Buried in Section 5005 of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is this fun requirement:
review the organization, structure, and process and procedures of the Department of Education for administering its programs and developing policy and regulations, in order to—
(A) assess the methods and manner through which, and the extent to which, the Department of Education takes into account, considers input from, and addresses the unique needs and characteristics of rural schools and rural local educational agencies; and
(B) determine actions that the Department of Education can take to meaningfully increase the consideration and participation of rural schools and rural local educational agencies in the development and execution of the processes, procedures, policies, and regulations of the Department of Education.
Yes, the law requires a report be reported, and the department has by-God done it. And anyone who thinks that the department under Betsy DeVos has lost the ability to crank out useless bureaucratic argle bargle will be relieved to know that the current USED can waste everybody's time as well as ever.
The report is fifty pages long, and I've read it so that you don't have to. Here's a trip down the bureaucratic baloney-hole. It's not short, but I recommend you stick around for the twist.
A badly laid out spread of four photos-- a tractor, a railroad crossing sign, some windmills, and a sad looking computer lab, all on a background of blue sky. Taken together they suggest that one feature of rural life is that it is poorly photographed.
One page. It says, "Here's the part of the law saying to make a report. We made a report. This is that report."
The Department's Self-Assessment
This is not, as you might assume, an actual assessment of how well all or part of the department functions, but is a description of what the department is, how it is organized, and how it gives out money. It's a somewhat hilarious use of the word "assessment" by the department. If teachers were assessed this way, your assessment would be something like, "Mrs. McTeachalot is a human female who was hired to teach fifth grade at Boisonberry Elementary. She went to college and earned certification. On most days she teaches reading. She uses a textbook and sometimes gives homework on paper."
The Department's Efforts To Solicit and Incorporate Input From and Address the Needs of Rural Local Education Agencies
That's the real heading. Never look to government agencies for poetry. So starting in 2016, the department did some outreach.
This outreach was designed to (1) determine the main issues facing rural schools and LEAs; (2) gauge the Department’s efforts to solicit and incorporate input to address the needs of rural stakeholders, schools, and LEAs; and (3) gather ideas for ways the Department can enhance how it solicits and incorporates input from rural stakeholders.
There were, allegedly, listening sessions. And here's what may qualify as real news in this report:
In addition to the listening sessions, the secretary and senior staff regularly meet with stakeholders to discuss relevant issues and ensure that policy decisions are informed by stakeholder concerns.
Yes, Betsy DeVos s famous for how much time she spends out in the field visiting schools. Why, in the first sixteen months in office she visited 42 US schools. According to this report, those visits were "frequently" with rural stakeholders, like that time she visited a school in Wyoming. Virtual and phone interactions are part of the deal, too. The report does not address the question of who, exactly, is a stakeholder in the DeVosian concept of a privatized free market education world.
The department also "frequently" engages with rural stakeholders with gatherings and webinars, and staff "regularly attend conferences of organizations involved in rural education." They also "host rural stakeholders who are attending conferences in or visiting the Washington DC area." And don't forget the School Ambassadors Fellowship program, which brings a "cadre of outstanding teachers, counselors, and principals" to the department-- in "almost every year of the program," one of those guys was rural. Does it seem as if we are really grasping here?
But if you are among the rural stakeholders who's been privileged to be in a listening session, you'll be pleased to know that "various" sessions "inform discussions" about USED policies, procedures, processes, etc so that the needs of rural stakeholders are "meaningfully considered."
USED also conducts "significant research on rural issues," like twelve studies in current set of contracts has to do with issues that have to do with rural schools.
The State of Rural Education and Its Challenges
So here are some things that they figured out with all that research and listening that was going on.
28% of US public schools are in rural areas, serving 19% of the nation's students (according to the National Center on Education Statistics). Rural students do better on some parts of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and not on others. Everyone, city and rural, seems to be about the same in 12th grade.
Hey-- this one is actually kind of interesting. Rural adults over 25 have a higher percentage of high school grads than cities and suburbs, but a lower percentage of Bachelor's degree.
Poor rural schools face many of the same problems as poor urban schools, but remoteness and tininess can make matters worse. Rural districts also don't have cool things like people who can manage the complicated business of writing grants. And there's the whole lack of internet thing. No argument there-- there are still parts of my home district where the internet doesn't go.
Additional challenges: transportation issues related to distance, fewer careers and apprenticeship options, attracting and retaining teachers and administrators, a wildly fluctuating tax base, less ability to offer advanced courses. All reasonably accurate, though I think rural districts have a lot to teach about how to grow your own teachers and administrators.
I will give the report's authors five bonus points and some fat font for this next insight:
Adding to these challenges is the reality that each rural community is distinct.
They get into specifics, which are all good, but this point is huge. Nobody thinks that living and working in Los Angeles is exactly like living and working in New York City, or like any other major urban area. Everyone gets that each big city is distinctly unique.
But everyone who lives and works in a small town or rural area can tell you stories about someone who breezed in from out of town and figured that because he was Kind of Big Deal in a large city, there wasn't anything he needed to learn before he ran his shtick in a small pond. Every place is different from every other place; that does not change when you get below a certain threshold of largeness. It is one more reason that the search for education reforms that can be scaled up infinitely (aka "one size fits all") is a fool's errand. And (while I'm ranting) the reason that a free market driven education system is Very Bad News for rural communities is that the market there is too small to make it financially attractive to education flavored businesses. Maybe you can make it in New York City, but that doesn't mean you can make it here, where the learning curve may be just as steep, but the potential customer pool is too small to allow for mistakes. A big city charter can watch a veritable parade of parents voting with their feet right out the door, and that charter doesn't have to care because given the vast pool of families (and schools have a "customer base" that is constantly self-renewing) to replace the bipedal defectors.
For just one paragraph, the department is smart enough to understand at least a tiny part of this.
"Rural" is not a monolith but a compilation of thousands of unique communities and circumstances.
USED has been trying to up its rural game, by creating another level of bureaucracy. Within the Office of Communication and Outreach (OCO) we will now find the Office of Rural and Community Engagement (it replaces the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach), which gets the delightful title ORCE. I will leave Betsy DeVos alone for a full month if she instructs the person who answers the phone for that office to say, "Hello. The ORCE is with you." Unfortunately, that seems out of line with the rest of its notably unwhimsical mission:
This office focuses on expanding interaction and engagement with rural LEAs, schools, and communities. ORCE supports the Department’s efforts to ensure greater internal and external awareness of rural education needs and contributes to the internal deliberations on policy development, communications, and technical assistance that impact rural education.
Also, the secretary served on some task forces that were sort of related to rural educationny things.
Addressing the Unique Needs
The staff wants to make sure that rural folks are "considered" and that rural LEAs are aware of programs and grants.
There are intra-agency efforts! Websites! Working groups! Meetings! Programs! Grants! Acronyms! REAP! SRSA! A community of practice! Email blasts! Language that looks like English, but only sort of: "The Department strives to maximize its outreach to eligible entities." There is also interagency coordination!
Actions the Department Can Take to Increase Rural Stakeholder Input
We start the list of things the department can do by listing things it is already doing, including things that have already been listed in this report. One begins to suspect that somebody at the department was told, "This damn thing had better be at least fifty pages long!" So there's the ORCE thing, and DeVos serving on task forces, and some grant stuff. The grant stuff actually gets into details, such as how the word "rural" has been included in some of the items on DeVos's priority list. Specifically:
* Increase access to choice. This, of course, requires some business types to decide that they want to try to operate a charter/voucher school in a place that only has a few hundred students to begin with.
* More computer science stuff.
* More computer tech (because it's magical).
* Creatively giving more students access to "effective educators" and/or effective principals.
That covers things the department is also allegedly doing. Additional things they could do...?
* Create an intra-agency work group, led by ORCE. It could meet regularly and collect information from the rural stakeholders, as well as other parts of the department that might discover useful info when they trip over some rural folks. Oh, and it could run more listening sessions. I don't mean to make fun of these-- listening would be great. But listening has not exactly been a hallmark of the DeVos department so far.
* But we want to expand them. More rural listening. By many methods, with many people. ORCE will coordinate.
* Look for ways to simplify the grant process. Maybe fix it so they can be handled by ordinary human beings.
* Provide appropriate training for rural LEAs to navigate the grant process. Webinars. Videos. Also, putting things on a website is not helpful for people with lousy internet.
* Explore options for working with other agencies and commissions. Because working together in harmony and cooperation is a hallmark of the Trump administration, and because Betsy DeVos is know for her cooperative nature. But hey-- one task force that she served on (Agriculture and Rural Prosperity Task Force) had sine action items that were definitely USED stuff and she could--oh, wait. That report came out in January. Maybe "action" is too strong a word.
* Comprehensive communication plan. We could, you know, tell rural districts stuff, and have a rural ed page on the department website.
* NCES is working on a special "status and trends" report for rural schools. That will be nifty.
There are many rural students. The department totally intends to care about them.
The conclusion actually only got us to page 22. The rest is appendices, but-- no! no! stay with me. There's some useful stuff here.
For instance, Appendix B is a "sample of listening sessions conducted before the preliminary version of this report was issued. What's interesting? Let me break down the sequence.
2016 (February to October): 20 sessions (several virtual ones)
2016 (November): Trump elected.
2017 (February): DeVos confirmed
2017: (April to July): 5 sessions
2018: Preliminary version released
I have a gut feeling that DeVos doesn't really have her heart in this. Just saying.
So, About ORCE and this report
Some folks were not happy about the creation of ORCE. AASA, the School Superintendents Association sent a five-page letter back in February arguing that both ORCE and the office it replaced were essentially toothless, attached to the Office of Communication and Outreach which, they argued, has no actually policy function and can't really "effectively weigh in" on anything having to do with rural ed (Also, nobody appears to be in charge of the OCO at the moment, and its page, untouched for a year and a half, doesn't mention ORCE)
Also, they noticed in looking at the preliminary version of the report, that the report doesn't actually say anything about anything, nor does it indicate any plans to do something useful for rural schools. The report talks a lot about listening, but neither this document nor any other from the department talks about what the listeners actually heard.
The superintendents also note that some of the recommendations of the task force report run counter to what the Trump administration is doing. Getting broadband to schools doesn't fit with proposing to cut E-rate. Improving health care in rural areas doesn't fit with gutting Medicaid.
The superintendents provide a hefty to-do list and, finally, express frustration that this report was supposed to be done two years after the enactment of ESSA (which may explain why much of it reads like a bad book report by someone who hasn't read the book). Their letter ends with some masterful teacher scolding:
It was our sincere hope, with an additional six months, the department would have been successful in releasing a draft report for public comment that is detailed, accountable, and outcomes‐based, and outlined an action item framework that USED was tasked by Congress to propose, including a pathway for implementation. The preliminary report, as drafted, falls short of this goal and remains an incomplete work. We urge USED to review thoroughly all public comments, incorporate them the final report, and announce a date when the final report will be submitted to Congress.
Urging aside, none of that happened.
And For a Final Giant Red Flag
The head of ORCE is a guy named Michael Chamberlain, and he was not easy to locate. Pictures are few, but there's this one
Which helped me match him up with this guy--
Wait a minute! Las Vegas?
Well, yes. Meet the head of ORCE, formerly a communications consultant, formerly an editor/writer for the conservative Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, and the Nevada Communications Director for Donald J. Trump for President. Also consulting, communications and, way back in the day, an estimator for a Roof Consulting company.
I think we can safely say that this report is not a game changer as much as a time and money waster, and that rural schools that have been waiting for help from powerful DC educrats should probably stop waiting. On the other, if your school has roofing issues, I may know a guy.