Mired in poverty and persistently understaffed, rural school systems across the nation increasingly are turning to distance education to provide more opportunities for more students. Now, a new report from the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust (RSCT) suggests distance education is at its best when clusters of small schools pool their resources in efforts to bolster staff, procure funding, and create more choices for ambitious learners.

More than one-fourth of U.S. public school students attend schools in rural areas, and nearly one-fifth–about 8.8 million–attend schools in the smallest communities with fewer than 2,500 residents, according to “Why Rural Matters 2005,” the third in a series of recent reports from RSCT confronting the challenges of small-town education. The 114-page document (available at no charge as a PDF file on the RSCT web site) includes a state-by-state analysis examining such issues as poverty; socio-economic barriers in the community; per-pupil spending on education; graduation rates; and teaching outcomes, including test scores.

To overcome these barriers and help rural schools achieve despite their geographic limitations, researchers make several suggestions within the report–one of which is the use of distance education as an instructional equalizer.

“Distance learning is one strategy that has proven to be effective in ensuring that schools and districts are able to provide rich curricula without restructuring and uprooting students and communities,” researchers wrote in a series of recommendations to policy-makers.

But that doesn’t mean technology in itself is the answer, cautioned RSCT policy director Marty Strange. When it comes to leveling the playing field in rural America, Strange said, schools don’t need just to integrate technology, but they also must explore how technology investments can bring a community together to address its needs.

“It’s all about using the technology to optimize the cause of local resources everywhere,” Strange explained. “It’s about much more than simply putting technology in a room.”

While conducting research for this report, Strange found many rural schools across the country are advocates of distance education. Unfortunately, he said, not all schools are using the technology effectively.

When developing a distance-education program for a rural institution, Strange said, the most successful schools are the ones that work together and combine their resources, expanding course offerings for students and filling gaps in terms of learning resources, personal relationships, and staffing needs.

A Spanish teacher in a North Dakota school district, for example, might use distance-education technologies to teach courses to students in three or four surrounding schools via a virtual connection. Teachers also might use the technology to connect students with peers from different regions across the country, Strange suggested.

“We want the technology to enhance the capacity of local people in the classroom,” Strange said. The idea is to “link together people who are not like each other … It’s the two-way street of that interactive relationship that is so important.”

According to the report, rural education faces the greatest challenge in predominantly urban states, where the needs of students in smaller, more remote systems often are overshadowed by the attention commanded by their urban neighbors. Although Midwestern states such as Nebraska and Wyoming have historically performed well despite their small schools and concentrated populations, rural schools in places such as Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio have struggled.

In Maryland–a state with several large, urban school districts–researchers found rural students often are bused in from their outlying communities to attend overcrowded schools. As a state, the report said, Maryland spends 5.3 percent of its total student expenditures on transportation services–money some say would be better spent on teaching and learning.

Pennsylvania, with the nation’s sixth-largest rural school population, ranks well above the national average in terms of per-pupil expenditures, spending more than $4,000 per child to educate its rural student population. Yet, the state carries a student-to-teacher ratio of 15.6-to-1 — a figure surpassed by 30 other states.

Though typically thought of as an urban state–primarily because of cities such as Detroit–Michigan serves more than 350,000 rural school students, giving it the fifth-largest rural student population in the country, the report said. But Michigan has a rural student-to-teacher ratio of 18.3-to-1, fourth worst in the nation, not to mention a rural four-year graduation rate of 70.7 percent–19th worst, according to the study.

Despite relatively low poverty rates and high per-pupil expenditures, all three of these states demonstrated middle-of-the-pack performance results on the National Assessment of Education Progress given to students in grades four and eight, the study found.

“It appears that these states have adopted an urban, large-school model in rural areas that is producing mediocrity in outcomes for students who are in a position to do better,” the researchers reported.

Strange agrees with that assessment. Unlike rural communities in states such as West Virginia and Nebraska, where large cross-sections of the population live in poverty, he said, rural students in wealthier states such as Maryland and Pennsylvania should have a better chance at success.

But that’s often not the case, he said. While economically disadvantaged West Virginia fares among the worst in terms of student outcomes across the board, other high-poverty states have demonstrated uncommon success. Nebraska, despite having one of the nation’s lowest per-capita incomes, boasts the best four-year rural graduation rate in the country, according to the study.

To be sure, said Strange, not all of this is the result of good distance-education programs. But the effective use of this type of technology can help level the playing field.

“You need to fill the gaps in the collective faculty,” Strange said of rural schools. That’s where distance education can help.

Unfortunately, rolling out an effective program is sometimes easier said than done.

According to Strange, one of the biggest obstacles to a strong implementation is getting schools to work together.

While distance education has made it possible for specialty teachers stationed in one school to reach rural students formerly accessible only by long cross-district car rides, it also has created controversy in some places, as administrators resolve to iron out scheduling conflicts, create class times that overlap from building to building, and ensure that students across the network–wherever they are–can participate in the class of their choosing.

“If you put six or seven schools together, you’re going to have to yield a little bit of autonomy,” reasoned Strange. From bell schedules to lunch periods, schools working together to share teaching resources across a virtual network are going to have to make a few concessions.

Strange also warned against the “over-centralization” of resources. When implementing distance-education programs across several schools at once, he said, the goal should be to spread out the various teaching resources so that no one school has full control over the educators staffing the different courses. By combining talent and resources, Strange said, rural schools can create effective distance-learning partnerships, wherein each institution has something to contribute and all schools participate in key decisions.

Training also is important, he said. Just because a teacher is good in front of the chalkboard doesn’t necessarily mean he or she will be equally effective looking into a camera lens. “Some people just are not comfortable yet in the virtual world,” Strange pointed out–and school leaders must realize this.

Though the amount of technology and infrastructure needed to support distance education in rural schools can be expensive, schools–when working together–can afford it, Strange said. Whether that means pooling resources through a series of public-private partnerships or applying for eRate funds to help build out the infrastructure, he said, even the poorest of schools have options to explore.

One way schools are finding success with technology is through the creation of community-based television networks, such as West Virginia’s I-TV program.

Hit hard by a massive statewide consolidation that resulted in the closing of some 325 schools over a 10-year period, several West Virginia school districts, including schools in remote Harrison County, began looking at the two-way interactive television program as a means to deliver a wider variety of courses to students in understaffed schools without dramatically increasing the costs of education.

The live, instructor-led courses let students in classrooms throughout the district communicate with a teacher stationed in another school building via an interactive video link.

In a 2003 policy brief entitled “The Promise and the Power of Distance Learning in Rural Education,” RSCT policy analyst Vicki Hobbs had this to say about West Virginia’s then-fledgling program:

“[I-TV] offers the opportunity for enhanced curriculum and advanced classes, as well as for students to participate in low-enrollment, high-cost classes such as physics, anatomy, chemistry, music theory, or calculus. Along with the academic advantages come economic ones: School size no longer determines the scope or breadth of curriculum offered. Schools of any size can offer a virtually unlimited curriculum without incurring the costs of hiring additional teachers. Savings increase even more if schools participate in distance-learning consortiums to share master teachers, personnel, and technology costs.”

But even for all the good distance education can do in rural schools, “we don’t think it’s the silver bullet,” cautioned Strange. “Schools need to be real places, not [entirely] virtual places.”

Links:

Rural School and Community Trust
http://www.ruraledu.org