Editor’s Note: Rural education expert Caitlin Howley also listened today to Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s discussion with rural education reporters. Here is her take on what was said.

Department of Education (ED) Secretary Arne Duncan, along with National Rural Education Association (NREA) John Hill, spent 30 minutes talking with rural reporters today at noon about reauthorization of the nation’s federal education law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Duncan opened with a brief statement emphasizing the administration’s commitment to education, then acknowledging that NLCB does not work well for all schools, particularly those in rural places. 

His primary critique was of two federal mandates for that schools failing to meet federal achievement standards, also known as “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP establishes achievement levels that students must reach each year on their way to achieving proficiency in math and reading by 2014). The mandates now are that schools that fail to meet standards for Adequate Yearly Progress

1. allow students to attend other local schools that do meet AYP targets, and 

2. provide Supplemental Education Services (SES) to students. 

Given that there may be no other schools within a reasonable distance in isolated, sparsely populated rural areas, and given that such places may be unable to support qualified SES providers, both mandates do little to help spur school improvement or offer options to local families who may be displeased with their local schools. 

The biggest news Duncan shared was that the administration plans to press for “increased flexibility” in terms of school reform. In addition to eliminating the mandates mentioned above, Duncan said that the administration would seek to replace AYP with requirements that schools demonstrate that students make sufficient academic gains each year, a growth model approach.

The AYP approach has been roundly criticized because it fails to recognize gains in student learning, only assessing whether or not a certain percentage of students have reached AYP benchmarks. 

Duncan also indicated that the administration wanted to move away from the “paper credentials” definition of highly qualified teachers toward a greater focus on “teacher effectiveness.” He explained the relevance of this change to rural schools, noting that while many rural teachers by necessity must teach multiple subjects, they may not have degrees or other credentials associated with each subject; under NCLB, such teachers would be labeled not highly qualified, regardless of how competently they teach or how well their students learn.

Finally, Duncan championed increased flexibility in the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP). REAP provides additional funds to rural districts receiving grant allocations in sizes too small to be effective and allows rural districts to combine various federal funding streams to optimize their effectiveness.

Aside from these “big picture” observations about NCLB, it’s clear from several of Duncan’s comments that he is beginning to understand some of the rural education issues. For instance, he talked about the importance of “leveling the playing field” for rural schools and districts, noting that rural educators face challenges associated with geographic isolation, making “the impact of poverty uniquely acute.”

Duncan also said that he was “absolutely committed” to helping rural districts compete successfully for federal funds, adding that the administration had learned a lot from the Investing in Innovation (i3) competition. I3 proposers were able to request 2 additional priority points on their overall proposal score for demonstrating that their work had a rural focus; according to a recent report by the Rural School and Community Trust, however, few of the i3 awardees claiming a rural focus in fact had one. Duncan admitted that the Department of Education needed to be “more thoughtful” about how to help rural districts participate equitably in such federal funding competitions.

NREA’s John Hill chimed in with a practical suggestion, recommending that any technical assistance the department might offer to potential rural proposers be provided on site rather than at regional meetings to which attendees would have to travel, a particular hardship for under-resourced districts or leaders who play multiple administrative roles.

Technology, of course, was also championed by Duncan. But he also noted that virtual learning would require better and more broadband access in rural communities. Dr. Hill added that effective technology integration would also require that educators learn how to use it meaningfully in instruction; access is not enough.

Teacher training, recruitment, and retention got a lot of play. Duncan reiterated President Obama’s plan to entice 100,000 new science, technology, engineering, and math teachers into the field though the use of federal grants, loan forgiveness programs, and alternative certification pathways. He also noted the importance of grow-your-own programs to rural schools, wherein local paraprofessionals and parents are mentored and supported to become certified educators. 

Duncan also praised the innovativeness and courage of local educators, both acknowledging that rural communities have important strengths and reaffirming the administration’s intention to narrow the federal role in education. 

But Duncan did not discuss whether the administration intends to reconsider how Title I weighted grants are calculated, an issue of critical importance to impoverished rural districts. Essentially, large urban districts are able to obtain more compensatory funding than rural districts, even if such rural districts serve much larger proportions of poor students. Although Dr. Hill mentioned the issue, Duncan did not.

Also of note was the lack of specificity about how, minus the elimination of federal mandates for school choice and the provision of SES, struggling rural schools would be assisted by the Department of Education. Leveling the playing field so that some rural schools are better competitors for federal monies is important, but it is not likely to approach the assistance needed by those schools with dire academic and resource challenges.

Some options for supporting these schools might include grants to local colleges of education to form partnerships to help rural schools assess their challenges and implement improvement strategies or to provide regular, on-site technical assistance from professionals who understand what rural context means for school improvement efforts (for example, “critical friend” approaches to improving instruction may not work well in rural communities with social norms of non-confrontation and politeness). Ensuring funding equity would also be an important step towards helping rural schools get the resources they need to move forward. 

And, finally, Duncan offered little in the way of a meaningful reason for supporting and improving rural education, aside from the usual rhetoric about the need for the country to compete effectively in the global market and trounce students from other nations on measures of academic performance.

But surely rural people and places are more than economic investments, and surely education is more than just job training. Important as those things may be, they do not have the power to engage rural meanings, to inspire local commitment and action, and to help us both preserve and reinvent our rural communities in this still-new century. Education should help us understand our world—not just the wider global context, but also what’s important about the hollers, plains, or villages we live in.

Caitlin Howley is an education researcher living in Charleston, West Virginia.

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