Just about every scholar, educator, and policymaker here at the National Rural Education Association’s annual conference said that a wide variety of research in rural education is needed more than ever before, and that forces may be coming together to improve rural education nationwide.
“This is a pivotal time in rural education research,” said Thomas W. Farmer, the director of the National Research Center for Rural Education Support, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The center was the federal government’s choice last year for a five-year, $10 million grant to foster more-scientific research on practices in rural schools.
In a Nov. 7 speech here, Mr. Farmer called for more federal research-grant opportunities in rural education, and said the challenges rural schools face require the help of scholars and advocates in the field. “The rural education research agenda must be built from the voices within the rural education community,” he said, offering an olive branch to some of his critics.
Some of those critics had been dismayed by the U.S. Department of Education’s decision to award the $10 million grant to Mr. Farmer and other UNC researchers. Critics, including many well-known scholars and policy experts in rural education who had sought the same grant, insisted that the descriptive research they see as useful should not be dismissed in favor of the experimental studies on specific groups of students that Mr. Farmer has done. (“Critics Question Research Center on Rural Schools”, Nov. 17, 2004.)
But even some of those critics said here that Mr. Farmer and his colleagues—previously unknown to many experts in rural education—are recognizing the need for other types of research and partners.
Michael L. Arnold, a consultant on rural education who formerly led the rural division of the Aurora, Colo.-based Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, or McREL, called Mr. Farmer’s comments at the conference encouraging.
Hobart L. Harmon, a consultant based in Timberville, Va., and a former director of the rural-research center at the Charleston, W.Va.-based Appalachia Educational Laboratory, said Mr. Farmer and his colleagues had “opened the doors about making rural research viable and meaningful” to educators in the field.
Patricia Hammer, a researcher and the public-affairs director for Edvantia, the new name for the Appalachia Educational Laboratory, said during a Nov. 5 panel discussion that descriptive research—which includes case studies and can use smaller-than-usual sample sizes—can be scientific and useful at the same time. She called on other researchers to fill in the gaps while the rural education labs, such as the one at Edvantia, are shifting their focus from the development of education models to researching existing ones.
Mr. Farmer echoed that call in several talks he gave during the Nov. 5-8 NREA conference. “There is so much need … for a variety of different forms of research” in rural education, he said.
High-ranking federal officials here also showed renewed interest in rural education, after years of complaints by leaders of the NREA and other rural education policy advocates that the federal government had largely ignored their needs.
The new head of the National Center for Education Statistics, Mark S. Schneider, chose the NREA convention for one of his first stops after gaining Senate confirmation last month. He said in a Nov. 9 speech that his agency would produce many new sets of data focused on rural schools and make the data publicly available in early 2007—a move that conference participants welcomed.
Still, educators have concerns that the new numbers might lead to a reclassification of some rural schools. Some changes in recent years have placed some rural schools within metropolitan areas, and have disqualified them from some federal aid.
“Many of us are fearful of what your data may produce,” said retired Texas educator Sue Adams, who was the curriculum director for the 480-student Martin’s Mill, Texas, schools, about 90 miles east of Dallas.
A team of officials from the U.S. Department of Education held a nearly three-hour session to hear from rural educators and policymakers here, as the federal agency prepares a new version of the Condition of Education in Rural Schools report, which has not been revised in more than a decade.
William L. Smith, the director of the Education Department’s Center for Rural Education, said NREA members with concerns about funding or rural classifications may need to take up their causes with Congress. Mr. Smith served as U.S. commissioner of education under President Carter and has held a variety of other posts at the Education Department since the late 1960s.
Educators and policymakers filled the federal officials’ ears about the many challenges rural schools face.
Pauline Hodges, an education professor at Oklahoma Panhandle State University in Goodwell, Okla., said distance-learning classes allow many rural schools to offer additional courses. But she said many schools need help with technology support and training.
Claudette Morton, the director of the Montana Small Schools Alliance, added that technology should not be expected to replace face-to-face teaching in rural schools. “We still have schools where there is no connectivity, or no reliable connectivity,” she said.