Saturday, July 15, 2017

Rural Schools and Phauxlanthropy

Over at Philanthropy Roundtable, Andy Smarick has contributed a piece entitled "Don't Forget Rural Schools." which immediately attracted my attention because forgetting rural schools is something that pretty much everybody does, except for those of us who live and work in those areas. While I disagree with some of what Smarick has to say, he also raises some important points that folks on all sides of the education debates often overlook.

Given the source of this article, there is an emphasis on philanthropic giving , but let's set that aside for the moment.

The old high school in Venango, Nebraska
Smarick opens by pointing out that rural areas are feeling the pinch of poverty, in some cases more than urban areas, and yet they don't attract much special giving (I have an explanation for that last part, but it can wait). But he lays out some of the issues that we face in rural settings.

Rural poverty can be particularly crippling. Even poor kids in cities have access to great libraries, beautiful parks, lots of nearby examples of success. Rural poverty can be much more isolating.

This may be an overstatement on the urban side. Some cities do a pretty good job of keeping their poor citizens cut off from some of those great things. Chicago has managed to keep its poor people cut off from some of its richest resources. New York has those special bridges that Robert Moses designed to keep poor people away. In Los Angeles, nobody is particularly close to anything. But it is true that rural poverty is especially isolating. A relief worker explained to me years ago that in rural areas like mine, carelessness is a bigger deal than homelessness. We have lots of space, but it's mostly far away from things like jobs and doctors and groceries, and rural public transit ranges from Very Limited to Non-existent.  You might find a place to live, but you will depend on the kindness of others to get anywhere you need to get-- or even to set eyes on other humans.

Smarick offers some unsourced factoids-- rural kids are more prone to alcohol, meth and babies, to which I think maybe, probably, and I'd have to see the numbers-- but the conclusion he reaches is solid:

These factors can cause rural kids to internalize a sense of limited expectations, if not hopelessness.

Oh, yeah. Even though my school has sent graduates to big fancy Ivy League schools,  my students are quick to assume that great things do not come from here. Smarick also reports that rural schools have lower college attendance numbers, and while, again, I'd like to see the numbers to be sure, I can believe this. Students aspire to what they see in the adult world, and as the economy scales back and already thin economies hollow out, rural students don't see much in the way of professional options.

And then Smarick really rings the bell:

In many ways, rural schools are fundamentally a mystery to a large segment of K-12 experts. With their jobs downtown and their homes in the city or its suburbs, much of our managerial class has little interaction with rural America.

Lordy, yes.  From people who sit in big cities and promote policies that could only work in big cities to the folks who drop in to lecture us on how to our jobs even though they have no concept of what our jobs look like in this setting, it just never ends. Just because a mover an shaker knows how to operate in LA, we wouldn't assume he could transfer seamlessly to Chicago or St. Louis. We accept that every urban setting is unique, but seem to assume that all small town and rural settings are the same-- and the urban techniques can be easily transferred there ("Just do it, you know-- smaller"). This goes extra double for choice programs like charters and vouchers.

As Smarick's research discovered, there's a huge disconnect between what the "experts" think we need and what we think we need.

The “experts” believed rural schools struggled most with recruiting and retaining teachers and acquiring technology. But the practitioners identified too little funding for special-education mandates, too much compliance-related paperwork, and too many strings attached to school dollars. And so much for the idea that teachers are unattainable: rural teachers express higher rates of job satisfaction than teachers in other areas.

Yup. Recruiting is challenging but not impossible because for some folks, this way of life is appealing, and while nobody is getting rich in education here, cost of living is also not insane. But one of the banes of our existence is unfunded mandates-- based on policies designed for urban districts. So instead of having the flexibility to use funding as we see best, we have to do as we're told by guys who have never set foot in our community but who still feel free to dictate how we should do our work. And we have to hire extra personnel just to handle all the government paperwork.

Smarick also points out that experts assume we are limited and inefficient in our programming, when there's plenty of reason to assume the opposite. Yes, I could have told you that, and on some other occasion, I'll explain why it's true (we are accountability giants). And small population can equal small hiring pool. We have problems in the same areas as everyone else (math, ELL, special ed).

But Smarick identifies one of the critical questions we always wrestle with:

So school systems can be faced with a dispiriting choice: produce students with minimal skills to fill the local jobs available, or produce more highly skilled students who will be forced to leave their communities for good in order to find suitable careers.

We have limited resources in every sense, and we have to make the best use of them, which means we have to be clear on our goals, and that question--  how to help some students escape and help build the community by helping others stay-- that's a toughy.

While I absolutely value someone dragging these issues out where some "experts" can see them, I cannot stress this enough-- the "experts" would already have known all of this had they ever bothered to actually talk to those of us who work in small town and rural communities. They have consistently failed to do so-- and by "they" I don't just mean bureaucrats and policy wonks and political operatives and reformsters, but union leaders  and state-level elected officials.

Why are we so ignored? Certainly part of it is the urban-centric thinking of urban people, who often imagine that if everyone doesn't actually live in the city, at the very least, they all want to.

But it  also has to do with markets. Poor people + thin population = not very much money to be made. I don't mean to suggest that charter operators are rapacious bloodsuckers that must find enough victims to slake their prodigious bloodlust (though some do fit that description). But business people gotta business, and there are lots of businesses that don't operate in rural areas because there isn't enough market to support them (more every day). Charters have largely avoided rural areas for the same reason Tiffany and Lexus dealers do-- the market just isn't there. And it's a harder market to crack because our local public schools are part of our community and personal identity.

Rural areas have been hit by cyber-charters, and I do mean hit, because everywhere they land they do serious damage to the local public system (particularly here in PA). Vouchers require choices, but those are actually eroding as populations decrease and cyber-charters suck the blood from local budgets.

All of this matters when considering Smarick's call for philanthropic interest in rural areas.

First, the lack of major reform inroads in rural areas means that there's not a lot for a reform-minded deep-pocketed money-tosser to toss money toward. I mean, they could do crazy stuff like assume that local public schools know what they're doing and just, I don't know, offer to help fund that. But that would be crazy talk. Particularly for today's philanthropists.

I was surprised to see Betsy DeVos referenced in a recent Chalkbeat story as a "billionaire philanthropist" which is a curious title since DeVos herself has been famously clear that she expects a return on her money. But philanthropy is different these days, whether we're talking about venture philanthropy or the plain old phauxlanthropy of Gates and Walton, or the cool new version of Zuckerberg and Chan which really isn't a philanthropy at all-- in all cases we're talking about ways to use money to exercise power and influence without having to bother with things like elections. It's commerce, not philanthropy.

Smarick's examples of groups working the rural ed scene is not terribly encouraging. For instance, Teach for America now has a "Rural School Leadership Academy"? Lord help us all. This is one more attempt to create a parallel education system based on nothing but money and intentions to rewrite the system. No, thank you. Smarick also cites the Kahn Academy library of videos as an example of personalized learning, but I think the term "algorithmically-mediated lessons" better. And he also cites some high-concept charters, which would move students and money out of rural public schools. None of these "opportunities" exactly excites me as a small-town/rural education guy. There is a nice program for helping connect rural students to colleges, and that one seems pretty helpful.

Smarick's focus on philanthropy is, of course, appropriate for the article source. He and I disagree on some of the solutions offered here, but we do agree on some of the problems diagnosed. The easiest issue to solve is the communication one-- for people who want to know more about what's happening in small town and rural schools, just come visit, ask, talk to us. There's a hotel and a couple of nice bed and breakfasts in town, and I have a phone and internet connection. I and people like me are even capable of traveling off to the big city. Feel free to get ahold of any of us.


  1. Even good online charters, while a boon to individual families, are a pernicious influence on rural schools. Caring parents have the option to ignore the dismal opportunities available to most children in their area by getting free school at home. These families no longer need to fight the system and advocate for better local public schools.

    1. Exactly. Our society is one of replace, instead of repair. Fixing and repairing is so much more satisfying than replacing something, but it takes more effort. Most of us aren't interested in that. Tis a symptom of our cultural/societal decline.