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Rural school districts face different challenges

How is attending school in Plainville unlike attending school in Chicago? What seems to be a silly question really was at the heart of the discussion held this month with nine rural superintendents from across the United States, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and a variety of staff members from the Education Department.

The current Elementary and Secondary Education Act, formerly known as the No Child Left Behind law, attempted to treat all schools as if they had the same issues and opportunities. This legislation is due for reauthorization, and the secretary would like to attempt to address the issues with the current law, including the problems encountered by rural and small schools.

As one of the representatives of the group, I raised concerns about assessments, the expectation of 100 percent of the students reaching proficiency every year, the definitions of "highly qualified" teacher, the current attempt to develop a national core curriculum, sanctions, and how to turn around schools that are consistently having difficulties.

Duncan's staff indicated that the mission of ESEA would be to continue the efforts to close the achievement gap while raising the expectations for all students. The methods to meet the goals might differ, but the goals would be common. The law should further equity, enhance opportunity and promote reform.

The federal officials were looking for models of success that could be replicated and rewarded. Throughout the educational system, they envision a standard of innovation and excellence. The investment that is being placed in the educational endeavor should be optimized.

The other rural superintendents and I presented the viewpoint that moving funding for the pieces of ESEA (Title 1, Title 2a, Title 3, etc.) from formula to competitive grants is unfair for small districts. With many small district administrators playing dual roles of superintendent and principal, and sometimes even teacher, there are not enough hours in a day to have time to complete competitive grant applications.

We also stressed that free- and reduced-lunch applications were a much more realistic measure of poverty for any district than the current census-based determination. We suggested that, in this time of cost cutting due to the status of the state funding, there should be a suspension of some of the rules and regulations of the former administration. In particular, we suggested that local maintenance of effort should be reconsidered.

We discussed the difficulty of rural districts to have "highly qualified" teachers when they must be "highly qualified" in multiple curriculums. We asked for consideration of the difficulty presented when a school has only one special education teacher who is responsible for multiple students requiring multiple subjects. Again, in the discussion of the current funding dilemma across the country, we asked that the department rethink the issue of testing every child every year in multiple subjects.

Did Duncan hear the message? At least he listened. We will wait and see.

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