Fed 'one-size-fit-all' Race to Top -- does not fit needs of rural schools, says James Bryant Jr.
Professor James Bryant Jr. hits the nail squarely on the head pinpointing problems with 'Race to the Top' type Federal reforms not meeting needs of rural school districts. Read on for real insight into needs of many American rural school districts.
November 2010 | Volume 68 | Number 3
Closing Opportunity Gaps Pages 54-58
Dismantling Rural Stereotypes
James A. Bryant Jr.
"One-size-fits-all solutions don't meet the needs of ignored and misunderstood rural schools.
A springtime drive down North Carolina Highway 194 in Watauga County is a feast for the senses. Once the rains recede, the trees and fields explode in green. The scent of honeysuckle hangs heavy in the air, a sure sign that summer is around the corner. Cattle graze beside old barns while horses swish their tails. White-framed churches dot the hillsides, looming over the granite markers of their faithful departed. It is, in a word, idyllic.
Seated back from the road on a hill with a breathtaking view of a fertile valley and nearby mountains is Green Valley Elementary School. The school looks like a postcard, but its students do not live picture-postcard lives. According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction's Child Nutrition Services (2009), 48 percent of children attending Green Valley live at or below the poverty line. Other elementary schools in Watauga County share similar statistics: Valle Crucis, 35.53 percent; Parkway, 36.76 percent; Cove Creek, 50.36 percent; Mabel, 60 percent; and Bethel, 61.94 percent. As one historian writes, "The region's natural beauty [makes] its poverty all the more ironic" (Drake, 2001, p. 174). And, one might add, inconvenient.
The Extent of the Problem
The quaint image of the little red schoolhouse that many Americans cling to is, sadly, utter fantasy. Situated in some of the hardest hit economic areas in the United States, rural schools are struggling. But federal mandates such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) have forced rural schools to choose whether to spend money where it may be most needed—for example, to improve deteriorating facilities or attract more qualified teachers—or spend it complying with government regulations to meet less urgent needs.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 35 percent of rural students live below the poverty level and 38 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs (Provasnik et al., 2007). The report goes on to state that 45 percent of public school students in remote rural areas attend a moderate-to-high-poverty school, a percentage that was only topped in large and midsize cites, where 66 and 49 percent of students, respectively, attend moderate-to-high-poverty schools.
These numbers may not tell the whole story, however. Because 26.3 percent of rural residents live "just above the poverty line," rural families are "particularly vulnerable to changes in national and regional economies and setbacks in their personal lives" (Huang, 1999, p. 3). Low per capita income, low housing standards, high unemployment, and high illiteracy rates have been characteristic of rural Appalachia, for example, since the government began tracking these data (Drake, 2001).
For minority students in rural areas, these numbers become more frightening. Eighty-seven percent of rural black U.S. schoolchildren and 79 percent of rural American Indian schoolchildren live in poverty (Provasnik et al., 2007). Both of these numbers are higher than their counter parts in urban areas. Poverty in rural America tends to be "widely uneven across demographic categories" and is therefore often difficult to quantify (Huang, 1999, p. 3).
The students in these districts are paying the price. In a report from the Center on Education Policy detailing rural schools' perspectives on NCLB, 68 percent of rural schools reported achievement gaps in both English language arts and math between students with disabilities and nondisabled students, and 50 percent reported gaps between low-income and non-low-income students (Zhang, 2008).
Mollenkopf (2009) has written about the low salaries and geographic isolation teachers face in rural areas, both of which make it a challenge for rural districts to attract and retain highly qualified teachers—another NCLB requirement. Teachers may be unwilling to move to areas with limited social and cultural opportunities, and the low salaries that many rural districts must offer are not much of an enticement. Sometimes even when teachers are willing to work in a rural area, the working conditions may make them reluctant to stay for the long term. Teachers of special education, music, and art, for example, often serve multiple schools and must make long drives from one school to the other. They may also face professional isolation because they are the only teachers in the district with their specialization.
Americans have often wrapped rural life in a snug cocoon of fantasy. Thus, one of the primary obstacles for rural education, perhaps the primary obstacle, is a willful ignorance—particularly on the part of the federal government—of the conditions in rural areas and schools. The challenges of rural schools seem to always be overshadowed by a focus on urban districts. The federal government provides rural districts with fewer resources—9 percent of rural district budgets are covered by federal funds, compared with 11 percent of budgets in urban districts—while requiring them to meet mandates that do not take their situation into account (Provasnik et al., 2007; Roellke, 2003).
In March 2010, Sam Dillon of the New York Times wrote about a growing concern among local, state, and federal lawmakers that education policy was out of touch with the needs of rural educators and children. Wyoming Senator Michael B. Enzi, the ranking Republican on the Senate education committee, worried to Dillon that recent education policies—from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top—"seem to be urban-centered" (Dillon, 2010). In September 2009, Katie Redding of the Colorado Independent asked a simple question: "Does the Race to the Top—Education Secretary Arne Duncan's $4.3 billion education reform contest among the states—handicap rural states?"
The possibility of an "urban bias" should not come as a surprise to those who have kept track of the U.S. Department of Education over recent decades (McNeil, 2009). The three most recent heads of the department have all hailed from urban districts. Current secretary of education Arne Duncan is the former superintendent of Chicago's massive school system, and the two immediately previous education secretaries, Roderick Paige and Margaret Spellings, both claimed the ultra-urban Houston, Texas, school system as the primary source of their experience.
The lack of representation of rural education has led to some difficulties for rural educators as solutions geared toward urban issues are foisted on schools of all demographics. The disastrous effort to standardize everything in education—the laughable notion that one size fits all—leaves rural schools forced to implement policies that are poorly suited for their communities. There is no better example of this policy disconnect than the issue of "choice" and charter schools.
Diane Ravitch (2010) has traced the development of the choice movement from its earliest days as a way around desegregation to its growth into magnet schools and its current fascination with charter schools. "Every president lauded charter schools," she writes, "from George H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama" (pp. 132–133). This bipartisan consensus has culminated in President Obama's Race to the Top initiative, which enjoins states to remove caps on charter schools to have a better chance of receiving a piece of the $4.3 billion fund. Secretary Duncan has "repeatedly said that states with limits on charter schools will be at a 'competitive disadvantage' when it comes to getting the money" (Niolet, 2009).
In the past, North Carolina had placed a cap of 100 on the number of charters that it would grant, but massive budget shortfalls and the possibility of draconian cuts to education and social services money made Race to the Top dollars look incredibly appealing. The North Carolina legislature leapt into action to remove the charter cap. Although Governor Beverly Purdue attempted to put a positive spin on the move, Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger of Rockingham was more direct: "The purpose of this is mainly, quite frankly, to draw down federal dollars" (Robertson, 2010).
Perhaps removing the cap on charter schools in exchange for an infusion of federal funding seems reasonable, but that may not be the point. The real issue lies in the fact that Duncan's reforms have not considered the needs of rural schools (McNeil, 2009) Timothy Collins (1999) notes that many rural areas lack the capital and facilities needed to establish a charter school. And if founding and operating a brand-new school were not difficult enough, attracting high-quality faculty and administrators would also present a challenge.
Low scores on proficiency tests in math and reading make rural schools highly vulnerable to sanctions, even though closing schools and replacing them with charters will do nothing about the inadequate funding at the root of many rural schools' problems. Even with NCLB success, rural schools face the constant threat of being shuttered in cost-saving measures. In Burke County, North Carolina, two rural elementary schools—Hillcrest and Mountain View—have been consolidated in an effort to stem a tide of red ink in the county (Welker, 2010, April 29). This move came one year after Burke County teachers agreed to a salary cut (Welker, 2010, May 11) and despite both schools' having met their NCLB adequate yearly progress targets (North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, n. d.). Consolidation has become such a pandemic in rural school districts that the Rural Schools and Community Trust's website offers a "Consolidation Fight Back Toolkit" (www.ruraledu.org/articles.php?id=2425).
Consolidation often makes sense from a purely fiduciary viewpoint, but it's frequently detrimental to students. As Purcell and Shackelford (2005) have noted, consolidation "may threaten the educational and social environment of rural communities in ways that would not impact the urban environment" (p. 2). The authors looked at the effects of consolidation of West Virginian rural schools and found that many of the outcomes were distinctly negative. These included sleep deprivation and a loss of study time due to longer commutes and bus rides, as well as social disruptions "brought about by students living and going to school in two separate environments" (p. 5). Money may be saved, but it comes at a high cost.
Competition with a charter school would not have kept the two Burke County schools from being merged—it might even have accelerated the process. Such challenges may be what South Dakota State Senator Sandy Jerstad had in mind when she told Education Week, "Charter schools just don't work for us" (McNeil, 2009). In South Dakota, more than half of the school districts serve fewer than 300 students, and in Montana half the districts serve fewer than 100 students (McNeil, 2009). With such demographics, the notion of choice and competition seems fanciful at best. Opening a charter school in these areas would cause a battle over students and funds at a time when the public schools are struggling to survive.
Such a battle has already occurred in Texas, where in 2002 nearly 40 percent of the funds from a $72 million school repair and renovation program was granted to charter schools "even though they educate only 1 percent of students in the state" (Stutz, 2002). Like Race to the Top, the allocation of this money was based on a points system in which schools and school districts applied for state grants, and "charter schools received priority points in the process," according to Robert Muller of the Texas Education Agency (Stutz, 2002).
How to Make Changes
There are steps that could be taken, of course, to meet these challenges and alleviate these difficulties. First, and most obviously, the federal government must rid itself of the disastrous tendency to see U.S. schools as monolithic and static entities. Rural school districts are neither urban districts nor suburban districts. Each has a distinct character, and each has distinct challenges and issues.
Second, the U.S. Department of Education should devote time, funds, and manpower to rural schools and their issues. Answering to the secretary of education should be an undersecretary of rural education (as well as urban and suburban). This model would be similar to that of U.S. State Department, which employs a number of undersecretaries for different regions of the globe. This individual should be an expert on rural policy and education who could provide rural schools with a desperately needed voice in federal policies.
Third, and finally, all school systems should demand that the federal government revisit NCLB and the Race to the Top initiative with the understanding that education policy must speak to the diversity of U.S. schools. No one denies that every child should receive a first-rate education under the tutelage of a highly qualified educator. However, as long as the property tax remains the basis for school funding, poor rural districts will need a significant infusion of federal funding. It's cash, not rhetoric, that these districts need. States and districts are now beginning to speak out: Vermont has sent a letter to the federal government—signed by the education commissioners of 12 other states—"stating that the Obama administration's education policies are leaving too many rural school children behind" (Weiss-Tisman, 2010).
When traveling through rural West Virginia while running for president in 1960, John F. Kennedy was both shocked and appalled by what he saw. After meeting a family existing on relief rations and nothing else, he remarked to an aide, "Imagine … just imagine kids who never drink milk" (White, 1961, p. 126). These children are not, however, imaginary. The climate of poverty that so appalled Kennedy still exists in too much of rural America, and too few Americans—particularly policymakers—have taken adequate notice. The romantic version of an idyllic rural United States must be replaced with an accurate appraisal of the challenges that face rural children, teachers, and administrators and a concerted effort to meet those challenges. Rural educators must not be forced to swallow reforms that have no relevance for their districts. Let's start by acknowledging the reality—not the fantasy—of rural schools and making a commitment to providing rural reforms for rural students. The children of rural America deserve no less.
Collins, T. (1999). Charter schools: An approach for rural education? (ERIC No. ED425896). Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools.
Dillon, S. (2010, March 18). Lawmakers say needs of rural schools are overlooked. The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2010/03/18/education/18educ.html
Drake, R. B. (2001). A history of Appalachia. Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press.
Huang, G. G. (1999). Sociodemographic changes: Promise and problems for rural education (ERIC No. ED425048). Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools.
McNeil, M. (2009, September 2). Rural areas perceive policy tilt. Education Week. Retrieved from www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/09/02/02stim-rural.h29.html
Mollenkopf, D. L. (2009). Creating highly qualified teachers: Maximizing university resources to provide professional development in rural areas. The Rural Educator, 30(3), 34–39.
Niolet, B. (2009, September 1). NC set in "race" for federal grants [blog post]. Retrieved from Under the Dome at http://projects.newsobserver.com/under_the_dome/nc_set_in_race_for_feder...
North Carolina Child Nutrition Services. (2009). Free and reduced application data by site. Retrieved from www.ncpublicschools.org/childnutrition/financial
North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. (n.d.). 2008–2009 NC School Report Cards. Retrieved from www.ncschoolreportcard.org/src
Provasnik, S., KewalRamani, A., Coleman, M. M., Gilbertson, L., Herring, W., Xie, Q. (2007). Status of education in rural America. Retrieved from the National Center for Education Statistics at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2007/2007040.pdf
Purcell, D., & Shackelford, R. (2005, January). An evaluation of the impact of rural school consolidation: What challenges may a new round of rural school consolidations have on the safety, educational performance, and social environment of rural communities? Presentation to the National Rural Education Association.
Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York: Basic Books.
Redding, K. (2009, September 3). Federal race to the top education program suffers criticism, but not in Colorado. The Colorado Independent. Retrieved from http://coloradoindependent.com/37071/federalrace-to-the-top-education-pr...
Robertson, G. D. (2010, May 27). NC legislature gives final OK to schools reform. reflector.com [Associated Press story]. Retrieved from www.reflector.com/state-news/nc-legislature-gives-final-ok-schools-refor...
Roellke, C. (2003). Resource allocation in rural and small schools (ERIC No. ED482323). Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools.
Stutz, T. (2002, June 17). Big share of grants going to charters; State agency selected schools to get federal money for repairs. The Dallas Morning News. Retrieved from www.lexisnexis.com
Weiss-Tisman, H. (2010, April 29). State sends letter on education grants. Brattleboro Reformer. Retrieved from www.lexisnexis.com
Welker, S. (2010, May 11). School board approves budget. The News Herald. Retrieved from www2.morganton.com/news/2010/may/11/school-board-approves-budget-ar-207640/
Welker, S. (2010, April 29). Board votes to consolidate schools. The News Herald. Retrieved from www2.morganton.com/news/2010/apr/29/board-votes-consolidate-schools-ar-69649/
White, T. H. (1961). The making of the president 1960. New York: Signet.
Zhang, Y. (2008). Some perspectives from rural school districts on the No Child Left Behind Act. Retrieved from Center on Education Policy at www.cep-dc.org/document/docWindow.cfm?documentid=240&documentFormatId=3884"
James A. Bryant Jr. is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina; firstname.lastname@example.org
ASCD article "One-size-fits-all solutiond don't meet the needs of irnored and misunderstood rural schools" Education Leadership, November 2010, pp 54-58