Professional Development Opinion

New Study Sheds Light on Rural Teachers’ Professional Development Challenges

By Urban Education Contributor — October 09, 2017 3 min read
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This week we are hearing from REL Southwest (@RELSouthwest). This post is by Pia Peltola, REL Southwest Researcher.

Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective.

Oklahoma, like many other states, has faced severe teacher shortages for years, and district administrators have been concerned not only about a lack of applicants, but about the expertise of applicants who were applying for the vacant positions. Many state education officials also were concerned that in-service training provided to teachers, particularly in rural areas, may not be adequate. However, policymakers and administrators did not have sufficient evidence about teachers’ access to professional development (PD) across the state to address these issues.

To fill this gap, the Oklahoma Rural Schools Research Alliance decided to launch the first statewide data collection on teacher PD. As a REL Southwest research alliance, its work is funded by the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education. In addition to the Oklahoma State Department of Education and the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (OEQA), the alliance includes rural educators, representatives of Native American Indian tribes, policymakers, PD experts at universities, researchers, and other stakeholders.

With a core group of the alliance members, I and other researchers from American Institutes for Research (AIR) developed a survey to help understand the status of PD in Oklahoma, especially in rural schools. The content expertise and contextual knowledge of the alliance practitioners were crucial in determining appropriate content for the survey. Over several years, our team convened frequently to discuss and solve issues at various stages of the survey development, including the always challenging process of cutting out items in order to shorten the survey. 58 percent (940) of the 1,609 principals who were invited to participate in the survey completed the survey. To ensure that the results represent all Oklahoma schools, nonresponse weights were applied to the results. The Survey findings are analyzed in the report Opportunities for Teacher Professional Development in Oklahoma Rural and Nonrural Schools. Here are some of the major findings.


The survey findings that represent all Oklahoma schools indicate that during the 2015-16 school year, the majority of Oklahoma rural schools and districts used many types of PD structures and offered many types of activities, but fewer than nonrural schools.

More importantly, fewer rural schools offered the kind of PD that research (reviewed in our report) has shown is most likely to really matter: collaborative, job-embedded, continuous, and locally planned.

Local planning is important for ensuring alignment of PD with teachers’ goals and experiences, which, in turn, is associated with changes in instructional practices. Rural schools can benefit from planning that addresses local needs, but 17 percent of rural schools did not have a PD planning team, compared to 6 percent of nonrural schools.

Rural schools support teachers’ PD in many ways, but that support is less likely to be provided by peers or experienced with peers than in nonrural schools. For example, 61 percent of rural schools (versus 91 percent of nonrural) offered collaborative learning activities; 62 percent of rural schools (versus 76 percent of nonrural) offered teachers peer coaching or mentoring; and 37 percent of rural schools (versus 63 percent of nonrural) provided their teachers common planning time or collaboration time.

In conclusion

These findings align with previous studies that suggest that teachers in rural schools are less likely than teachers in nonrural schools to be able to rely on each other for PD, at least partly because rural schools tend to be small, which limits the number of teachers who share similar professional needs and interests or who can provide particular expertise. Taken together, the findings suggest that small school size coupled with geographic distance to PD opportunities can foster what previous studies have labeled “professional isolation” among rural teachers, a factor contributing to the difficulty some rural districts have in attracting and retaining teachers. The difficulty for some in using teachers as resources for other teachers also limits the ongoing PD that rural schools can offer.

This study and its findings provide Oklahoma policymakers and education leaders with a starting point for improving PD practices in rural schools in order to address concerns about teacher shortages and teacher quality. Thursday’s post will introduce some current efforts to do just that.

The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.