time, the Blueprint doesn’t mention it at all. Education Department officials said during their call with rural stakeholders that they would be interested in addressing the problem.
The Blueprint’s increased use of competitive funding as a policy tool may have repercussions for rural schools and districts. For instance, the Education Department proposes to fund a competitive grant program for innovative teacher preparation and recruitment approaches that target high-need classroom subject areas and schools. Rural communities certainly have recruitment needs. But the downside of competitive funding is that, although there are winners, there are also losers—communities with needs that go unmet as a result. So, some rural places might benefit from a federally-funded teacher recruitment program, while others will continue to be under-staffed and stretched too thin.
There’s much that is left undefined in the Blueprint. We don’t know when ESEA will, in fact, be reauthorized. The teacher unions have criticized the document roundly, and the Education Deparment continues to seek input from legislators, stakeholders, and educators. The road ahead is still coming into view.
At this point, however, we can say that although there’s more “rural” in the law than ever before, it could be more meaningfully rural. To get the rural part of the new legislation right, we’ll need the insights of people who are from and of rural places.
Caitlin Howley is a Senior Manager for Education and Research in the Appalachian Regional Office of ICF International.