In the Kit Carson school district, about 150 miles southeast of Denver on Colorado’s high plains, the English teacher is also the counselor, testing coordinator, and volleyball coach. She lives about an hour from the one-school district that serves about 130 students.
“The number of hats that every person in the district wears is incredible,” said Robert Framel, the superintendent, who also teaches college-level math and manages student discipline, human resources, and state reporting.
He also fills in as principal.
Despite the multiple roles they may have to juggle and the issues they confront that are unique to remote school communities, Framel and rural educators like him must perform all the same duties and reach all the same goals with a fraction of the staff and money that larger districts have.
It’s a huge challenge, especially when education research and state accountability measures are geared toward larger school systems with more resources. In rural schools, the sample sizes can sometimes be too small to even capture trends in academic progress.
But those small enrollments can also be a plus for districts—educators know the names and faces behind the numbers and can quickly act on data, Framel said.
Need for Research
Those are some of the reasons why Framel and other rural school leaders support the idea of creating a new university-based research center that will focus exclusively on rural school leadership within the University Council for Educational Administration, the national group of education schools.
Still in its planning phase, the center, tentatively titled the Center for Innovative School Leadership, will focus on issues that may not be unique to rural education but require a different approach to address. It would create resources for developing, supporting, and retaining principals and superintendents, provide professional development and networking opportunities for teachers and leaders in rural school systems, and create a venue for researchers to explore rural education issues and school leadership.
Kristina Hesbol, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Denver, is leading the effort.
Hesbol expects the center to be a home for both researchers and practitioners, with researchers drawing on and learning from those who work in rural school systems, including working with tribal and indigenous communities and using their perspectives to inform leadership preparation.
In turn, she expects academics to help districts with data analysis and support. And an integral component will be providing opportunities for educators who work in rural settings to connect with and learn from others who are working with the same or similar challenges.
“We see this as a continuous learning operation,” she said.
Millions of Students
Rural schools educate more than 9.3 million students in the United States—more than the combined enrollment in the country’s 85 largest school districts, according to the Rural School and Community Trust.
But despite that huge population of rural students, the schools that serve them are more challenging for researchers to study. One reason is location.
Most research universities are near or in urban and suburban centers, where student enrollments are bigger and draw researchers looking for large sample sizes. And rural districts with larger enrollments can be spread over large geographical areas.
Those characteristics require universities to think differently about how to work with rural districts, including thinking about research-to-practice partnerships and applied research.
In both cases, the research is directly relevant to and tied to the issues that the districts are facing and is geared toward finding solutions to those problems.
“You can’t do a randomized control trial very well. You can’t do the types of things that are traditional research,” said Kent Seidel, an associate professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, who is working with Framel and 15 other superintendents in rural Colorado.
Those superintendents have formed a unique network that—with the blessing of state education officials—has designed its own accountability system to track student growth and district progress.
“So, our approach on this has been to work collaboratively, closely in partnership with folks who are trying to get better evidence to change their practice on a day-to-day, year-to-year basis,” Seidel said.
“By being a research partner to them, we’re actually able to better understand how things can improve over time and what really are the levers of change that are effective. It’s just a very different way of having to think about the research.”
City education may have gotten more attention because the challenges of urban schooling have been tied to the larger narrative of urban decay, poverty, and crime, said Mónica Byrne-Jiménez, UCEA’s executive director. But rural education also may have fallen victim to the opposite narrative, “that everything is wonderful in the countryside.”
“Both communities have suffered from narratives that have completely oversimplified and undermined anything that educators can do,” she said.
“Academia has ignored the rural, in particular, by focusing on the urban. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t be focusing on urban. We should also be figuring out how [to] bring these communities together, at least in our research, so that they can inform what each other is doing and we can learn from them.”
Rural districts and urban systems often share big problems—widespread family poverty, a shortage of funding, and difficulties holding onto teachers and principals, to name a few.
But rural districts’ remote locations and student populations that are spread over vast areas need targeted attention, Hesbol said. And now, many of those districts are undergoing demographic changes that are forcing them to address challenges they’ve never had to face before, including hiring more language specialists for students whose first language is not English, Hesbol said.
And a common worry for those who work in rural settings is that their work is often painted with a broad brush. No two districts, despite their rural settings, are the same.
“We want to help provide some of those tools and opportunities for these rural leaders to make well-informed decisions that are going to benefit every one of their students,” she said.
Learning From Peer Districts
If approved, the center will join other UCEA-backed centers focused on a single topic. Others address social justice, administration, ethics, and technology.
The center will be able to apply for funding from the UCEA, for fellows and graduate students to conduct research on rural education—creating a pipeline of future researchers in that area, Byrne-Jiménez said.
Hesbol will not be starting from scratch.
She plans to draw on the work of the Carnegie Foundation For the Advancement of Teaching’s “Networked Improvement Communities,” which pairs school leaders, often in remote locations, with a university faculty member to work on a problem they are facing in their school.
She also hopes that the kind of work that Framel and his fellow superintendents are doing in rural Colorado can be a model for other rural school communities.
The superintendents visit each others’ districts to look for evidence that the districts are meeting goals they’ve set and provide feedback to their peers. Teachers, who may be the only subject-area or grade-level teacher in their home districts visit other teachers in the collaborative to work on instructional strategies and create multi-district professional learning communities.
And the group has convinced the state to allow it to create an accountability system that makes sense for the member districts.
The Kit Carson school, for example, uses alternative tests, like the NWEA MAP, instead of state assessments, in part because there’s a faster turnaround on the results.
The district is exempted from publicly posting student results as required by the state because students can be identified from the data. And Kit Carson also uses things like students’ participation in Future Farmers of America and the National Honor Society as part of the evidence that the district is creating safe learning environments for students.
“The good things that happen get overlooked by just looking at a score—instead of seeing that these kids are doing all of these amazing things,” said Natalie Framel, who teaches 3rd grade in Kit Carson and is married to the superintendent.
“They are in band, in music, in FFA, they are in sports. They are in all of these things, and the lessons that are learned in some of those areas, I think people often overlook them.”
The skills students build by participating in these programs—ethics, public speaking, how to run a business—are essential for success after high school. But they aren’t captured in a test score, she said.
Lisa Yates, the superintendent of the 1,000-student Buena Vista School District, about 130 miles southwest of Denver, said the collaborative has been beneficial to rural school districts. Having the rural-focused center with a heavy online networking component would help districts like hers learn even more, including from districts outside of Colorado, and those that are not rural.
It will be a forum to gain wisdom “from lessons learned, so that we’re not all making the same mistakes,” she said, “or [learn] how we can enhance what we’re doing.”
Rob Sanders, the superintendent in the Buffalo School District, about 100 miles northeast of Denver, said the experiences he’s having with the rural collaborative group are meaningful and that having a rural-focused research center could lead to even more improved training for principals and superintendents, who will be better positioned to help students academically.
He said he’s seen superintendents and principals grow their instructional leadership through the collaborative group and the detailed feedback they receive from their colleagues.
“They’ve expanded their knowledge, their pedagogy, they have completely made a 180 and have become really fine administrators,” Sanders said.
“To me, that’s what’s really going to impact student achievement—more than any kind of … teacher evaluation or shaming and blaming of teachers in the classroom.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 2020 edition of Education Week as Will Rural Education Get a Fresh Look?