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Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Leaving Rural Children Behind

By Rachel B. Tompkins — March 26, 2003 8 min read
Platitudes will not suffice in an educational landscape where challenges are great and resources few.

When state supreme courts in Arkansas and Tennessee ruled this past fall that their states’ school funding systems were inequitable, inadequate, and therefore unconstitutional, they ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in these respective cases: small, rural schools unable to compete in the market for qualified teachers. The courts, in essence, said that students in these states were being left behind long before the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 was signed into law by President Bush. Both cases were decided before the regulations for implementing this landmark legislation were published last November. Unfortunately, the law’s expectations for school performance raise the bar even higher for small, rural schools—particularly those in financially poor rural districts—that are already struggling to provide an adequate and equitable education for their students.

The No Child Left Behind Act is the latest example of the “one size fits all” education policies that have been so detrimental to the nation’s rural schools—nearly one-quarter of the public schools in America. In Arkansas, Tennessee, and many other states, formulas that rely on property wealth to fund schools routinely deprive rural children of the equitable and adequate education they deserve—and that they are guaranteed under most state constitutions. Similarly, state facilities policies, fueled by the “bigger is better” mentality, have deprived hundreds of rural communities across America of their schools through consolidation. Well-intentioned as it may be, the No Child Left Behind Act is yet another blanket solution that threatens America’s already-stressed rural schools, and it will undoubtedly leave many rural children behind.

Almost every provision of the act is fraught with risks for rural schools and the more than 8 million children who attend them. Consider, for example, its requirements on teacher quality. The law says that all teachers must be fully certified or licensed, and that there will be no waivers of this requirement on an emergency or provisional basis. In addition, beginning this year, all new teachers hired with federal Title I funds must be “highly qualified,” that is, certified in the core subject areas they teach. Even paraprofessionals hired with Title I money will soon face stricter requirements, which include two years of college, a minimum of an associate’s degree, or some other “established quality standard.”

Unfortunately, federal funding to help states implement these requirements is woefully inadequate. Studies in Vermont and New Hampshire, for example, indicate that it will cost these states three to five times as much to implement Title I of the legislation as they will receive from the federal government.

For hard-to-staff rural schools—many in communities with significant minority populations and high poverty rates—the new law’s requirements will make it even harder to attract and retain well- qualified teachers. These are schools that already face serious teacher shortages and large gaps in teacher pay when compared with urban and suburban schools. The average rural teacher makes only 86 cents for every dollar earned by his or her urban and suburban counterparts. Thirteen states have rural teacher salaries that fall behind urban/suburban salaries by more than $5,000 a year. In a handful of states, the difference is even more dramatic: $8,573 in Illinois, $7,896 in New York, $7,573 in Pennsylvania, $6,868 in Iowa.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, hard-to-staff schools will become harder to staff, as teachers abandon schools classified as needing improvement and are lured to schools in prosperous communities that can afford to pay top dollar for highly qualified teachers. If school funding formulas do not allow Title I schools to compete in the market for “highly qualified” education professionals, states will have failed in their commitment to low-income children. Courts in Tennessee and Arkansas have recently ruled that this issue—the inequity in the teacher market—makes their state funding formulas unconstitutional. The No Child Left Behind legislation may open up new constitutional issues at the federal level as well.

Another dangerous provision of the law—particularly to small rural schools—is its requirement that schools show “adequate yearly progress” in meeting state- defined goals for student proficiency. How this progress is measured may make sense for large urban and suburban districts, with thousands of students, but for schools in small towns and rural areas it is quite simply discriminatory.

When small numbers of students are tested at each grade level, as they often are in small rural schools, the year-to-year changes in the student population can cause wild fluctuations in school-level scores. This random variation based on small cohorts means that small schools will often not be able to sustain progress from year to year as required, no matter how well teachers perform.

The No Child Left Behind Act is the latest example of the ‘one size fits all’ education policies that have been so detrimental to the nation's rural schools.

In Massachusetts, research indicates that annual variation in test scores is three to four times greater in schools with fewer than 100 students per tested grade than for schools with more than 150 students. A 2001 study in North Carolina concluded that test results at the school level are mainly “random noise,” and that rewards or sanctions aimed at schools on this basis will primarily affect small schools, where the volatility is greatest, because of small sample sizes and random cohorts. Likewise, new research in Maine concludes that test scores in that state cannot be reliably or fairly used to measure the performance of small schools.

States are required under the No Child Left Behind Act to disaggregate test data for certain subgroups of students, but are not required to publish the disaggregated data if the subgroup is too small to reach a statistically reliable conclusion. However, there is no proscription in the act against using small data sets if it is the entire school that is too small to yield reliable data. On the contrary, the U.S. Department of Education has made clear that it does not want states, in defining “adequate yearly progress,” to make any exceptions to the act’s requirements for publicly identifying schools in need of improvement.

This misuse of statistics to judge school performance is hitting hardest the schools that serve the most vulnerable students in the politically weakest regions. Ultimately, this practice is less likely to lead to school improvement than it is to school closure. When the school has been mislabeled, this is a shame. Where it does need improvement, it will often be because it has never had the resources to compete in the market for teachers or to provide the support those teachers and their students need to succeed.

When a small school is needlessly labeled as low-performing, children suffer. Beginning this year, states are required to publish annual report cards on the performance of school districts. Likewise, districts are required to submit similar reports to the public with school-level data. For rural schools, this could mean publishing results for very small classes in very small communities. When small-town newspaper readers find out, for example, that five out of 18 4th graders scored below proficiency in reading, there will likely be open speculation about who the five kids are. Putting pressure on adults to perform better as teachers and school administrators is one thing. Publicly humiliating children is another.

When Arkansas was recently compelled by the U.S. Department of Education to use scores from the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition to classify schools, it listed 47 schools as needing improvement. Forty-five of the 47 had fewer than 100 students per tested grade. Half had fewer than 50 students per grade. Significantly, 67 percent of the students in these schools are African American (compared with 23 percent statewide), and 75 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches (compared with 50 percent statewide).

Five of the 47 schools are in Phillips County, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Among them is Lake View Elementary School, in the district that recently won an Arkansas Supreme Court appeal finding the state’s school funding system unconstitutional. The state funding system, the court found, had deprived Lake View of the opportunity to compete in the market for highly qualified teachers.

Having starved rural schools of resources for many decades, some policymakers will now blame them for failing to meet high expectations.

The facts in this case are instructive. In court testimony, an uncertified high school math teacher said he is paid $10,000 per year to teach five classes (he makes another $5,000 per year driving the bus). He has two electrical outlets in his classroom, calculators for half the students, and a single blackboard on which he writes exams by hand because there is no photocopier. Does anyone seriously expect this school to meet the high expectations of of the No Child Left Behind Act?

There definitely needs to be some accountability, but the subject must be Arkansas’ school funding formula, and the standard must be the state constitution. The federal government cannot substitute pious platitudes about children’s being able to learn and accountability for adequate yearly progress for the cold, hard cash schools like Lake View need to buy the services of the good teachers they must have to accomplish these goals.

Unfortunately, many rural schools like Lake View will probably never get the chance to see what they can do with adequate and equitable funding. Having starved them of resources for many decades, some policymakers will now blame them for failing to meet high expectations. They will accuse the teachers, leaders, parents, and community of incompetence, neglect, and failure. They will “rescue” these children from their small, close-to-home community schools by closing those schools and busing the pupils somewhere else.

This may satisfy economies of scale, equalize costs, and look better for the tax rate and the state budget. But it will not resolve the underlying issues of whether the expectations of the No Child Left Behind Act are reasonable, whether its measurements of school performance are valid, whether the funding provided is adequate to the challenge, or whether the time allowed to turn things around is realistic.

No one argues with the lofty goals of this legislation. No one argues that accountability is not a good thing. What is wrong with the No Child Left Behind Act is that its cookie- cutter approach, like many other well-meaning, one-size-fits-all education policies, will almost certainly leave rural schools—and rural children—behind.

Rachel B. Tompkins is the president of the Rural School and Community Trust (Rural Trust) in Washington.

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