Sunday, December 16, 2018

A Book About Rural Ed: No Longer Forgotten

Andy Smarick and Mike McShane, they of the AEI-Bellwether-Fordham axis of reformerdom, have put together a book about "the triumphs and struggles of rural education in America," and I grabbed a copy because rural education A) is hardly ever part of the Education Debates and B) is mostly where I've spent the last fifty or so years, both as student and teacher.

This collection of eight papers essays reads a little like the stack of end-of-semester research papers for Rural Ed 101, which is another way of saying that a certain amount of devotion to and interest in the topic is required to read this puppy. Some portions are interesting, some worthwhile. I've read this so you can decide whether you want to. Let's break it down.

First, about that title.

No Longer Forgotten, either intentionally or un, is a title that captures one of the problems of rural education (actually, of rural pretty much everything). Don't see it? Well, think about who would have announced that North America was "no longer undiscovered." It would be the people who were already living there before 1492.

Nobody who lives in rural America ever forgot about it. The title announces, for better or worse, that this work is going to be centered on the non-rural folks; it will be about rural education seen from the outside.

As I said, this is not unusual. Rural spaces are almost always framed as outside. My own neck of the woods is frequently framed, by government bureaucrats, politicians, media, and even companies like supermarket chains, as outside Pittsburgh, as if we were an extension of that metro area. We are actually 90 to 120 minutes away from the 'burgh, depending on where exactly you're headed. But nobody ever centers their discussion of a state on rural areas and frames big cities as outside that center. And to add insult to insult, the usual discourse also assumes that rural folks see themselves as "outside," that we would all live in the big city of we could, but for some set of reasons, we have been kept from the urban life that we secretly covet.

At any rate, the title is exacting in its promise-- this will not be a book about rural education so much as a book about people outside rural education looking in. Not saying that's nefarious. It just is-- and for rural and small town folks, that's a familiar stance.


There are a lot of things we don't really know about rural education and the problems rural education faces. We should probably do something about that.

Look, I've got 163 pages to get through here. I'm going to try not to lollygag.

1. Statistical Portrait of Rural Education (Nat Malkus)

One of the virtues of this book is that for the most part the authors have done actual research. This is not like one of those TNTP "papers" that cites in-house sources and advertising copy. So this chapter has some interesting and solid data about rural education, broken into four sections-- definitions, pre-school experience, schools, and post-school experience (incidentally, guys-- you've got a typo on page 10 where you refer to sections three and four by the titles of sections one and two-- see? I really do read this stuff).

The chapter leans on the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) for data, so it uses their definition, which is a bit fuzzy-- basically everything that isn't a city, a suburb or a town. Malkus notes that rural areas come in many flavors and that we can divide the country into four distinct segments. My takeaway: What we should remember as we read is that any reference to "average" is useless and represents literally no actual schools or places (but Malkus keeps using both regional and national average numbers.)

Of interest: Rural children have slightly more two-parent families, but in terms of day care and kindergarten readiness, they are not noticeably different from rural kids. Rural schools are mostly white, but in the South the percentage of rural Black students is way higher. Hispanic students are a slim minority in the Northeast, but a whopping 30% in the West. The Northeast shows the widest socioeconomic gaps between rural and urban districts. Rural parents are way more involved in school (and church). There's a bunch of data about who scores better on high stakes tests, but of course we still have no evidence that those scores really mean anything, so no lollygagging here. Just regular gagging.

Rural schools graduate more students, but send fewer of them to college. Well, or not, depending on which segment of the country you're in.

2. African-American Education in Rural Communities in the Deep South (Sheneka M. Williams)

In this brief chapter, Williams breaks the Deep South into three areas and tells an inspirational story from three students who came from each of the areas. The stories underline the grit of the individual (she doesn't use the G word, but the narrative is familiar) and the powerful influence of a teacher, but Williams doe also call for sufficient resources for schools to complete their work. She organizes her chapter around the idea of Geography of Opportunity and ends with a call for research about opportunities for rural African-American students. Sooo… choice. Because reasons.

3. From Basketball to Overdose Capital: The Story of Rural America, Schools, and the Opioid Crisis (Clayton Hale and Sally Satel).

Some quick history of the rise of opioid addiction in rural areas. There are some startling statistics here about things like the number of children growing up with an addicted parent. And although we don't have an explanation for it, rural areas really do have a far greater opioid addiction problem than urban areas. The authors take a look at high school use and recovery in special programs. 52 endnotes in this chapter.

4. The Power of Place: Rural Identity and the Politics of Rural School Reform (Sara Dahill-Brown and Ashley Jochim)

Okay, this is a chewy bit of a chapter, perhaps the hub of the whole book. The authors ascribe the shaping of "school reform politics" to teachers' unions, policymakers, and general government actors like mayors, and then sets out to show why these folks are "less well-positioned to support rural school reform." They have a variety of issues to list, but they set the key as understanding and navigating the tension between rural insiders and urban outsiders.  Let's see what we think.

You might have assumed, say the authors, that reformsters focus on urban schools because rural ones are doing so well. But despite better-than-urban academics, rural schools have problems. Low college attendance rates. Gaps between rich and poor, as well as between white, black and brown. Rising poverty. Fewer jobs. High poverty rates-- and persistent ones at that. Health problems. And because of all those, a loss of the best and the brightest youths to other places. So why, one wonders, don't reformsters make more of a rural push. Spoiler alert: the writers will miss what is probably the most important reason.

We arrive now at outsiders and rural identity. When rural ed reform does come up, say the authors, the terms of the debate are set by urban folks (see above comments on book title).

The writers first throw blame at Progressives (from a century ago) for distrusting rural folks, and tag the rural distrust of city folks as an after-effect of those early-20th-century Progressive reforms, that the "legacy" is the rural belief that reforms are done to rural communities by outsiders. Maybe, but it's not as if lots of things haven't happened in the last century to cement that feeling among rural folks.

But the writers say the rural feeling of powerlessness is misplaced, that rural folks have in fact exerted great power when it comes to resisting ed reform. Rural folks are, they say, major players in ed reform, and yet they are not central to the discussion.

The rural insularity, however, drives more than this. It is the "hidden politics," the sense that city folks are driving the bus. That might be, I'd suggest, because mostly they are. Rural communities are also more cohesive, more certain of shared values (and, the chapter says, more Republican). We've seen that since the book was written, in political events such as the power grab in Wisconsin in which political leaders argued that big city folks in Milwaukee don't share the values of "real" Wisconsin folk.

All of this means, say the writers, that ed reform depends on building local coalitions (may I snarkily note that this would, indeed, be a different strategy than the one they've employed in so many urban settings). So next they look at some of the factors to consider when making reform inroads into rural areas.

School boards are mostly the same. You might expect them too be more unified than fractious because of their ruralness (but only if you have never, ever attended a rural school board meeting). The real difference is that rural school board members often run unopposed-- not, I would argue, because they are so beloved, but because not a lot of people want the job. Lot of hours, no pay, no perks.

Rural districts have fewer interest groups, so no chance to build reformy coalitions. But, oh, those formidable teachers unions, except that rural unions aren't very formidable. There's much about this they get sort of almost right. They should have called me; I was a rural teacher union president during a strike. Rural districts also have few financial resources; corporate ed reform sponsors are few and far between. Race and demographics are a big issue; population in rural areas is dwindling and immigration is a real source of revitalization-- but it also brings new outsiders to town, and new concerns.

State and federal reform initiatives are more trouble than help. Reforms have been aimed at urban areas, and often highly impractical for rural schools (e.g. Duncan's requirement for firing half of a failing school's staff).  Superintendent have odd roles and limited power. Blah blah blah.

Here's the odd thing about this chapter-- most of their facts are reasonably correct, or at least correct-adjacent. But their analysis of why ed reform, and choice in particular, hasn't made more rural inroads has a huge blind spot.

Charters are not policy based or education based. They're market based. They are businesses. And I'm not casting new stones here-- part of the argument for charters has always been that they would unleash the power of the free market. Businesses go where there is a good market. If you have a product to sell, would you rather go to a market with five million potential customers, or one with five thousand potential customers? Duh. Rural areas mostly don't have charter schools for the same reason they don't have a Tiffany's next to the gas station-- the people who start and run these businesses would rather go somewhere they have a better chance of making money. It's true that a charter pioneer will have to deal with issues like "What about the football team" and the tightly-connected local grapevine, but first somebody has to actually want to come start a rural charter, and hardly anyone in the charter business smells enough money to bother.

And while all of the chapters observations about the ins and outs of rural political life are okay, they don't really matter. Come to Pennsylvania, where the people behind cyber schools simply did an end run around all of that. The secret of their success is simple-- grease up some well-lobbied support at the state capital, make your pitch directly to parents, and ka-ching!

The chapter ends with a call to do more research, study up, pay attention, actually care about rural education. But education reform is still largely driven by money, and money is what rural areas don't have.

5. Rural Poverty and the Federal Safety Net (Angela Rachidi)

As I was saying...

I had to double-check Rachidi's credentials, because in this chapter you have the unusual spectacle of an actual AEI conservative thinky-tank person making a case for the federal safety net.

This is a meaty chapter, with some charts and everything, looking at the state and underlying conditions of rural poverty which, it turns out, has a lot in common with urban poverty. There are some novel theories thrown around ion this chapter, like the idea that rural folks feel greater shame about accepting assistance and suffer more because of a weaker system of counseling and mental health care, and that all of this has made them feel super-helpless, which has led to redefining their moral code so that drugs etc are okay.

But Rachidi notes that the weight of poverty falls on schools, which need a safety net to help so that they can spend more energy educating and less providing social services. In particular she backs up the idea that poverty pouts stress on children which makes educating them hard, and one hopes she has a chance to talk to the many "poverty's just an excuse" ed reformsters out there.

In the end she makes sure to call for economic development because the federal safety net can't do it alone. But it can do something, not just for individuals, but for the community as a whole--,and what it's doing is necessary and helpful.

6. School Finance in Rural America (James Shuls)

It's all about trade-offs.

At issue is not simply deciding whether more money should be given to education than to other social services or whether more assistance should be provided to urban schools than o rural schools. The issues here get at inherent desires to provide adequate education for all students and desires to promote equity. They also touch on notions of local control.

And as with all education, the tradeoffs rest on the policy goal of holding education spending to a bare, bare minimum.

Shuls notes there are huge financial variations between districts, particularly if use measures like per-pupil expenditures. It takes us back to a large and legitimate question-- should tiny school districts be allowed to exist by the state? This is a real issue-- my own tiny county (pop 50K) holds four school districts. There is widespread agreement that it makes sense to combine at least a couple of them, but no political will among a couple (well, one) of the school boards. If the state forced it, there would be a great deal of noise about government overreach, and so taxpayers pay extra just veto maintain traditional boundaries between districts. Is that a right that should be recognized?

Rural districts lack money for many reasons, says Shuls. Undervalued real estate. An unwillingness to raise taxes. Shuls misses one here-- in Pennsylvania the state has made it difficult for districts to increase taxes past a minimal point. But then, Pennsylvania has a large senior citizen population, and as Shuls notes, older folks vote, and they don't like paying taxes when their kids are all grown. State funding formulas may favor urban areas (or, as in Pennsylania's case, nobody at all).

Shuls' most useful observation is that school finance is not objective. With all those numbers it may look very facty, but ultimately it involves making choices that cannot be determined objectively one way or the other, but depend on the values that a state or community is expressing through policy.

7. Staffing America's Rural Schools (Daniel Player and Aliza Husain)

Sigh. We start with the notion that "no empirical relationship has been established as consistency and conclusively as the link between teacher quality and student achievement" and I could spend a whole post talking about the many ways that this statement is wrong.

Attracting and retaining teachers is hard, and rural areas might lack cool cultural stuff or major sports teams or a Tiffany's next to the gas station. But since the vast majority of teachers end up close to home, most rural teachers come from a rural background, and they already understand what that life is like, though college might raise their sights a bunch.  Anyway, according to their research, the authors find that teacher shortages [sic] aren't much worse in rural areas than anywhere else.

One interesting point in this chapter is that "alternative certificate" teachers are found less in rural settings. But rural teachers are less likely to hold advanced degrees. And rural teachers are mostly white.

Also there are policies that might be a problem. Oh, Lordy-- we're going to just toss VAM out as if it's not garbage and say the "disadvantage" is that schools can't tell if the teacher's any good for a few years. No no no no. VAM will never tell you anything useful about an individual teacher, ever. One thing they do get right is that various demand-side policies-- getting rid of "bad" teachers through various techniques-- depends on an imaginary pool of awesome teachers who are looking for work.

So how do rural schools attract and retain? They can pay more. They can "grow their own" locally. They can come up with creative alternative paths. Or they can just change the job to something like "monitor overseeing computers for the students."

Nothing special to see here, and plenty of old fallacies repeated-- especially the idea of a teacher shortage. There is no teacher shortage. There's just a shortage of people making the job appealing enough to attract and retain qualified people. How is it that people on the "unleash the free market" side of the education debates cannot remember, for this one issue, how the free market works? Let me repeat my old line: if I can't buy a Porsche for $1.98, it does not follow that there is a car shortage.

8. Right Place, Right Time: The Potential of Rural Charter Schools (Juliet Squire)

So, why haven't charters penetrated rural areas more fully? (Which is, I think, the question in which this book is most interested.). Fun fact-- as of 2014-2015 there were 769 rural charters.

Squire, whose reformy credentials are deep (AEI, PR for charter chain, NJ tech stuff, and now Bellwether Partners), gives three main reasons for charters failure to rurally launch-

First, the "operational challenges" of opening a charter in a rural area with low population density. That's about as close as anyone's going to get to saying, "Because the market isn't strong or deep enough to make business sense."

Second, the locals don't know enough about charters. Since Squire announces herself as part of the "charters are public schools" crowd (no, they aren't), I'm not sure her point isn't really that the locals haven't absorbed the correct PR marketing messages.

Limited support and strong opposition to rural charters in some states, which is her sideways manner of noting that some local folks and even some politicians have noticed that a charter would be a huge drain on local schools. Your mileage may vary by state. In Pennsylvania, local rural districts have noticed that cyber charters are bleeding them dry; a few years ago, my home district closed two schools in hopes of saving about $800K in the same year that the cyberschool bill was around $800K.  So local districts have surely noticed, but they can't get anyone in the state capitol to listen to them. (To her credit, Squire's chapter includes a sidebar diplomatically acknowledging that cybers are not doing the job.)

Squire still sees opportunities, and I happen to agree with exactly one. Just up the road, a small town lost their elementary school when the larger district shut it down. So they re-opened it as a charter, kept local control, kept a school for their community. That's cool. She also suggests charters for populations with special needs. Maybe-- if you can find enough people interested in the same services to fill a school.

But her other ideas-- like someone could start a charter to "induce improvements and provide an alternative to beleaguered district schools"-- that's a lobbyist's argument, not an educators. Nor do I imagine a charter operator saying, "I want to start a charter to induce this district to do better." Nor do you make a beleaguered school better by beleaguering it some more. This is also a business argument, a reframing of "We think these guys are vulnerable. Let's see if we can take their market share." This is not an argument that serves education in general or students in particular.

Another argument is also hilarious-- use charter conversion (aka takeover) to increase autonomy. Whose autonomy? Not the teachers' or the schools' or the taxpayers', certainly. Maybe the charter operator's.


Are you still reading? God bless you.  If you find yourself with the book in your hands, you could do worse than to start with the conclusion, which basically summarizes all the rest.


I'm glad that attention is being paid to rural schools, because hardly anybody ever does. This volume provides some useful info and some valid pictures of rural ed, and some not-so-valid pictures. It never directly addresses the central obstacle for reformsters in rural settings.

If you send a package to your uncle in Deep in the Holler, Pennsylvania via UPS or FedEx, they take your package part of the way there and then hand it off to the United States Post Office, because delivering packages to Deep in the Holler, PA is not cost-effective. A free market business makes a plan about how it can make money serving some customer and not serving others. Those others often live in rural areas. Every once in a while someone finds a way bro bundle those rural customers in a cost effective way, like WalMart or Dollar General, and like those two enterprises, businesses aimed at the rural market are not known for their commitment to top notch quality.

All of this factors into reformsters' approach to rural areas. Many of the issues laid out in this book are Real Things. Outsiders who want to come in and do reform to the locals will be met with resistance. Schools are a key part of community identity and are therefor resistant to being disrupted. Money is tight and charter schools make it tighter. Navigating the tension between educating students to strengthen the local area and educating them to escape it is challenging. Race and class are playing out in new and troublesome way.

These are all true things (and reasons why rural charters are a bad idea). And it is also a true thing that charter operators are in no hurry to move into a market where it will be hard for them to make money. And truest of all its the all the urban-focused folks working policy and reform haven't tried very hard to understand the rural landscape, and consequently say and do things that super-don't fit.

But to address rural education is to make reformsters look in the mirror and answer the question, "What do you really want to accomplish?" And even after all these years, reformsters are remarkably fuzzy on this question. Bring social justice to America? Rescue America from the imaginary threat we've been anticipating for thirty-five years? Bring the benefits of the free market to one at all? Liberate some of those tax dollars so that entrepreneurs can make a buck?

Especially when it comes to rural education, reformsters don't seem to have a clear answer. As with all reform, part of the fuzziness is a deliberate choice by people who know that "I want some of that money" or "I want to rename schools in my own image" don't play well.

If outsiders roll into town to bring the joyous disruption of free market ed reform to rural areas, they are going to be met with simple questions like "What are you doing here?" and "What do you want?" This volume answers and asks a lot of question s, but it doesn't answer those, and until the tiny number of reformsters who don't dismiss rural education as being too small a market to bother can answer those questions, they'll stay stuck, which honestly is better for everybody.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this- rural parent, retired teacher, and tax-payer.