As rural districts work to turn around struggling schools identified for improvement under the Every Student Succeeds Act, they face the challenge of finding evidence-backed strategies that actually work in their particular contexts.
Rural school systems often enroll relatively small numbers of students distributed over large geographic areas.
They often have trouble recruiting and retaining teachers, and most are far from institutions, like universities, that may be helpful partners in school improvement efforts.
Even an educational intervention that has been backed by the highest quality of peer-reviewed research may not work in a rural school system if it was tested in an urban or suburban district with different strengths and challenges, superintendents say.
“There’s a lack of rural research in certain areas,” said Allen Pratt, the executive director of the National Rural Education Association at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “Not every school is equipped the same way, and not every community is equipped the same way. It can become an equity issue.”
Research and Reality
That gap between what’s deemed successful in research and what’s possible in reality has long been known to rural school leaders and advocates, but their concerns have taken on new weight as states work to implement ESSA, the federal education law that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act in 2015.
ESSA requires states to flag schools for improvement under several categories related to academic acheivement and graduation rates. Under the law, states must use at least 7 percent of their Title I funding—which is a big pot of money targeted at schools with large enrollments of low-income students—to fund school-improvement efforts.
ESSA gives schools and districts broad flexibility in the turnaround approach they select, but it requires that those efforts meet federal regulations for what is considered “evidence-based” and they must be designed with input from families and community members.
Rural districts with schools flagged for improvement last year had to thread the needle by finding approaches that satisfied their state’s interpretation of the federal evidence requirements while also showing promise that they could fit their situations.
For example, broad, aggressive strategies that rely on replacing ineffective teachers aren’t realistic in a small school system that struggles to recruit educators to begin with, said Jason Bell, the secondary supervisor for Polk County Schools in Tennessee.
Bell’s district enrolls about 2,400 students spread over a 442-square-mile area that is bisected by the Cherokee National Forest. Teachers and principals often wear multiple hats, sometimes taking on additional support duties in their schools.
“In our rural district, we probably have 25 percent of our teachers who also drive buses,” Bell said. “For us, it means a lot more to improve the teachers we have and to improve instruction.”
So when Polk County’s middle school was identified for targeted improvement, the district looked for a professional development provider that would help its teachers learn to better differentiate instructional approaches to meet each student’s needs. In addition to research, Bell and his colleagues relied on testimonies from other rural districts that the approach had been successful in their schools.
“Honestly, rural folks are skeptical of outsiders in the sense that we want to build a trust with people,” he said. “That word-of-mouth goes a long way. It gives you that extra confidence.”
For any school, rural or not, it’s possible that a school-improvement strategy that meets the highest standard of evidence under ESSA may not be as good a fit as a program supported by a lower tier of evidence, said Anne Hyslop, the assistant director of policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education.
An approach that was deemed successful in an urban elementary school with strong effects for black boys may not show the same results in a rural school with a large population of English-language learners.
It can be difficult to do research in rural areas. Long drive times between schools, small numbers of students, and distance from research universities are all factors. There’s also often more philanthropic interest in funding strategies in urban and suburban schools.
Earlier this year, Harvard University received a $10 million grant from the Institute for Education Sciences to address that research gap. Through its National Center for Rural Education Research Networks, the university’s researchers will work with rural schools to test Proving Ground, an initiative designed to address chronic absenteeism, college readiness, and college enrollment.
The need for more rural turnaround models isn’t new. The most popular models under Obama-era School Improvement Grants included replacing teachers, hiring a new principal, or closing a school altogether, all strategies that won’t fly in many small and isolated school systems.
“The fact that [school improvement under ESSA] is more flexible is helpful, but now the challenge is more of a capacity challenge,” Hyslop said.
A recent policy brief by the Center for Education Policy illustrated some of those challenges. The nonpartisan policy organization based in Washington, D.C., interviewed leaders from five districts of varying sizes about finding evidence-based strategies, and they reported varying levels of ease with the process.
Among the complaints of an unnamed rural administrator: The district couldn’t afford to pay for access to journal articles about school improvement, and the pre-vetted strategies the state offered weren’t tested in rural environments. Another concern: Strained state education departments with heavy turnover didn’t always provide adequate support.
States with large swaths of rural land have adopted various strategies to guide districts through the school-improvement process.
In Louisiana, state leaders created a sort of road map for school improvement, said Kunjan Narechania, the assistant state superintendent of school improvement. Each of the steps, related to areas like curriculum, assessment, and teaching, is backed by research.
The department wants districts to start with selecting strong, proven curriculum and ensuring that all teachers are trained to teach it, an approach that translates across all school contexts, Narechania said.
“I don’t need a school to go pull an article. I need to know that we as a state have agreed that this is an important strategy,” she said. “We try to focus people on the decisions that will have the most impact on students and can be enacted readily.”
The state education department also pre-vetted vendors, held a speed-dating event to introduce them to districts, and provided small implementation grants to allow administrators to test their strategies and build relationships before adopting them on a large scale.
Some organizations have sought to help small-district leaders jump over those capacity hurdles by linking them in supportive networks.
“It’s really hard to reform alone,” said Bob Balfanz, who leads the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.
Through a project called the Cross State High School Redesign Collaborative, Balfanz works with high schools with low graduation rates in seven states.
The collaborative works with many rural high schools and small-town districts that may only have one high school. It promotes evidence-based strategies in four areas—how adults are organized in a school, student motivation and engagement, teaching and learning, and promoting postsecondary pathways—and it helps schools adapt those strategies to their unique needs.
For example, isolated schools may struggle to help students identify postgraduation options, a concept that’s been proven to boost graduation rates.
“There’s one employer in town and one community college that’s like 30 miles away,” Balfanz said."Those are our two pathways.”
To address that gap and to fill a local housing shortage, one New Mexico high school taught its students to build tiny houses, using the proceeds from their sales to finance the program.
“There’s evidence that these broad strategies work, but you have to customize it,” Balfanz said. “Every place has its own challenges.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 2019 edition of Education Week as How ESSA Could Complicate Rural Turnarounds