To Improve Rural Schools, Focus on their Strengths

Writing for Education Next, authors Michael Q. McShane and Andy Smarick explore the challenges facing rural education as well as recommendations for a path forward. Excerpts of their piece appear below:

A consistent criticism of education reform is that much of the agenda has been based on what some call a “deficit mindset.” That is, reformers saw individuals, institutions, and communities as broken and in need of fixing (or worse, saving), not as individuals, institutions, and communities with culture, history, and potential that could be cultivated and built upon. As education reform enters rural schools, it can learn from this mistake and not make it again.

Most rural schools and the communities that they serve are not broken. These communities are often home to deep wells of social capital, tradition, and values that educators can build upon to improve schools. In fact, survey data from rural communities show higher levels of social cohesion, stronger beliefs in community safety, and stronger opinions that people in the community look out for each other. Rural communities also see the largest percentage of two-parent families raising children (and those families are more likely to read to their children regularly). When it comes to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scores, rural 8th-grade students outperform their counterparts in towns and urban communities.

That said, rural schools have problems. They struggle to recruit and retain high-quality teachers and leaders. This problem becomes particularly acute when state- and Washington-driven turnaround strategies hinge on replacing large amounts of staff, or when teacher-quality policies prioritize firing low-performing teachers. Where will hard-to-staff schools find replacements? Rural schools also struggle to offer diverse courses for their students. Rural schools lag behind all others when it comes to offering AP classes, foreign language classes, and other dual-enrollment classes.

These are two primary areas of need: improving the pipeline of teachers and leaders into rural schools and broadening the options available to rural school students.

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