Education scholar advocates for improvements in rural education to boost economy and community

Paul T. Hill offers an intriguing insight into rural education on The Brookings Institution’s Brown Center Chalkboard. Hill, a scholar at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, writes,

Rural and small-town voters’ economic isolation has many causes. The economic engines of many localities have become obsolete or moved away, and populations are dwindling. But there is no denying that K–12 education can contribute to isolation, too. Rural schools are invaluable community centers and often the only remnant of past glories, but as I learned so vividly from studying rural and small-town schools in Idaho, students often have little understanding of how the economy works outside their communities—or, for that matter, of what higher education can (and can’t) contribute to employability.

He adds,

The consequences are evident in rural and small-town high school graduates’ test scores (higher than for students in cities) and college-going and persistence rates (much lower than for students in cities). Economically disadvantaged rural and small-town children do a lot better than their city counterparts in learning what they are taught in school, but schooling is not enough.

Students in these areas aren’t learning about the mainstream economy by osmosis from friends and neighbors. They need explicit teaching: about the difference between dead-end jobs and multi-step careers, about how people make a living in their own towns and in big cities, and about how successful people constantly upgrade their skills.

We recommend reading the whole post, which concludes with specific recommendations.

There are roles to play here for many actors:

  • Federal and state governments: abandon the premise that it’s cheaper to educate students in rural areas; high schools especially need to become much more complex and expensive.
  • State community and four-year colleges: capitalize on students’ high school preparation by offering courses in entrepreneurship and management, and sponsoring business incubators.
  • Foundations: sponsor development of more ambitious curricula about today’s economy, and experiential learning strategies, starting with cooperative learning models like Cristo-Rey.
  • Charter school operators: create one- and two-semester residential placement schools that can teach advanced coursework and manage student placements, all funded as charter schools based on enrollment.
  • Businesses and cultural institutions: design and offer internship and job shadowing programs.

Hill’s article should be read along with this Seattle Times article by Claudia Rowe about “stealth inequities” in education. It’s a good discussion of problems created for poor districts by Washington’s funding formulas.

…there is often little logic to the ways state officials distribute money, and a patchwork of unintended consequences.

Take, for example, money to cover academic tutoring as well as English-language classes for nonnative speakers — aid that in both cases hinges not on student needs, but the seniority of their teachers.

It comes through a formula based around something known as the “staff mix,” a five-digit numeral reflecting the average experience and education level of teachers in any given district.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. But, Rowe writes,

In theory, using the staff mix makes sense. More experienced teachers command higher salaries, which triggers more money from the state to cover their pay.

But because high-poverty districts, like Tukwila and Highline, tend to employ less experienced teachers, Washington’s formula actually directs money away from students with the greatest needs.

“It’s ridiculous — either inadvertently ridiculous, or deviously ridiculous,” said school-funding expert Bruce Baker, a widely honored professor at New Jersey’s Rutgers University who describes such policies as “stealth inequities.” That is, poorly designed formulas which fail to correct, and sometimes reinforce, disparities between students.

It’s not just about the money. Or is it?

But from the perspective of the teachers union, any effort to rejigger state formulas distracts from the main goal: more money.

“It doesn’t mean we don’t care about equity,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association. “But fully funding education is what the state needs to focus on. Too many people are trying to make this discussion about other things.”

More is at stake, as Rowe reports on a trip taken to California by a diverse group of Washingtonians interested in how that state approaches the equity issue. This comment struck us.

State Rep. Eric Pettigrew, who represents South Seattle, was there, too. The prevailing mantra — “just fund education” — makes him nervous.

“People get upset when I say this, but we’ve taken the same approach for a long time, and I haven’t seen much progress for the kids that struggle, the ones that drop out,” Pettigrew said. “In California, people are really thinking about equity. It’s driving the change there, and that’s just huge.”

And it’s something to keep in mind as lawmakers wrestle with education funding this session.