Saturday, April 26, 2014

Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Out of Luck?: The Remote School Problem

There's always talk about "the education crisis" and all the troubles our teachers and students are facing.

Poverty is a key issue and catalyst in "the education crisis", a problem just as wicked as education itself.  It's a problem that's been addressed as far back as The Great Depression and validated in the 1960s with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 which included policies and provisions under Title I, Part A that provide funding to strengthen the education programs and provide academic interventions for at-risk students attending schools in low socioeconomic areas.

However, where do we generally perceive those low income areas to be, and is the issue truly about the poverty of the location or capacity of the school to provide a high quality and effective education to the students? 

According to a 2013 report published by the Southern Education Foundation, out of the top 10 states with the largest population of students from low income homes attending public schools, 55% or more of all rural students were low income.  Only 27% of high school graduates from rural locations generally go on to college.
From A New Majority: Low Income Schools in the South and Nation (October 2013)
With startling numbers such as these, why does it seem like we pay more attention to the issues with the inner-city schools located in low-income neighborhoods than the issues facing the schools located in remote, rural communities?

Perhaps it's a matter of out of sight, out of mind.

We view the education crisis much more clearly with the inner-city schools because they are in our line of sight as we make our way from the suburbs to the towns and city where most of us work.

We watch the news reports on the education crisis which often feature the wicked problems facing our inner-city schools such as poverty, nutrition, economics, politics, and family dynamics.

We see documentaries such as Waiting for Superman that feature the growth and progress of the charter schools who are succeeding.

However, why don't the rural schools receive as much attention or notoriety?

I can't help but think of this as I started this blog entry a few weeks ago sitting in my hotel room in Bluff, UT, a rural territory 20 minutes from the Arizona-Utah border as I spend the next couple of days helping a K-12 school district located 45 minutes away in an even more remote location with the nearest city being hundreds of miles away.

The schools to whom I provide academic program consultation and professional development on implementing, instructing, and integrating the Common Core State Standards are primarily Title I schools located within a large city with a population of more than 250,000.  These schools are mostly located in low socioeconomic neighborhoods and have a free and reduced lunch population over 40%, which qualifies them to implement a Title I Schoolwide Program according to Section 1114(a)(1) of Title I, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

NCES's urban-centric locale categories, released in 2006
A couple of the schools with whom I work are located in rural areas designated as fringe and distant territories according to the school locale definitions designated by the National Center for Education Statistics.  However, these rural areas are seemingly and slowly becoming more like towns and suburbs as more chain restaurants, supermarkets, department stores, and entertainment centers such as movie theaters open in these areas.

The school I am currently working with on this trip is in a sparsely populated remote location.  The nearest is more than 25 miles from an urbanized area and is also more than 10 miles from an urban cluster.  Housing is limited.  Commerce is practically non-existent except for the gas station convenient store over 30 miles away.

Another school with whom I considered working was also located in a remote Arizona location just 50 miles off Interstate 10 that stretches from Phoenix to Los Angeles and 40 miles away from the Arizona-California border.   The nearest commercial enterprises were rest stops and fast food joints that were over 20 miles away. 

These are the schools that are truly in crisis - not just because of low student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and overall school performance.  They're in crisis because of their issues with capacity and sustainability.

From Beginning Teachers Are More Common in Rural, High-Poverty, and Racially Diverse Schools
(Gagnon & Mattingly, 2012)

While rural districts have higher percentages of beginning teachers than mid sized-small cities, suburbs, and fringe-distant town districts, they generally do not stay longer than 2 or 3 years.

Those who do stay either spend the rest of their career teaching in the district, go on to become school leaders and administrators, or eventually leave the profession to pursue another career or stay home and care for their children.

Finding highly qualified and effective school leaders is just as challenging.  Districts in remote locations are more like independently owned charter schools with the district leader taking on the role of an Everyman, taking responsibility for all areas of the district and its schools - the leadership, the curriculum, the federal programs, even the classroom instruction in some cases.

Rural districts located in the most remote parts of Arizona are known to have a revolving door of superintendents who jump from district to district just as their contract is up for renewal or their job is in jeopardy.   Other districts decide have a classroom teacher who is underqualified do double duty as the district superintendent and grade level instructor.

It is these districts who find themselves on the radar of the state department of education only after someone in one of the departments that reviews the compliance of academic programs under one of the titles of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 finally acknowledges how poorly the district and its schools have been performing - and then it is usually too late.  The rural district or school gets designated as a focus or priority school and needs to meet a series of complex goals that they do not have the capacity to implement, measure, or monitor.

The issue is not a fiscal one.  Rural districts are often allocated significant funding through Title I or Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP) funding.  The problem is how to spend all that money wisely and effectively on human and instructional resources to improve student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and overall school performance.

So how can we help these schools?

It starts with the school board for these schools and those elected who profess to have the best interests of the community in mind in governing the education provided in their area.  However, these school boards need to realize that in this globally connected world that isolationism is no longer effective.  They cannot shut themselves off from the world and depend on those who leave their small community to receive an education from a college or university will return to give back to their community.  It's similar to what happened when the children of the farmers went off to World War I and II and decided not to return home to the farmland after having a more worldly experience.

The next area that needs to be addressed is the leadership.  These districts need a strong leader, not someone who has done the job before or is liked by the community and therefore deserves to become the superintendent or principal.  A leader in these schools will not be liked because they will need to implement grand changes, and change is uncomfortable.

The issues with leadership also needs to extend to the governing board of the district.
Too often performance and progress can be hampered by elected officials who believe they have the community's best interest in mind when they restrict the district and school from expanding and extending their resources.  Board members needs to keep in mind that a philosophy of isolationism will only hinder and hurt our students rather than help the community.  What's always worked and the way it's always been done may not be as effective or meeting the global and social demands education and the workforce places on us teachers to prepare our students.

The most important area that needs to be addressed are the teachers, who are doing the best they can with the resource they have - physical, human, and economic.  However, as with any teachers, they need professional development and support to improve. 

The most vital actions rural schools can take does not come from the school but rather the state education agency (SEA).  There needs to be more guidance and support provided to these schools - and not just fiscally.  These schools need help with building their capacity and sustainability.  They need help with bringing those highly qualified and effective teachers to their campus located in the middle of nowhere.  They need help with providing professional development to ensure the staff they currently have are both highly qualified and effective.

The SEA needs to do more than designate these low performing schools as focus or priority schools.  They need to focus their efforts on helping these schools improve and make school improvement a priority.  However, they should be more assistive than punitive.  Perhaps if they did, these schools wouldn't have to pay consultants like me who are willing to travel to these districts and not encumbered or restricted by lack of funding or interest to travel and provide them the support they need.


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