Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Rural Education Reform

Earlier this month, the Department of Education announced that they are highlighting rural education throughout August. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than half of public school districts (56%), nearly one third of public schools (31%) and almost a quarter of students (23%) reside in rural communities. Rural schools are generally smaller, post higher graduation rates, and serve as the center for community life. However, DOE reports that rural students, nationally, are less likely than their peers to access postsecondary education. This concern, among others, implies that there is a need for reform in rural schools; however, some suggest that education reform is too focused on urban schools and that reform efforts have failed to include the unique challenges of schools in rural areas.

The National Rural Education Advocacy Coalition recently released their 2011 legislative agenda encouraging Congress to focus on a variety of important issues regarding the improvement of rural education. Among several suggestions, the first involves advocating for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. One of their concerns regarding ESEA reauthorization is the way that Title I funds address concentrated poverty based on the number of students in a school who are poor. NREAC suggests instead, to focus on the percentages of a school’s students in poverty. NREAC states that the existing measurement, which leads to rural school districts receiving fewer funds, is detrimental to poor children living in small and rural communities.

Another concern expressed in the NREAC agenda suggests that a “one-size-fits-all” educational assessment can often be problematic for rural students. While momentum around standardizing measurements of academic achievement and increasing school accountability grows, the agenda recommends that states maintain responsibility for determining the type and frequency of assessment for their schools.

In addition to the recommendations for policymakers, the agenda also suggest improvements at the school level, including the implementation of more career and technical education programs. NREAC notes that there is an absence of such opportunities at rural schools and states that these programs are important in preparing students for a competitive economy.

While there are a number of unique considerations in addressing school reform in rural areas, according to a report by the Rural School and Community Trust, there is a lack of research and data specifically addressing issues in rural education. Making informed decisions is critical and while a shortage of research is problematic, there are some sources, such as the Federal Reserve’s National Information Center, which can be helpful to policymakers considering issues in rural schools.

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