June 26, 2015

Paul Hill On Rural Education: Final In A Series! Brand Name Reforms And Rural Education

By Bellwether

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Note: The Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho (ROCI) has published ten papers over the last six months, looking at important issues in rural education. This is the last in a series of four blog posts that examine key themes that have emerged from the work. 

  • The first blog post discusses the need for rural education reformers to reconcile broader national and world standards with the demands of place-based education. 
  • The second blog post addresses the need to increase rural students’ participation and success in college. It is available here. 
  • The third blog post examines the need to lift counter-productive financial and regulatory constraints on rural schools.

The posts are all available below. The final blog, here, considers how brand reforms that have emerged nationally can be thoughtfully applied to the special circumstances of rural K-12 education.


By Paul Hill

Brand-name reforms common in urban education reform – e.g. alternative sources of teachers, technology-based instruction, family choice, charter schools – can have promise in rural areas. But these ideas need to be adapted to the circumstances of rural places and subjected to careful trials, not mandated or rushed into implementation.

Reasoning from results in urban areas helps no one: it is no more valid to say “X (e.g.; chartering) worked in big cities therefore it will work in rural areas,” than it is to say, “Y did not work well in a city, therefore it will fail in rural areas.” A much more cogent line of thinking is necessary.

In applying ideas developed elsewhere it is necessary to consider the special attributes of rural areas. Small size and remoteness will affect whether and how brand-name reforms work in rural areas, for example:

Development of new supplies of rural teachers, as by Teach For America, will depend on whether qualified recruits will be willing to accept the low pay and isolation in rural districts, and whether localities can create teacher vacancies.

Increased use of technology-based instruction depends on need – communities are less likely to use online courses in subjects that are already well taught by a local teacher. It also depends on capacity. Communities with one qualified person to teach a subject like physics can increase the numbers of students that person can reach with online materials. But the same materials may be less useful in a locality that has no one who knows the subject.

Localities too small to have more than one class per grade level will have difficulty offering choices to students (e.g. those entitled to options as a remedy under No Child Left Behind). However, localities large enough to host a charter school, or that are near other school districts or a community college, can offer choices. So can a district of any size or degree of remoteness that has a productive relationship with online coursework providers.

The applicability of charter schools is complex and controversial.[1]  Whether some form of charter school might benefit a rural community depends on whether:

Enough families would switch to make the charter school viable; any local teachers would switch to the charter school or new teachers move into the community; a suitable local facility exists; the existing school could adapt to the loss of some students without drastic reductions of learning time or quality; credible local leaders are willing to support the charter school, e.g. by providing private funding and sitting on its board; and the charter would so divide the community that teachers and others are likely leave the community.

Similar considerations are relevant in urban areas, but cities have large enough populations so that a very small minority might fill a school, many potential teachers and facilities, and the ability to buffer existing schools against student and revenue losses. In a big city there might already be precedent for creation of a school with a distinctive curriculum or instructional approach.

Given these considerations a rural charter school might be a positive development, in:

  • A growing locality receptive to new options, particularly one near new sources of talent and attractive to quality charter providers
  • A locality that wants to charter its schools in order to get out from under burdensome state regulations
  • A remote community that fears the district will close its school and force its children to be bussed long distances
  • A community that has become so small that it can’t support a fully staffed school and needs a new hybrid school model
  • A locality where a large minority group is being neglected
  • A locality where schools are really low performing and the state decides it has to clean house and start over

Even in such cases it is also necessary to ask the questions relevant to any chartering decision: Is there a credible leader or CMO for the school? Is there a responsible authorizer that will hold the charter school accountable for performance and ensure that it follows fair admissions and student discipline practices and serves students with special needs?

Some rural education scholars would reject “brand name” ideas as counterproductive for rural areas. That is too broad a conclusion, though critics are right to question doctrinaire or crude applications of such ideas. Future task force work will seek to clarify when and under what conditions new ideas from the “reform” community might apply.

Paul Hill is the chair of the ROCI task force, a research professor at the University of Washington Bothell, and former director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

[1] For a strongly-worded objection to the possible use of chartering in rural areas, see Howley, Craig B., Review of A New Frontier: Utilizing Charter Schooling to Strengthen Rural Education, Boulder CO, National Education Policy Center 2014. Downloaded August 20, 2014 from http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-new-frontier

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