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.