Rural America is Ed Reform’s Challenge, Too.
June 23, 2017

Foreword by Suzanne Tacheny Kubach, PIE Network Executive Director

Since the elections, many of us are having reflective conversations about the implications for our work. In one such discussion, a colleague leading another ed reform network organization remarked, “We have too many ed reformers who’ve gone to college and then settled in hip urban areas and too few working for change in their own hometowns.” I couldn’t agree more.

That’s why, from their first meeting, the team at Mississippi First has attracted an outsized fan base inside the Network. Rachel Canter, Executive Director and Co-Founder was like so many in this work: she left home to earn her undergraduate at an East Coast university and then went to grad school in Bean Town. In between, she taught with TFA.

What makes her far more unusual, though, is that she then went back home. She and her pal since childhood, Sanford Johnson, co-founded Mississippi First to move the dial in the lowest performing state in the country. They worked on fumes for many years and have built a talented team of nine, some of whom are now splitting off into a separate, health-focused organization.

That’s one of the reasons we’re excited to announce that Rachel (along with Nina Rees and Lillian Lowry) is joining the PIE Network board. As a native of Mississippi, it’s no surprise that Rachel’s become an expert on rural education. We asked for her post-election reflections on that topic here, and because the vast majority of states in the Network serve a rural student population, we hope you’ll keep reading.

Rural America is Ed Reform’s Challenge, Too.

By Rachel Canter, Mississippi First Executive Director

Immediately following November 8, rural America seemed suddenly in the zeitgeist, at least among think-piece writers for major national publications. I read each effort with increasing frustration. There was the sameness of the approach, for one: national publication sends reporter to the sticks for forty-eight hours; now-expert reporter writes a one-thousand word narrative sprinkled with folksy characters—all of them white—and illustrated with pictures of abandoned farming equipment. (What does it say about our nation that when rural America finally receives attention, rural people of color are almost never profiled?)

Enraging as these distillations often were, the most frustrating aspect of these pieces was the underlying motivation for them: shock from those privileged enough to read think-pieces that the experiences and beliefs of rural Americans might matter to them in some deeply important way.

Here comes the rub: it’s not just the national media.

Ed reform is also guilty of ignoring rural America to our collective peril.

Last week, the Rural School and Community Trust released a new report—“Why Rural Matters”—that lays out the case for why policymakers should take education in rural America more seriously. Mississippi, unsurprisingly, tops the list of priority states due to our poor performance on a number of indicators, like rural NAEP results, rural graduation rates, and instructional spending. We also have extremely high populations of exactly the types of vulnerable students ed reform cares most about: students of color and low-income students.

I’ve been an ed reformer for over 13 years now, and I believe deeply that the answers to our nation’s rural education problem are not fundamentally different in many respects from the answers for the urban and suburban problem—kids still need great teachers, high standards, a rigorous and rich curriculum, orderly and intentional schools, strong leaders, and good governance. The challenge lies in making policies designed in an urban context work in sparsely populated areas, especially as reformers are still working out the kinks in the original design.

With current national attention focused on rural places, we’re optimistic that this focus may translate into more research, more talent, and more philanthropy directed to the nation’s rural children. We also need the collective support of our colleagues across the country if we’re going to make progress. We know that we can’t afford to step back into the shadows again:

for us in rural America, education reform’s mantra of all children means our children, too.

Stay tuned for additional posts from our other two newest board members, Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and Lillian Lowery, Ed Trust’s vice president for P-12 policy and practice.


Rachel Canter

Rachel is Mississippi First's Executive Director

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