The Productivity of Rural Schools
March 01, 2016
Appears in March 2016: School Administrator.
How some remote districts generated higher-than-expected learning results without proportionately higher spending
Superintendent Kevin Newsom in Brackettville, Texas, was faced recently with replacing a $7 million building in his school district, which sits two hours west of San Antonio. Several of his predecessors had tried to pass bonds to pay for this need but were unsuccessful, straining community relations in a town where roughly one-third of the 1,700 residents live in poverty.
When Newsom had the building re-assessed, it turned out that a renovation would be better — and more cost effective.
“For $600,000, we added tiles, remodeled and gave that building a face lift,” he says. Then, using modular buildings, the school district spent $1.4 million to put in a 10-classroom facility with computer rooms, a biology lab and space for a nursing program. The district used a work-around to spend existing funds for the renovation and addition.
“We didn’t pressure our taxpayers, and we got done what we wanted for $1.4 million versus $7 million,” Newsom says.
He hopes this will help restore positive community relations and demonstrate to taxpayers that the 600-student Brackett Independent School District is fiscally responsible and not likely to jump to tax levies as a first solution.
School leaders make tradeoffs like this all the time. But Newsom’s remote rural district is considered a productivity superstar, one of 30 interviewed by the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University to learn what made them so.
Rural school systems are often knocked for being expensive, lacking teacher talent and producing poor student outcomes. On average, remote rural districts live up to their reputation of being expensive and yielding lower student outcomes. They have the lowest average return on investment, or ROI, across urban, suburban and town school districts, meaning that even with their higher costs, rural student outcomes are lower than the state’s norm adjusted for the mix of student needs.
But another part of the story suggests being rural might actually be an asset.
Some remote rural districts are outliers, beating the odds by producing higher-than-expected results without a proportionately higher per-pupil price tag. They’re outliers because their outcomes greatly exceed those predicted by their mix of students and by their available funds when compared with other systems in their state. In fact, our analysis shows rural districts have the highest odds of being a productivity outlier — nearly 1 in 5 — compared with other urban, suburban and town districts.
Our study wanted to find out why these productivity superstar rural districts have such good bang for their buck. (Neither homogeneity, relative affluence nor size, compared with other rural remote systems, seemed to play a role.)
Leaders pointed to no single factor or program to explain their superstar status. But as we talked with these superintendents some common themes emerged: The importance of human relationships (with an emphasis on people over programs), strong commitment to and accountability for students, strategic use of data tied to students and a clear focus on tradeoffs and what investments “buy” in terms of outcomes.
While we tried to unearth potential common denominators that might explain these rural systems’ assets, we quickly realized that every district has its own mix of variables that may contribute to its secret productivity sauce. And not every highly productive rural system has a tight-knit community that wholeheartedly supports its local schools and agrees in lock-step about how to best serve its children and respect its taxpayers’ pocketbooks.
Our conversations offer an impressionistic starting point to better understand rural productivity. Only future study will help us drill down further.
Factor 1: The human touch with students, staff and the community
Strong relationships weren’t a given in these communities. Leaders worked hard to build and sustain them. The human touch played out in many ways as these districts sought ways to motivate and engage each student as an individual. Leaders worked to develop a culture of leaving no one behind. Several districts mentioned adopting a mastery model.
“Our motto is ‘small school, big family,’” says Marlen Cordes, superintendent of Kaleva Norman Dickson Schools in Brethren, Mich., where some 70 percent of students in the 350-square-mile district are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. “Building relationships, that’s the best (and most important) thing we do. All our kids eat breakfast in the classroom every day. That’s when teachers really get to talk to the kids. The one thing we have going for us is we know our kids. For many, school is the best part of their day. The students work as hard as they can because they don’t want to let the teachers down.”
Many superintendents grew up in the rural area where they now work. And some leaders intentionally sought to hire other natives who they thought would stay and feel invested. Rural superintendents emphasized the importance of getting and keeping the right people. And they expressed a willingness to let people go if circumstances warranted (be they budget or performance related). Many leaders mentioned the significance of their teachers’ professional learning communities around teacher retention and leadership (giving teachers the latitude and resources to do what they feel works best) and student outcomes.
The “community” in these remote rural districts isn’t some faceless force. Stakeholders in these small communities tend to overlap — local business leaders aren’t some anonymous business community but also local voters and parents — and may be less fragmented than in larger ones.
Factor 2: Sense of flexibility, creativity and self-reliance
These school districts’ remoteness seems to foster a sense of self-reliance and resourcefulness. They seem accustomed to solving their own problems.
The Delhi, N.Y., district stopped paying for its regional career and technical education program at BOCES, the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, to create its own career technical college program with a community college across the street. District leaders say they are saving money while offering students more course options.
A teacher in Wyoming’s Lincoln County School District 2 came up with a homegrown, teacher-led professional development program, known as Fusion, that’s now used districtwide and elsewhere across the country. Teachers choose what area they want to grow in, get time during contract hours to study best practices in that area and are rewarded for improving their skills.
“Our staff development has been huge in growing our teachers,” Alan Allred, superintendent in Lincoln County, says. “People are programs. We invest in our people and we retain them.”
Factor 3: Making conscious tradeoffs
We asked these highly productive school districts how they could afford what they did without spending more on average than their peers. District leaders talked about the problem-solving process and conscious financial tradeoffs they made — many made specifically to be able to better support teachers and, ultimately, students.
Superintendent Chris Stevenson in Harper, Texas, gives all staff, from the lunch lady on up, a holiday bonus of $800 to $1,200 based on the district budget (some years it’s not possible) and student performance.
“We wanted an incentive plan that we could celebrate as a district, and if we aren’t doing well, then we work on it together,” Stevenson says.
His 600-student district does without a lot of teacher aides or support staff. And when someone leaves or retires, leaders look very closely at whether or not to re-staff the position.
Factor 4: Respect for costs
Leaders seem to have a general frugality, an awareness of the price for everything and what each dollar bought. They appear cautious in asking their community for money and only ask when it’s really needed.
Anthony Marinack, superintendent of the roughly 700-student Tri-County Area School District in Plainfield, Wis., recognizes the need to work strategically with the “haves” in a community to avoid fundraising burnout (knowing whom to ask, when to ask and being careful about how much you’re asking).
“You have to get creative in how you are going to get funds. You have fund-raised them (the community) to death. Families can’t afford it,” Marinack says, noting roughly 60 percent of his students are eligible for federal free or reduced-price school meals. “I hit up the wealthy potato farmers in my area every now and then to support our great programs. If I need sports uniforms, I try to hit up a farmer who’s had a good year.”
Factor 5: Using data to directly help students and teachers versus system management or compliance
Many of the rural superstar superintendents see every number as a person. They focus on using data to identify and help struggling students. Districts had a clear process for reflecting on what worked and what didn’t work and making future budget decisions based on that evidence. They also used data to drive professional development and staffing decisions.
About an hour north of Green Bay, all teachers in the Crivitz, Wis., school district attend an annual summer data retreat to set explicit goals, timelines and clear methods for checking and evaluating data throughout the year. The state evaluation system requires teachers to set goals for themselves known as SLOs, or student learning outcomes. Crivitz teachers set their SLOs based on gaps that surfaced during the summer data retreat and tweak their practice as needed to meet the goals. Teachers review benchmark tests during the school year. If gaps surface for certain students, teachers and administrators together craft a plan to target them.
“We have 50 teachers, 50 student learning outcomes that are connected to that data retreat. Each teacher is attacking the data gaps in his or her classroom,” says Crivitz superintendent Patrick Mans. The system is “much more responsive and timely” in using student data throughout the school year to make instructional changes.
Factor 6: No magic productivity plan but food for thought
Our superintendent interviews produced no magic productivity plan, no “adopt program X and you’ll get stellar result Y” or “make tradeoff X and you’ll save Y dollars.” While we need more research to give deeper insight into what makes these superstar rural systems tick, even nonrural leaders may glean something useful from their rural peers’ advice:
- Focus on teachers, students and community.
- Make relationship-building a clear part of district leadership strategy.
- Stay focused on the outcomes the money buys.
Our conversations with rural leaders make us wonder whether the broad national focus on “systems” means that many districts (rural and nonrural) have lost some of the human elements to schooling that may prove an advantage in any setting.