A large percentage of public school districts across the U.S. are comprised of 15 or fewer schools; 46 percent of districts have fewer than 1,000 students and a third have fewer than two schools. While many of these smaller school districts face the same challenges as larger school systems, they often lack the infrastructure and supports of larger districts—especially in the form of peer collaboration.
Several research studies have pointed out that educators in these districts—many of which are located rural areas—often experience “professional isolation,” making it hard to gain traction with the greatest school-related influencers on student achievement: the recruitment, development, and retention of teachers, teacher leaders, and principals.
As research has clearly stated for decades, there is no greater school-related impact on student achievement than the teacher in the classroom. The second-greatest school-related impact on student achievement growth is principal effectiveness. Not surprisingly, the largest impact on teacher retention is administrative support and school culture, both of which are impacted directly by the principal.
Unfortunately, the research is also clear that our most economically disadvantaged students—many of whom are in small, rural districts—are disproportionately served by higher percentages of ineffective and/or first-year teachers.
While smaller districts have advantages over larger districts, including less anonymity and more opportunity for tight-knit communities where students and faculty are more connected, they face unique challenges in recruiting, developing, and retaining human capital— especially in high-need schools.
Many lack the support infrastructure to provide aligned resources and systems to support their educators’ growth, including such supports as coaching for both teachers and principals and content-specific professional development. As researcher J.D. Johnson explains, “The larger the district, the more magnified the negative effects of poverty over student achievement, and the smaller the district, the more poverty’s effects are muted.”
How Cross-School Collaboration Will Bring Change
However, for five districts—all with fewer than 15 schools each—in Delaware, Indiana, South Carolina, and Texas, there is good news. Through Insight Education Group’s Empowering Educators to Excel (E3), with multi-year funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s new Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program (TSL), educators in these districts, including principals, assistant principals, teacher leaders, and teachers, will soon form a groundbreaking networked improvement community (NIC) and receive new levels of support for school effectiveness.