Smarick: Prioritizing Rural Issues Can Strengthen Education Reform Overall
November 30, 2018

By Andy Smarick, R Street Institute

For about a decade, modern education reform focused primarily on the needs of low-income kids in America’s big cities. Initiatives like Teach For America, chartering, and private-school choice, though touching other parts of the nation, were predominantly aimed at our urban areas with concentrated childhood poverty.

With the No Child Left Behind Act and a suite of efforts associated with the Obama administration, like Common Core and changes to tenure laws and teacher-evaluation policies, education reform went statewide. The concern that America was falling behind our international peers and that our entire system of public education needed improving led to an era when state governments embraced initiatives that would influence all schools.

We seem now to be in a third era that’s, so far, being defined in opposition to the previous two. That is, a focus on only urban schools left many parents and communities asking, “What does education reform have to offer our kids?” And the application of firm statewide reforms left many parents and communities believing education reform was creating policies poorly suited to the needs of their particular schools. So today, education reform is increasingly marked by a lack of brash national and statewide strategies and a greater focus on smaller-scale reforms designed to improve performance in particular domains.

For example, we’re seeing, via career and technical education programs, more focus on the needs of students not planning on the four-year college track. We’re also seeing energy behind efforts aimed at academically gifted kids.

It’s high time for policymakers and advocates to add “rural schools” to the list of specific subjects warranting attention.

These remote, sparsely populated communities—though they can have high poverty rates, difficulties attracting educators, opioid addiction crises, and other challenges—are often unknown to education reformers. Because of the particular characteristics of these areas, many reforms of the last generation have been a poor fit for them. Millions of boys and girls attend these schools every day; they deserve more consideration.

In a new edited volume, Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice, and I explore the strengths and needs of rural K-12 schooling today. The various chapters touch upon demographics, politics, academic performance, funding, educator effectiveness, and more. It includes recommendations for practitioners, policymakers, advocates, researchers, and philanthropists.

One of our key takeaways is that giving more attention to rural America will certainly help the schools in those areas. But it will also help education reform more broadly. That is, “equity” doesn’t require uniform statewide solutions; it demands our understanding of the differences between communities and constructing supports and interventions accordingly. Being mindful of the distinction between geographies doesn’t have to pull us apart; it can create a sense of solidarity in the larger enterprise of reform. And taking seriously the history and culture of specific areas enables us to craft policies able to avoid fierce political opposition.

One major lesson from the 2018 election is that the rural-urban divide, which burst into the nation’s consciousness in 2016, has grown wider. Those who care about America’s schools can help ensure those fissures don’t spread into education by taking a little time to get to know rural K-12 a bit better.


    Andy Smarick

    Andy Smarick is Director, Civil Society, Education, and Work at the R Street Institute


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