The Rural Solution

Doris Terry Williams
The Center for American Progress
September 2010

With all the attention given to urban schools in discussions about education reform, it’s nice to see rural schools get their own headline. In Center for American Progress’s new study, The Rural Solution, researcher Doris Terry Williams describes the rural school landscape:  such districts often spend significantly less per pupil than other districts, many are poor, and students may lack access to social services because of great distances.

After examining existing literature and data on rural schools, Williams visited some of the school districts serving America’s 10 million rural students and conducted interviews there to find out firsthand what was working and what wasn’t. She focused particularly on three schools, one each in Vermont, Maine, and Kentucky, that have adopted a community school model, making everything from Algebra classes to dentist appointments available in one central location.

Although she acknowledges that one size does not fit all, Williams uses her observations of the three schools to identify common challenges policy makers should consider when trying to improve rural schools.  The most interesting of these include:  

  • The pool of potential teachers in rural districts is often quite small, which makes it difficult to recruit excellent teachers and replace ineffective ones. 
  • The federal model for school turnaround is often not applicable in rural areas, where financial resources and opportunities for relocation are often scarce.
  • The Full Service Community Schools Program is currently underfunded, and rural districts with limited resources often find themselves in a disadvantaged position when applying for funding from this and other grant programs.

Unfortunately, Williams spends little time discussing how to overcome significant challenges like teacher recruitment, instead focusing too broadly on the concept of community schools and the benefits of bringing education and social services together under one roof in rural districts.

Even so, the report serves as a reminder of the difficulty of improving rural schools, given the unique challenges they face in areas such as human capital, transportation, facilities, etc. According to 2007 data from the Ohio Department of Education, rural districts make up more than 40 percent of all Ohio districts, and many of these are set to feel the impending state budget crunch particularly acutely. Many of Ohio’s smaller districts may also face the problem of recruiting excellent teachers and would benefit from adopting some of the “work with what you’ve got” teacher recruitment and development proposals Williams puts forward. The full report is available here.

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