Journal Issue: Excellence in the Classroom Volume 17 Number 1 Spring 2007
Implications for Policy
Some rural schools succeed admirably at attracting and retaining teachers whose qualifications are comparable to those of teachers at other kinds of schools. But for many rural schools, the quality of life in the community is lacking, working conditions are problematic, student needs are great, support services are limited, and professional support networks are inadequate. Salaries are lower for teachers in rural schools for many interconnected reasons, and certain types of rural schools struggle to appoint qualified teachers or make do with teachers who have fewer qualifications and face higher turnover rates. Moreover, teacher experience is also more limited in the smallest schools—a disturbing finding, given that teacher experience is emerging as one of the most important predictors of teaching effectiveness in the research literature.40 And there is some reason to fear that inequalities in rural schools are becoming larger, particularly in light of the changing demographics of rural areas and the increases in the prevalence of bilingual students from impoverished backgrounds.
When it comes to public policy, this record suggests the need for a strategy focusing on a subcategory of what might be called hard-tostaff rural schools, rather than a blanket set of policies for all rural schools. In particular, the focus should be directly on such indicators as low teacher qualifications, teaching in fields far removed from the area of training, difficulty in hiring, high turnover, and a lack of diversity among teachers in the school, to name just a few. Efforts to identify hard-to-staff rural schools could parallel a similar effort focused on urban and suburban schools.
Assuming it is possible to identify hard-tostaff rural schools, what steps might be taken? Several interconnected approaches warrant further attention.
General Policy Options
One option would be to offer higher wages and benefits to teachers who are willing to work in hard-to-staff schools. The drawbacks associated with rural school teaching could, in theory, be offset by higher wages or improved benefits, or both, thereby improving the ability of officials in these areas to recruit and retain teachers comparable to their peers in other schools. For example, Mississippi offers an Employer-Assisted Housing Teacher Program that provides interest-free loans to licensed teachers in areas of critical shortage, along with a loan repayment program for student teachers who teach in rural areas of the state.41
The drawbacks to this approach are many. First, it could be prohibitively expensive to try to “buy your way around” a deeply problematic feature of rural life or schools. To the degree people dislike being isolated, for example, paying them to put up with isolation could be expensive. Moreover, no one knows how large the offsets would need to be or who should bear the burden of the cost. Perhaps the biggest problem of all is that a willingness to work in a hard-to-staff school for an agreed-upon bonus is no guarantee of effectiveness.
More promising, perhaps, are efforts to remove or modify the underlying conditions that are making the school difficult to staff. For example, policies in other government sectors affect the growth of bilingual populations in certain areas, and changes in these policies could have implications for schools. Presumably, steps can be taken to avoid sudden influxes of impoverished students with little English in certain schools. Or, if such population changes do take place, steps can be taken to better meet the needs of these students.
With respect to migrant farm workers, some progress has been made toward developing effective programs and building national databases that help affected schools track the progress of students.42 The goal is to address the root cause of the difficulty and provide the needed relief. In the case of immigration policies and migrant farm worker policies, the federal government would seem to be the logical party to bear the cost, given how many states are affected.
To the degree that problems are rooted in differences in the economic capabilities of different regions, economic policies could help spur prosperity in regions where hardto- staff schools are located. Developing such policies would appear to be state and federal responsibilities.
Within the schools themselves, steps could be taken to offset some of the currently discouraging conditions. For example, modern telecommunications and computing technologies can reduce schools’ need to rely on teachers in the classroom. A landmark NCES study of distance education technologies in the K–12 sector found that 36 percent of all school districts have students enrolled in distance education courses. Moreover, half the districts with students taking such courses reported that their students are in advanced placement or college courses, suggesting that districts are using these emerging technologies to enhance course offerings.43
The NCES study also found that rural districts were expanding their use of computing and telecommunication technologies, particularly in areas like advanced placement and college course offerings. Technology has long been seen as a way to overcome some of the drawbacks to rural settings, and districts are embracing these new opportunities at an accelerating pace. Steps that allow professional school personnel on site to tap into content knowledge will help solve a thorny and longstanding problem for schools in rural settings.
School and district reorganization could also help remove the root causes of distress. The reorganization logic on its face is compelling. If the difficulties can be traced to small scales of operation, why not remove the problem by reorganizing schools (and districts) into larger units? Quite a rich history surrounds reorganization, and efforts continue to this day.44 Most if not all of the easily accomplished reorganizations, however, have already taken place; the remaining small units fall into the category of hard cases. It also seems a bit incongruous to be advocating reorganization in the face of prevailing thinking about the value of small high schools as a learning environment.45
In a number of areas, relatively simple improvements in basic human resource processes could yield improvements. For example, Dana Balter and William Duncombe, finding that districts in New York State make only limited use of the Internet to attract applicants, recommended significantly expanding use of the web.46 Alaska has created statewide clearinghouses to help teachers find positions in rural areas. Timely posting and personalized follow-ups to inquiries can foster positive feelings about opportunities in rural areas. Parallel efforts to provide better support for those who accept job offers can have similarly positive effects on retention. Effective mentoring can break the tendency of new teachers to quickly leave rural settings.47 Modern technology is also being used to build more effective professional communities of practice for teachers far from population centers. Carla McClure and Cynthia Reeves describe an array of initiatives, including online professional development, e-mentoring networks, and provision of student services such as speech therapy, psychological testing, and assessment using two-way, interactive telecommunications technology.48
When a school or district is small by choice rather than by necessity, and to the degree that its difficulties can be traced to the small size, the cost is logically borne by those electing to remain small, not passed along to others such as the taxpayers of an entire state. This reasonable position has, however, proven hard to put into place, and the failure of the political system to impose costs properly has complicated states’ efforts to provide financial relief to schools and districts that face extra costs because of unavoidable small size.
Accountability issues also arise in the context of mobile student populations. Mark Grey notes the potential for windfalls to districts that lose students—and for corresponding burdens on districts that receive students at times when those students are not counted for aid purposes.49 NCLB has significantly raised the accountability stakes for schools and districts and poses numerous questions about tracking and counting pupils, particularly mobile pupils.
One way to help solve the “problem” of the localized teacher market is a grow-your-own strategy. The idea is to take advantage of aspiring teachers’ tendency to prefer to return “home” to teach, by working harder to cultivate interest and skill in teaching in areas with hard-to-staff schools. There are urban as well as rural variants of this strategy, and various writers have discussed the possibilities, although more typically from an urban perspective.50
Many states are pursuing grow-your-own strategies with a rural focus.51 One promising approach involves working with paraprofessional aides already employed in rural schools to develop the requisite teaching skills. States are also finding that partnerships with colleges and universities that place aspiring teachers in rural areas can help break down negative stereotypes about teaching in rural schools.
Finally, a better understanding of the causes of staffing difficulties—in rural, urban, or suburban schools and districts—will allow policymakers to develop more effective and presumably less costly policy interventions. The United States invests phenomenal resources in developing and maintaining teachers, and research to improve the quality of teaching in hard-to-staff schools, regardless of where they may be located, can be expected to pay handsome dividends.
The No Child Left Behind Policy Context
Many analysts have examined the effects of NCLB on small and rural schools.52 One interesting feature of this legislation is the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP). The program is modest in size, with some 6,000 schools meeting the eligibility requirements and awards averaging about $20,000.53
But compliance issues abound with respect to how the law applies to rural settings. For example, the federal government’s definition of a highly qualified teacher, including a requirement for full certification, a bachelor’s degree, and demonstrated competence in all subject areas being taught, can create substantial problems for small rural schools, where teachers must teach in many different subject areas. Similarly, measures of student performance, particularly when the focus is on subgroup performance, create special challenges when there are few students in each of the various categories. As noted, small student numbers can cause volatile changes from year to year, and the challenge is to hold rural schools accountable to the spirit of the law even in the face of structural and measurement problems that can be quite troubling.
The U.S. Department of Education has made many modifications of NCLB to address the concerns coming from rural states, and former Secretary Rodney Paige created a special task force to help the department be responsive to its rural constituencies.54 It is too soon to know whether the adjustments have been appropriate.
The attention NCLB is drawing to the importance of having highly qualified teachers in every classroom could help to move forward a serious policy agenda to improve the ability of rural schools to attract and retain teachers who function effectively.