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Peabody Journal of Education, Volume 90, Issue 2, 2015

Challenges and Opportunities in Rural School Improvement


The Myth of the Little Red Schoolhouse: Challenges and Opportunities for Rural School Improvement

Danette Parsley & Rhonda Barton, Education Northwest

Approximately one-third of U.S. schools, which enroll nearly a quarter of the nation's students, are classified as rural. Globally, the proportion of rural students may be even higher because the United Nations estimates that half of the world's population lives in rural settings. Despite these numbers, the preponderance of education research—and therefore the evidence that has the greatest influence on policy and practice—reflects nonrural settings. Furthermore, the archetypal little red schoolhouse no longer represents the reality of rural schools. Rural schools today face a unique blend of contextual strengths and challenges that differ from nonrural schools and significantly impact high-level educational opportunities and outcomes for students.

Although one journal cannot fill the void, we believe this issue contributes to a much-needed dialogue about tackling school improvement within the unique rural context. This issue is primarily framed in the U.S. school improvement policy context; however, we also include articles that provide considerations for practice and future research from an international perspective. Taken as a whole, this collection of scholarly work addresses a wide range of issues of interest to education researchers, policymakers, and practitioners concerned with school improvement in rural settings.

We begin with an examination of federal school improvement policies shaping the American educational landscape. One such initiative, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, provided an unprecedented influx of funding through the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program to support turnaround efforts of the nation's lowest-performing schools (i.e., those performing in the bottom 5% in each state). The increase in funding also brought increased parameters: schools receiving SIG awards were required to choose from among four turnaround models with a series of associated required actions.

The first article employs a case study design to analyze the improvement efforts of a subset of rural schools that comprise the first SIG cohort facing new implementation requirements in 2009. Rosenberg, Christianson, and Angus specifically focus on how unique characteristics of rural settings—such as distance from urban centers, geographic spread, and small community size—influence nine rural schools’ improvement challenges and the actions they took to significantly improve student outcomes. Scott and McMurrer also examine the SIG program, but from a state perspective. They share findings and lessons learned from two complementary studies of states’ experiences implementing SIG in rural areas.

Moving to an even broader policy perspective, Johnson and Howley offer a critical analysis of federal education policy from a rural standpoint. Along with the SIG program, their analysis includes two additional U.S. education policies that impact rural communities: the Race to the Top (RTTT) grant program and the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP). Based on their analysis, the authors provide a series of recommendations for local rural educators and policymakers.

There is no doubt that recent federal reform initiatives—including SIG, RTTT, and the more recent state-level Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) flexibility waivers—have focused the American education system on a common set of reform priorities. These priorities include, for example, implementing more rigorous standards and assessments that ready students for college and careers; ensuring students have high-quality teachers and leaders; creating systems of support and accountability for low-performing schools; and providing high-quality early learning opportunities. The next set of articles in this issue examines two dominant dimensions of contemporary American school reform efforts: educator effectiveness and college and career readiness.

Attracting and retaining the highest-quality teachers and leaders is a significant issue for any school system, but can be particularly challenging for those in rural communities. Beesley and Clark provide a descriptive look at the leadership dimension, comparing demographic characteristics and work perceptions of rural and nonrural principals and highlighting key differences in each group. Adams and Woods examine a promising model for recruiting and retaining teachers in a state with a very high proportion of rural districts that predominantly serve Alaska Native students. They provide findings from a study of the rates of and factors contributing to long-term retention of teachers receiving mentoring support.

We then turn our attention to the second dominant reform priority of better preparing students for postsecondary and career success. Byun, Irvin, and Meece present findings from a study of college attendance patterns for rural youth, including institution selection, timing of transition, and continuity of enrollment in postsecondary education. The authors provide comparison patterns among rural and nonrural students and identify factors that account for differences between the two groups. Peterson, Bornemann, Lydon, and West discuss several college-going challenges for rural students and explore approaches to helping rural students meet rigorous college- and career-ready standards and increase college-going aspirations through culturally relevant STEM instruction. The authors explore an important tension for rural communities in the press for increased college and career readiness: whether increasingly rigorous educational opportunities contribute to an epidemic of “rural brain drain” and/or a stronger attachment to and prosperity within rural communities where students can remain close to family and cultural roots.

The articles introduced thus far focus directly or indirectly on federal and state policy implementation in the United States. The next two articles present an alternative, but promising, reform strategy gaining momentum in the United States and beyond—networking schools for improvement. Though the number of reform-oriented education networks worldwide is growing, few have focused exclusively or predominantly on rural schools. In the first network-related article, Muijs presents findings on the positive impact of school-to-school collaboration for rural schools participating in an English network with both rural and nonrural school participants. He highlights key conditions that enable successful collaboration, in addition to specific challenges rural networks face related to size and distance. In the second article on this topic, Hargreaves, Parsley, and Cox examine the design process and early implementation efforts of a regional rural school improvement network in the northwest United States that has been informed by well-established, successful networks from around the globe. The authors discuss a design process, planning considerations, and lessons learned from early implementation.

As previously indicated, the rural school improvement research base is still relatively thin and, accordingly, there is a great need for increased evidence to inform policies for and practice within this unique context. We conclude this issue with an article providing considerations for rural school improvement research. In “Recognizing the Variety of Rural Schools,” Greenough and Nelson make the case for discarding the stereotype of the little red schoolhouse, illustrating the variations in characteristics among schools and districts classified as “rural” and illuminating the resulting challenge that researchers face in designing studies within the rural context.

We would like to thank all of the authors who contributed to this issue and the publication staff at the Peabody Journal of Education who championed this effort to make a much-needed contribution to the school improvement knowledge base. We would also like to offer special thanks to our Education Northwest colleagues Caitlin Scott, who served as an expert reviewer, and Linda Fitch, who diligently reviewed all of the authors’ references.


Journal abstracts are linked to titles.

Improvement Efforts in Rural Schools: Experiences of Nine Schools Receiving Schools Improvement Grants
Linda Rosenberg, Megan Davis Christianson, & Megan Hague Angus
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 2: pages 194-210.

Mission Impossible? What States With Large Percentages of Rural Schools Tell Us About Federal School Improvement Grants
Caitlin Scott & Jennifer McMurrer
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 2: pages 211-223.

Contemporary Federal Education Policy and Rural Schools: A Critical Policy Analysis
Jerry Johnson & Craig B. Howley
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 2: pages 224-241.

How Rural and Nonrual Principals Differ in High Plains U.S. States
Andrea D. Beesley & Tedra F. Clark
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 2: pages 242-249.

A Model for Recruiting and Retaining Teachers in Alaska’s Rural K-12 Schools
Barbara L. Adams & Ashley Woods
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 2: pages 250-262.

Rural-Nonrural Differences in College Attendance Patterns
So-Yong Byun, Matthew J. Irvin, & Judith L. Meece
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 2: pages 263-279.

Rural Students in Washington State: STEM as a Strategy for Building Rigor, Postsecondary Aspirations, and Relevant Career Opportunities
Barbera Peterson, Greta Bornemann, Cheryl Lydon, & Kimberly West
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 2: pages 280-293.

Collaboration and Networking Among Rural Schools: Can It Work and When? Evidence from England
Daniel Muljs
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 2: pages 294-305.

Designing Rural School Improvement Networks: Aspirations and Actualities
Andy Hargreaves, Danette Parsley, & Elizabeth K. Cox
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 2: pages 306-321.

Recognizing the Variety of Rural Schools
Richard Greenough & Steven R. Nelson
Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 90, No. 2: pages 322-332.