Finally, research looks at rural schools

When I was growing up my sisters and I would pile into the family mini-van, sometimes willingly—though as often under duress, and head to Chicago to visit our eight maternal aunts and uncles.  We drove through Pennsylvania, Ohio and occasionally dipped-down to South Bend to pick up an aunt or two, and after two-days (my parents are conservative drivers) of shrill bickering over who was or was not willing to assume their responsibilities as “cooler-girl”, it was evident in my parent’s faces that we should have flown.  Unlike my parents, who never did elect to fly, education researchers and targeted reforms have regrettably eluded the rural landscape.

Reform efforts and research targeting rural students often go by the wayside for a multitude of reasons.  Rural districts do not have resources to advocate for themselves like urban centers.  Nor do they draw the attention of national non-profits or research universities which overwhelmingly choose to focus on the four out of five students living in suburban and urban areas, to name but a handful.  In view of these gaps and because at this time many rural students are heading back to school, the month of August has quietly been devoted to rural education.  The Department of Education is highlighting rural schools for the entirety of August and with the release of three new papers addressing rural policy initiatives, so should we attend to rural education. 

I first heard Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discuss the status of rural schools at the National Rural Education Technology Summit, in July 2010.  Then he celebrated the huge investiture underway for improving broadband access and examples of successful distance learning initiatives.  Duncan also remarked, “We have an opportunity to rethink and redesign education in America to increase opportunities for a quality education regardless of zip code”.  That Duncan delivered these innovation-charged statements only months after accepting grant applications for Investing in Innovation or i3 funds, legislation inherently biased against under-resourced school districts came as the first cause for concern.

In the wake of the first round of i3 funding allocations, critics alleged rural discrimination based on the number of grant peer reviewers unfamiliar with the landscape of rural education, failure to award grants to “authentically rural” areas, and on the basis of such egregious abuses, that applicants were asked calculate the costs of their innovative practices up to scales of 100,000, 500,000, and 1 million students.  In the retributive key, the Department has since added two new criteria for its second round of i3 grant seekers.  Applications were due last week, August 2nd, for the considerably smaller second round of funding, $150 million dollars compared to $650 million first i3 grant round.  The new criteria mandate a focus on raising the achievement and high school graduation rates in rural schools, as well as promotion of STEM education.

The Department’s reworked i3 efforts may quell some fears concerning the future of rural education, but certainly not all.  And education reformers, legislators, and researchers alike would benefit from reading the Center for American Progress’s Make Rural Schools a Priority: Considerations for Reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education’s (SCORE) Transforming the Rural South: A Roadmap to Improving Rural Education, as well as the Education Commission of the States’s recommendations from their first ever, May 4th 2011, National Summit on the Role of Education in Economic Development in Rural America, all of which will be reviewed in our next post on policy priorities in rural education.  –Julie McCabe, Policy Research Intern

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