• • Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho •

Boosting Idaho Students’ College Prospects by Expanding Access to Great Teaching

Bryan Hassel, Shonaka Ellison, and Jeannette P. Cornier – October 2015

The quality of education in Idaho’s rural communities—which contain more than a third of its students—is concerning. In contrast to other states, where rural students outperform their urban peers in high school, just 80 percent of rural Idaho students graduate from high school compared to 84 percent of students statewide, and just 51 percent of rural students enroll in college compared to 59 percent of all Idahoans. There are many factors that contribute to low college-going rates in rural Idaho, but one critical factor is the lack of the rigorous preparation needed to enable students for success in college and career. A key to addressing this deficiency is to increase rural students’ access to high-quality teaching, especially in college preparatory courses.

In Boosting Idaho Students’ College Prospects by Expanding Access to Great Teaching, Bryan Hassel, Shonaka Ellison, and Jeannette P. Cornier of Public Impact examine the challenges that prevent rural schools from accessing great teaching and present four strategies for increasing access to highly effective instruction in rural Idaho.

Use “grow-your-own” programs to recruit from within the community

One approach to expanding the pool of great teachers in rural communities lies in “growing your own” teachers, by identifying people that are committed to living in and serving the local community and preparing them to teach. Districts could provide these individuals—who are more likely to stay in the local community than those trained or raised elsewhere—with incentives, such as training opportunities and financial support to pursue teaching licensure in college-access courses. Grow-your-own programs could be delivered in rural areas using distance-learning options provided by higher education institutions and district-provided coaching and mentoring—giving prospective teachers greater access to high-quality training while remaining in their local community.

Create more effective strategies to recruit teachers to work in rural communities

Recruiting teachers who live elsewhere to work in rural communities can be difficult, but there are some promising options for increasing the rural talent pool. Developing a marketing strategy for open positions that publicizes the advantages of rural schools—smaller class sizes, lower student-teacher ratios, and lower stress levels—has the potential to attract experienced teachers interested in a new environment and new teachers not interested in larger settings. Even a well-designed website can help in recruitment by spotlighting the climate and the culture of a school and its community.

Use technology and other tools to extend the reach of excellent teachers in rural schools

New technologies and staffing strategies allow rural schools to increase the number of students receiving high-quality instruction, even when the supply of local teachers remains limited. For example, multi-classroom leadership initiatives allow teachers to support a team of their colleagues, facilitating collaboration and professional development. Additionally, remote instruction—made easier with wider broadband adoption and increasing network speeds—allows excellent teachers to lead instruction without being physically present.

Improve training and certification

Surveys of Idaho school and district leaders indicate that increasing the number of teachers with multiple endorsements could help to ease the burden caused by vacancies in hard-to-staff positions. Providing teachers with the training they need to lead additional, advanced, or college-access courses would mean that they would be better able to “wear many hats,” as rural teaching so often requires.

Big Country: How Variations in High School Graduation Plans Impact Rural Students

Jennifer Schiess and Andrew J. Rotherham – October 2015

More Americans than ever are pursuing postsecondary education, a decision that leads to higher lifetime earnings and reduces the likelihood of unemployment. Disparities in educational attainment persist, however, with a marked gap between rural Americans’ level of education and that of non-rural Americans.

In Big Country: How Variations in High School Graduation Plans Impact Rural Students, education policy experts Jennifer Schiess and Andrew J. Rotherham examine one factor that may contribute to that gap: high school rigor. Research has shown that the rigor of students’ high school curriculum is the most important predictor of postsecondary success. As such, Schiess and Rotherham begin their work by asking whether rural high schools graduate a higher proportion of students under less rigorous standards than non-rural high schools.

The data Schiess and Rotherham present and their initial findings have implications for policy in rural areas and for future research. They provide several recommendations for actions that policymakers can take now to benefit rural students:

States, districts, and schools must ensure that students in all schools have access to a rigorous curriculum

The authors found that there was a gap in access to high-level courses between rural and non-rural areas. Further, they also found that rural students enrolled in advanced courses were less likely to pass Advanced Placement exams than their non-rural peers. Several policies could benefit these students. Schools and districts could leverage distance education and technology to expand AP and dual credit options. Schools or districts could also develop partnerships with local higher education institutions to expand upper-level course offerings. States should also consider using such partnerships to help develop programs targeted at helping students that fail to meet college-readiness benchmarks.

States should consider increasing rigor in graduation requirements

First-year college students are enrolling in remedial courses at increasing rates. This suggests a disconnect between high school graduation requirements and the knowledge base needed for postsecondary success. Additionally, though their sample was too small to establish causality, Schiess and Rotherham found that rural students are more likely than their urban peers to choose less-rigorous diploma options and to opt out of higher level math courses such as algebra II.

States and districts should ensure that rural students have access to high-quality curricular planning and college counseling

Rural students are often first-generation college students and may lack a network of adults who can provide information on postsecondary options, requirements, and financing.  States must ensure that rural students are informed and prepared for college-level work by providing them access to assistance with postsecondary goal setting, high school course selection, and applications for admissions and financial aid. This does not necessarily require additional staff: specialized training or community partnerships could enable teachers, other school personnel, or third parties to fill this role.

Data collection and reporting should be improved to allow analysis based on rural locale

Schiess and Rotherham could not draw definitive conclusions about rigor in rural education because of the lack of district-level data. As such, the authors recommend that states continue to develop statewide longitudinal data systems that link K-12 to higher education and workforce data, and that they should be incentivized or even required to report data with geographic indicators.

Blog Post by Jennifer Schiess

Highly Productive Rural Districts: What is the Secret Sauce?

Marguerite Roza and Georgia Heyward – September 2015

An earlier paper in this series explained the importance of school districts’ productivity—the educational outcomes a district is able to achieve given the level of funding the state provides. The analysis, which is updated in this more recent report, shows that remote rural districts have lower productivity on average than other geographies. However, it also shows that remote rural districts have the highest odds of being outliers—exhibiting much higher outcomes than expected, given their funding and student population. Compared to just 15 percent of all districts, 25 percent of remote rural districts are “productivity superstars.”

Now, in Highly Productive Rural Districts: What is the Secret Sauce?, education finance expert Marguerite Roza and co-author Georgia Heyward update the earlier analysis and set out to understand what it is that makes some remote rural districts “productivity superstars.” Over the course of conversations with leaders from 30 remote rural productivity superstar districts, the authors learned that there is no “secret sauce” for creating a productive rural district.

However, the authors identified some common themes that emerged in their interviews with the leaders of remote rural “productivity superstar” districts:

  • Explicit focus on relationship building
  • Flexibility, creativity, and self-reliance
  • Careful stewardship of public funds, conscious tradeoffs

Roza and Heyward also noted that state and federal lawmakers can take steps to encourage and support district productivity:

Recognize the limits of state and federal policy and encourage—don’t try to interfere with or replace—local problem solving

Our conversations with rural leaders suggested that no single top-down policy helped to boost productivity. State and federal policies are often a one-size-fits-all approach to addressing problems, which does not make sense in the rural context. Blanket requirements can bog down rural systems and force them to use money in ways that are inefficient given their unique setting. Policymakers should support local leaders’ focus on using data related to outcomes, not on processes or compliance.

Allocate funds based on students and student characteristics— not district type

Traditional funding systems based on fixed assumptions about staffing, cost reimbursement, and other inputs constrain decisions for rural communities. Allocating funds based on students and student characteristics enables fair, flexible funding so districts can use funds as needed. Further, Roza and Heyward’s analysis challenges the assumption that rural schools must be funded differently to ensure that they offer services in the same way as more densely populated areas. And it seems to challenge the assumption that rural districts can’t leverage their funds effectively to get the most for their students.

Don’t be fooled by the promise of consolidation

Consolidation might inhibit the conditions that make superstar productivity results more likely in small, isolated remote rural districts. It is possible for these districts to share services and create efficiencies while maintaining their independence. However, if consolidation is a better option, decision-making about the process should be left up to districts. Mandating consolidation from above can stifle local ingenuity and what it can do for students.

Develop ways to identify productivity superstars and share lessons-learned among remote rural leaders

States have an important role to play in ensuring that data systems exist that can measure and identify highly productive schools and districts. Although states have data systems that focus on student performance, few include the financial data needed to assess productivity. These revamped data systems could both identify districts in need of additional support such as finance and leadership training and superstar districts with leaders who could share what works among their peers.