The rural human capital crisis

Firing an entire teaching staff (who’ve produced dismal performance scores for years) is easier said than done. As we’ve recently seen in DC and Chicago, it’s difficult in the largest cities in the country, but how does such a strategy translate to rural areas? There are four major issues that rural schools implementing turnaround (or transformation) must cope with:

1) Schools and districts can be the largest employer in the community. While the students and the quality of education should be the primary reason for removing or recruiting new teachers, acknowledging the broader social impact is necessary. In rural areas, the schools are often the most stable source of employment (and highest paying jobs) in the town, and numerous family members may work together within the school. Asking a son to remove his mother/aunt/brother/wife from a job is an almost impossible task. Not only can bringing in “outsiders” increase tensions, but increasing the unemployment rate in the town also creates other social and economic issues.

2) Once staff members are released, are there people to replace them? This is an issue anywhere, but is compounded in rural areas by the low population density and the difficulty in enticing talent to move to the Mississippi Delta,  Appalachia West Virginia, Northern Maine, or The Ozarks. What incentives can a state offer to bring young talent back home? Could a larger percentage of education loans be forgiven for every year of teaching/service in specific communities? Could banks provide low interest loans or mortgages to recruited teachers? Could strong teachers be provided opportunities for networking and professional development to provide a support system and to help “grow their own?”

3) Do school, district and state leaders have the skill sets to implement a different type of hiring and evaluation process- based on competencies and results? What can School Management Organizations and school support organizations like AUSL, KIPP, or Mastery teach district and state staff about recruitment, hiring, evaluations, integrated professional development, and electronic/online infrastructures to do all of this? What learnings can alternative principal training programs (KIPP, NLNS, UVA) pass along?

4) Are alternative training programs (TFA, TNTP, NLNS) effective in rural environments? National alternative training programs are starting to place teachers and principals in more rural areas. Concentrating members in cohorts is often more effective than placing single teachers or principals in a school or district. Placing numerous new staff in one place creates a tipping point that forces the culture and climate to change more quickly. This can be done be bringing in a group of new teachers and administrators, and by keeping some strong teachers and staff that could be supportive of the changes.

Since the majority of education innovation and private (and public) funding is concentrated in the cities, effective strategies should be adapted and tried in rural areas as well. Underperforming rural schools receive much less national attention than the failing city schools, but those students deserve the same access to high quality education.

For more information: Efforts to Build Rural Leadership Gain Steam, EdWeek, August 5, 2010; Teach for America Mississippi Delta Region Overview; Teach for America: An Asset to the Delta, Delta Business Journal, August 6, 2009.

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