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Rural education: and what in the world are we going to do about it?

September 23, 2009

dirt road farm landLately, I’ve been having the same conversation over and over again.  From concerned parents to stressed out Initially Licensed Teachers (ILTs) to grassroots activists to state level decision makers, I’ve been listening, learning and talking about the challenges of rural education.

Not that we’ve arrived, but we are making real progress on urban education (see New Leaders for New Schools’ Urban Excellence Framework).  There are smart, thoughtful folks figuring out how to turn chronically low performing schools around, engage the community, synch high school prep programs with local employers, and feed students directly into institutions of higher educations.  But for all the excited momentum around these urban models, we have yet to find ways to address the poverty, geographic isolation and constant staff turnover that plague rural communities.

One of the ILT’s I talked to this week pointed me towards a segment on North Carolina Public Radio about rural schools, using Warren County as a case study.  It’s nice to see someone else drilling down into a community to begin understanding what these challenges look like on the ground.

There are a million subtleties, but from what I know, Dave DeWitt gets it about right:

  • Urban Tier 1 schools get more money per pupil than rural Tier 1 schools.  Secretary Duncan has gestured toward changing that, but don’t hold your breath.
  • Because school budgets in most states are comprised of formulaic money from the state supplemented by local money, rural communities with weaker or more dispersed tax bases have fewer resources to spread (literally) farther.
  • Because of this reality, rural school districts are usually unable to raise teacher salaries above the (relatively low) state level.  Unable to compete, they lose their good teachers to the nearest urban school system (DeWitt’s comparison to baseball’s minor league feeding their best into the major leagues is a good one).
  • In addition to being unable to compete on salary, rural school districts often struggle to provide housing for young teachers (take Warren County which has not a single apartment in the entire county) and/or job opportunities for the partners/spouses of teachers.
  • In Warren County’s case, you end up with a superintendent admitting that he would be unable to staff his schools if it wasn’t for the constant influx of Teach for America Corp members.

Add on top of these the preference at the national level for competitive grant money for innovation in the form of charter schools and merit pay for teachers (changes more easily–though not exclusively–managed in districts with more concentrated resources and population) and you can see why this is often a discouraging conversation.

It’s a long row.  We’re working on it.  But in the meantime, we should all say a blessing over TFA.

Jonas

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