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Reshaping Rural Schools: Areas of Challenge and Promise


Wednesday, May 18, 2016


school bus on rural road

In 2009, federal concern about the nation’s lowest performing schools led to an unprecedented infusion of School Improvement Grant (SIG) funding, as well as new requirements for schools receiving the grants. Our latest study published by the Institute of Education Sciences examines findings from a survey of the first cohort of rural SIG recipients, who began implementing the three-year grant programs in the 2010/11 school year. The study finds rural schools are particularly challenged when it comes to replacing principals and low-performing staff and engaging families and the community, both of which are requirements of the SIG transformation model.

“In rural areas, people are typically far from teacher preparation centers, and it’s often difficult to attract new staff,” said Caitlin Scott, lead author of the study. “When it comes to family and community engagement, rural schools in communities experiencing high rates of poverty have fewer business and nonprofits available for partnership opportunities.”

The survey included 135 respondents from rural SIG schools in 42 states and the Bureau of Indian Education who used the transformation model, one of four options available to schools receiving SIG funding. The study confirms results from previous studies on important aspects of reform in rural areas and adds new information to the body of knowledge in this area on how rural schools have a difficult time fully implementing improvement strategies. The study found that few rural schools were fully implementing the SIG transformation model, more schools focused on implementing strategies to improve instruction than to ensure high-quality staff or parent/community involvement, and the more strategies that principals reported as challenges, the fewer strategies they implemented.

“There is a statistically significant relationship between the number of strategies for which principals received technical assistance and the number of strategies implemented,” said Scott. “What this tells us is that when there is more technical assistance, there is more implementation. Technical assistance makes a difference.”

Scott suggests the study can inform state education agencies, rural schools, and technical assistance providers who are gearing up to meet the demands of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). “The new law requires that schools receiving Title I dollars for school improvement must use practices that are evidence based,” said Scott. “To implement those, rural schools could learn from this study and seek out technical assistance providers who can support them in implementing research-based curricula.”

Of the 12 strategies reviewed in the study, there are seven that technical assistance providers may want to look at more closely when working with principals on implementation. These include:

  • Using operational flexibility (such as staffing, calendars/time, and budgeting) to improve student success
  • Using data to identify a new research-based curriculum
  • Identifying and removing staff who have not improved student outcomes
  • Using staff evaluation systems that account for student growth
  • Implementing strategies to recruit staff who are highly qualified
  • Identifying and rewarding staff who have improved student outcomes
  • Providing mechanisms for community engagement

Reshaping rural school transformation: Lessons from federal School Improvement Grant implementation is now available on the Institute for Education Science website.

UPDATE August 23, 2016: A "Stated Briefly" version of this report is also available.