Critics Question Research Center on Rural Schools

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Some rural education experts are questioning the U.S. Department of Education’s award of a $10 million grant for a research center in North Carolina, contending that the grant recipient may fail to address many of the toughest issues facing the nation’s rural schools.

The five-year grant, awarded Sept. 10 by the federal agency’s Institute of Education Sciences, establishes the National Research Center on Rural Education Support, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The award “has left people in rural education scratching their heads,” said Michael L. Arnold, a rural education consultant in Colorado who formerly led rural programs at McREL, an Aurora, Colo.-based organization that once was a federal education research laboratory. McREL, which stands for Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, was a competing applicant for the $10 million grant.

Mr. Arnold and other rural education experts had hoped the new research center would conduct studies and provide a broad set of school improvement services for rural schools. Instead, they fear the center will have a much narrower focus.

Federal officials defended their decision last week. They said that the North Carolina proposal was the strongest among the more than 50 applications for the grant, and that the new research center will help rural schools more than critics realize.

Thomas W. Farmer

The center will examine students’ academic, behavioral, and social development and find ways to help educators teach rural students more effectively, according to Thomas W. Farmer, the center’s director and an assistant professor at UNC’s education school.

“These are very broad topics to rural educators everywhere,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Institute of Education Sciences, or IES, a 2-year-old reconfiguration of the Education Department’s research arm.

Mr. Whitehurst said the grant reflects his institute’s focus on research that relies heavily on quantitative methods. “All of our investments are intended eventually to address and answer questions about what works best,” he said.

Mark Schneider, the deputy commissioner for the institute’s National Center on Education Research, added that the grant will provide additional types of help for rural schools beyond new scientific research. The grant will support a national advisory panel and a major conference on rural education research, he said.

Fields of Study

Critics of the award stressed that they do not question Mr. Farmer’s credentials as a scholar. But they did suggest that the new center would overlook such pressing rural education issues as teacher recruitment, geographic isolation, and high levels of poverty.

A psychologist, Mr. Farmer has focused his research largely on the behavioral development of children and adolescents. In his grant application, Mr. Farmer suggested that he and some 20 other researchers would merge previous work on professional development and teacher quality with the use of technology in rural schools. He also would develop and test programs that support students who are making transitions into elementary and middle school, the proposal said.

Mr. Farmer added last week that he hopes to produce scientific research that will help all rural educators do their jobs better. He said he recognizes poverty, isolation, and a host of other issues that face rural schools, and plans to address them as the research center launches its programs.

“What we have designed really does build upon decades of work in rural schools here in North Carolina and Virginia and other places, but we also understand the need to reach out to the West and Midwest, and that they have somewhat different issues,” he said. “We’ve had contact with colleagues across the country, and we hope to be responsive to a wide range of rural needs.”

Mr. Arnold in Colorado says that some critics of the grant award may be motivated by sour grapes because they did not win the grant themselves.

Still, he said a comment that Mr. Farmer made about rural education research not long ago suggested an insufficient understanding of the field. “Much of the focus on rural education has been at the early-childhood level,” Mr. Farmer told Education Week in September. ("New Generation of Education Research Centers Is Chosen," Sept. 22, 2004.)

Out of Fashion?

Mr. Farmer’s statement “demonstrated a pretty thin knowledge of the field,” agreed Marty Strange, the policy director for the Rural School and Community Trust. The Arlington, Va.-based organization, a leading national advocacy group for rural education, also sought the $10 million grant in partnership with another applicant.

Craig Howley, a well-known expert on rural schooling who teaches education and heads a research center at Ohio University, in Athens, said he worries that the center’s focus on quantitative research may leave out important issues of immediate and practical concern to rural educators.

“Many of my colleagues and I approach rural education from a sociological, historical, or anthropological outlook on rural life and education, … and that’s very much out of fashion with IES,” Mr. Howley said. “I don’t think it’s regarded as suitably ‘scientific.’ ”

Vol. 24, Issue 12, Pages 24, 27

Published in Print: November 17, 2004, as Critics Question Research Center on Rural Schools
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This story should have said that Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, or McREL, continues to serve as the federally funded regional education laboratory for states in the Midwest.

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