Rural education resolutions

Posted on January 21, 2011. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

President Obama is expected to include a renewed focus on education in his upcoming State of the Union address.

The timing couldn’t be better for some public school soul-searching by our own Arkansas Legislature.

The president will speak for the nation, which trails far too many other countries in reading, math and science.

Arkansas trails almost all the other states, and we must acknowledge two realities: (1) radical improvement requires radical innovation, and (2) as a poor, rural state, we probably shouldn’t expect education models that perform well in rich, populous states to work here.

It’s time our Legislature resolved to develop the best rural education program in the country.

The good news is that the Obama administration fully supports innovation in education. In the U.S. Education Department’s blueprint for reform, one of the priorities is to “promote innovation and continuous improvement.”

From our starting point in state rankings, there’s room for little but improvement. Here are a few ideas to get legislative minds jump-started on implementing a system dedicated to educating children in rural communities.

Focus on quality, not quantity. Economies of scale make sense in market-driven commercial and industrial environments, but not in municipalities or education. Small towns and small schools have a rich heritage and today are frequently still leaders in both quality of life and quality of learning.

Repealing the minimum enrollment provision of Act 60 of 2003 would not only be an act of legislative courage in correcting a bad law, but also one of positive leadership. It would be a symbolic declaration that school size matters less than student education, and the days of viewing successful rural schools as money losers while pouring millions into failing urban schools are over.

Bus teachers, not students. A common challenge for rural schools is being able to staff and offer all the 38 units required by the state. It’s silly to dismantle an entire district, upending the employment economics of a small town and requiring students to ride buses for hours, just because a school runs afoul of offering the “required curriculum,” even if no students sign up for some of those courses.

The superior alternative would be to boost the required offerings from 38 to, say, 40 or maybe even 45 units, but not require every school to have a teacher on site for those courses. Let districts share teachers for some specialized courses like journalism and the career and technical units like health occupations or marketing technology.

The cost of transporting a teacher to and from a rural school is far less than transporting a school full of kids to the teacher. Many businesses have found employee sharing to be productive and efficient. We should try it with rural schools as well.

Embrace long-distance learning. With more and more children carrying smart phones around these days, and rural broadband penetration at an all time high (and approaching saturation), it’s ridiculous to act as if no child can learn without a teacher writing on a blackboard in a classroom.

Kids are using Skype all the time. They play video games with other kids around the country over Internet connections. Chances are, many of them are way more savvy about online communications than a lot of teachers are. And what is the typical school response to this tidal wave of technology surging against the dam built by a 1915 education model? Ban cell phones in class and hope it’s all just a fad.

Rural schools ought to be the state’s laboratories for seizing the national limelight on online learning. We ought to be pushing the technology envelope with our great small schools (like beleaguered Weiner), not trying to shutter their doors.

Create parallel vocational frameworks. The very first priority of Obama’s blueprint is to create college- and career-ready students. Let’s take that to heart and apply it to our rural school strategy.

Many of the children in rural schools will graduate to work in those same rural communities, which often lack the amenities and the capital to attract skilled workers from afar. Sometimes the best thing going for a small town is that it’s the beloved hometown to kids already there.

To that end, rural schools should offer fully parallel vocational course work-not just three units a year as is required now, but enough courses to develop employable high school graduates as part of a larger apprentice program developed in concert with local businesses.

Rural communities would benefit most from such a system, and they need it most. Liberal arts college-bound graduates would not be affected in the least. It might even be that by ceasing to force feed a university-prep curriculum to every single high-schooler, our dismal college remediation rate would improve.

Nothing worthwhile is ever easy, and few industries are as entrenched in the status quo as education. But if anything’s worth the trouble, a better rural education system is it.

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