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Rural Schools Ask Recognition of Their Needs by Policymakers

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Leaders of rural schools from across the nation have urged national and state policymakers to "recognize differences between rural and nonrural schools" and "provide for appropriately different strategies" when implementing recommendations set forth by the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

In an eight-page policy statement sent to U.S. Education Department officials and state legislators last week, the American Council on Rural Special Education (acres) noted that although it agrees with the "basic intent" of the commission's findings, it advocates dramatically different strategies for implementing the recommendations for rural areas.

acres is a national membership organization of more than 1,000 rural-school leaders based at Murray State University in Murray, Ky.

The acres document lauded the commission's call for the introduction of merit-pay programs, the establishment of career ladders for teachers, and the incorporation of computer-science technology as part of basic education. But, the document says, implementation strategies must address "critical issues" affecting rural education if "the nation's rural school children are to receive appropriate educational experiences."

Rural schools constitute 67 percent of all schools in the U.S. and enroll 33 percent of all schoolchildren, according to data collected by the National Rural Research and Personnel Preparation Project (nrp), also located at Murray State.

In its position statement, the rural-education group noted that rural schools "face distinct educational problems" that must be considered when policy decisions are made. Rural schools, the document says, "have higher poverty levels than nonrural schools and serve greater percentages of handicapped children"; are rapidly growing in population though their tax base is not; have "expensive transportation requirements ... and scarce professional resources available"; and have "staffing inadequacies" that are more serious than those faced by other schools.

A Range of Duties

Responding to the excellence commission's recommendation that standards for teachers be raised, the acres statement notes that certification standards need to be written with rural education's circumstances in mind and to be kept flexible so that teachers and staff members can continue to handle a range of duties.

"With limited staff, the football coach and physical education-instructor is often the physics and biology teacher. He has little chance to receive full certification in each area," said Doris Helge, project director of nrp The state of Wisconsin, where there are different certification standards for different types of schools, offers a useful model for others to follow, she added.

Although the excellence commission recommended that the "five new basics" include computer-science education, the acres statement noted that many rural schools have only one computer, which is used primarily for administrative purposes.

A recent nrp study of rural districts found that 88 percent had at least one computer, but only 36 percent had more than one. (At schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, only 11 percent of schools had one computer.)

Some 60 percent of the administrators sampled said that computers were used for instructional support--in grading, recordkeeping, and word processing for classroom use, for example--while only 12 percent said computers were used for direct instruction.

The study found that computers were used only for managerial purposes in 42 percent of the schools.

Corporate computer-donation programs, the acres document said, favor urban and suburban schools, which are near corporations. Moreover, the majority of rural staff members are not computer literate and there is a limited amount of software available for student use in rural schools.

By the same token, the excellence commission's recommendation that schools offset their shortage of science teachers by employing local scientists is not workable in rural areas where there are no local scientists or industry, the rural educators said.

The commission recommends that schools strengthen foreign-language study and programs in fine and performing arts. Rural schools, faced with a shortage of specialized teachers and funds, will have to look to increasing the use of technology and communications in improving instruction in these subjects, according to the acres statement.

Because of the isolation of rural districts, the widely-adopted solution of sharing teachers between districts is not always possible, Ms. Helge noted.

"Though some districts are only 50 miles away from each other, they may be separated by a mountain or repeated snowstorms or may not even be connected by any road," she said.

Transportation Difficulties

Transportation difficulties--for both students and teachers--also prevents rural districts from making "more effective use of school time''--another recommendation made by the excellence commission, the document noted.

The rural-education group's policy statement recommended that policymakers:

Support innovative training programs to provide teachers for the handicapped, and mathematics, science, and foreign-language teachers, who are in high demand elsewhere and have little incentive to teach in rural schools.

Encourage state institutions to put greater emphasis on appropriate training for rural settings.

Develop career ladders and merit-pay systems that will encourage good teachers to stay in rural schools and allow cooperative efforts between rural districts. The group proposes that policies allow rural teachers to leave one rural area and move to another, while maintaining their place in the career ladder.

Support essential inservice training. Because they lose teachers so quickly, rural districts often repeat the same inservice programs from year to year. More funds would allow districts to provide new and different training, dividing teachers according to their experience.

Investigate and support cooperative efforts between districts and cost-effective and efficient technology and communications systems. To introduce computers into their classrooms, rural educators must also have access to corporate gifts of hardware and software, and be in a position to provide inservice programs for teachers and staff members.

Collect and supply adequate data on rural education. The group says that the "federal government should routinely and efficiently collect information so that rural versus nonrural differences in funding and edu-cational quality may be determined."

Provide adequate support for rural special-education services. The rural educators note that since the implementation of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94-142), there has been a 92-percent increase in the number of handicapped students identified and served in rural America. Simultaneously, the cost of educating these students "rose more significantly than cost of educating nonrural handicapped students.

The Murray State rural-research group this year produced a major study of rural special education. Entitled "Images: Issues and Trends in Rural Special Education," the study is available for $8 from the National Rural Research and Personnel Preparation Project, Murray State University, Murray, Ky. 42071.)

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