Leadership by Principle: How Rural Values Contribute to Success in the Classroom

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Leadership by Principle: How Rural Values Contribute to Success in the Classroom

November 4, 2014

During remarks at the Rural Education National Forum in Columbus, Ohio, Secretary Duncan discusses the challenges facing rural education in America, recognizes the accomplishments of states and districts, and celebrates rural community values that help to support academic excellence.

Thank you so much. Please give Dr. Ross a round of applause for his hard work and leadership here in Ohio.

I’m thrilled to be back. I’m going to keep my remarks brief. I’d much rather have a dialogue than a long lecture.

I just want to walk through why this work that you are leading is so important, what some of the challenges are that you’re dealing with every day, and why—at the end of the day—I’m very, very hopeful about where we’re going.

As we step back and look at where we are as a nation, this is a time of tremendous transition. Change—and change is hard.

Many of you are looking to raise standards and make sure our students are truly graduating college- and career-ready.

For me, it’s not “either-or;” it’s always a “both-and.”

We need many more students prepared for the world of work and we need many more students prepared to go on to college and be successful and not take remedial classes. It’s not pitting one against the other. It’s about giving students a chance to fulfill their dreams—whatever those dreams might be.

We’re thinking differently about next generation assessments and moving away from filling in the bubble tests and thinking about critical thinking skills and writing skills.

We’re thinking differently about teacher and principal evaluation and support.

And none of these things is easy. It’s a lot of change in a short amount of time.

But as a nation – thanks to your hard work and leadership – we are absolutely going the right way.

And while I think none of us are satisfied where we are today, when you step back, drop-out rates have gone down pretty precipitously; high school graduation rates are at an all-time high—80 percent. Please give yourselves a round of applause for that hard work.

And increasing high school graduation rates are leading to college enrollment rates at all-time highs.  And we have to make sure college enrollment translates to college completion—not just going, but finishing at the back end.

But so much is going the right way. And if we can stay the course and work together with real courage in rural leadership over the next couple years, I think we can move the nation in a very different place.

The challenges in rural communities—as you all know—are very, very real. As I’ve traveled the country, it’s been an extraordinary learning experience for me.  Coming to Washington from Chicago, the depth of my rural knowledge was not that deep.

But I try to spend a disproportionate amount of my time visiting rural communities and schools, and that education has been extraordinary.

And the challenges as you all know are very, very real—challenges around funding, never enough money, particularly in rural communities.

There are real challenges around technology. And I want to come back and talk about this.

There are challenges of attracting and retaining great teachers and keeping those teachers in the community for the long haul.

There are issues around STEM education and having teachers with the content knowledge, and ensuring students have access to algebra and chemistry and biology and physics. Are students drawing a path to be successful once they go into college?

There are challenges around parental engagement and how we make sure all our families truly value an education. I heard a lot about that this morning from some fantastic educators here.

So all of those challenges are real and not ones we can solve overnight by any stretch of the imagination.

But having said that, I’m very, very optimistic about where we need to go. And the collective leadership here is a big reason why.

Where we are doing a great job, we need to celebrate that. Where students are not receiving the education they need in rural communities, we need to challenge that status quo every single day.

The dividing line in education today is so much about opportunity.

And I would say, give me the poorest child from the poorest community and put that child in a great early childhood education program, put that child in an elementary and middle school with high expectations, and put that child in a high school that truly prepares for college and careers, I’m actually very, very hopeful about where that child can go.

But when we as educators don’t provide those opportunities, our young people struggle, and it’s hard to break through and put them in a situation where they can move on to the middle class, support their family and buy a home, and contribute to society. So the stakes are very, very high.

And I want to walk through three reasons why I’m hopeful. Why I’m optimistic about where we’re going.

First, the level of innovation and creativity that we’re seeing in rural schools is simply remarkable.  Leaders have taken schools that have struggled historically to a different place.

Second, there are an emerging set of collaborations and partnerships that are absolutely moving districts, and students, and communities in the right direction.

And finally, just what I’ve experienced firsthand in my travels, which is that the values and commitment I see in rural communities from rural educators is absolutely inspiring. Because of those things I want to take a minute and highlight some examples. I’m convinced that we can get where we need to go.

Let me start on leadership and creativity—just a couple of stories.

Leslie County High School in Kentucky is one. Four years ago, Leslie County High School, was ranked 224th out of 230 high schools in Kentucky. So, bottom six high schools in the state.

That was unacceptable to local educators, and to parents, and to local leaders. And they decided to do something about that.

They committed to moving forward with an extraordinary level of cooperation and a sense of urgency with a laser-like focus on data.

Teachers and students updated notebooks. They identified very early on students that were struggling and gave those students extra help and support.

They reviewed data very transparently—the  good, and the bad, and the ugly. And they worked through what individual students and classes needed to do.

Four years later, from 224th out of 230, Leslie County High School is ranked 16th in the state of Kentucky. Ninety-nine percent of students are graduating from high school.

Please give them a round of applause for that hard work.

Another quick example: Piedmont school district—a three-school district in rural Alabama. The superintendent there—Matt Akin—used federal E-Rate resources not just to get his school up to snuff in terms of technology, but he did it to increase technology access for the entire town, for the entire community—way beyond the walls of the set of schools there.

And he had to do that because he was driving the equity agenda.

We know technology can empower teachers in very important ways, and engage students in their own learning. But if students don’t have access at home—which 50 percent of his students didn’t—then sometimes we just perpetuate the haves and the have not’s.

So his goal was to not just get his schools to where they needed to be—he transformed the entire community.

When he thought about it a few years ago, with industry leaving his town, he realized that if the school district didn’t become a catalyst for change, a catalyst for innovation, there may not be a town in the not-too-distant future.

So the school district is leading that entire community to where it needs to go.

Teachers are flipping instruction. They’re sending home videos at night and coming back in and teaching students individually, right where they are, during the school day.

Forty percent of middle school students there are taking high school classes for high school credit. So, they’re pulling rigor to the next level.

And all of the high school students are taking one online class. So they’re preparing for not just the challenges of yesterday or today, but of tomorrow.

That high school now is one of our Blue Ribbon Schools for their huge increases in achievement and is one of the best ranked schools in the nation.

Please give them a round of applause for that hard work—remarkable work.

And this work again—with scarce resources, not enough of anything—is having folks collaborate and work in different ways. That’s the second principle that we’re seeing across the nation.

And I’ll talk about it in a moment. There’s also the Reconnecting McDowell project that Gail Manchin, the former first lady of West Virginia and Randi Weingarten who runs the AFT, my good friend, are providing extraordinary leadership on.

There’s also the Kentucky Valley Education Cooperative, the Berea College Promise Neighborhood in Kentucky, the Kentucky Green Ribbon Cooperative—huge amounts of work with people crossing different districts, crossing traditional boundaries, to come together.

And I just want to walk through—not just because we are in Ohio—but because I think the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative is so powerful, how in just a few short years, folks are changing expectations and changing outcomes for young people.

Let me walk through a little bit of what they’ve done just in the past three to four years.

I’m going to meet with these superintendents later today to hear their stories.

They’re saving hundreds of thousands of dollars—rather than every small district purchasing by themselves, they’re bringing to scale what’s working.

The number of students taking dual enrollment has nearly tripled in the last four years and OAC’s districts actually lead the state in high school graduation. They lead the state average.

So the folks here from OAC, please stand so we can give you a big round of applause for your hard work.

And then finally—and this is almost an intangible—but something beyond leadership, beyond creativity, beyond the vision, beyond the collaboration and partnerships we’re seeing—there’s a set of values that I see. Everyone talks about values, but very few people live those values every single day.

I just want to walk you through some of the examples that I’ve seen that are giving me extraordinary hope for where this team of educators is going to lead us.

In Whitley County, I spent time in a community where education levels are very low, but they have a fantastic home-visiting program. Dr. Ross talked about the importance of those early childhood years. There’s probably nothing more important.

I spent time with a family where both the mom and the dad had very low levels of education themselves. But thanks to a fantastic community-based program with Save the Children, the experiences their young daughter is receiving before she even enters school are going to put her on an entirely different trajectory.

And the parents—despite whatever education they did or didn’t have—fundamentally understand the importance and know that this program is going to give their daughter a chance that, quite frankly, they never had.

These parents showed me real leadership, real courage, humbleness about what they didn’t have in the past, but absolute hopefulness about what their daughter can do. And it was just inspiring to me.

Visiting the Berea community and Berea College was powerful and looking at what they are doing P-16—all the way through. No one is pointing fingers or laying blame, but figuring out how to lay a pipeline systemically, instead of having high school students drop out or graduate unprepared.

How we make sure students graduate from high school college-and-career ready, every step of the way, along that pipeline is critical. How we make sure young people don’t fall through the cracks and don’t somehow get lost is critical.

And that community is coming together to create a set of opportunities—at scale—that didn’t exist before.

Then there’s McDowell County, West Virginia. Again, Gail Manchin runs the state board there, and Randi Weingarten stepped into a community decimated by job loss and unemployment.

And the easy choice would have been to walk away and say, “There’s nothing we can do.” But they have rallied the entire community to create a new set of opportunities for the young people of McDowell County.

Historically, the state had taken over the district. The district now controls the district. It’s come back to their hands; it’s now in their control. I think that local leadership is so hugely important.

Retaining teachers is such a critical issue in so many of the communities. I heard about it this morning. I’ve heard about it everywhere I travel.

But McDowell County is doing something very, very different. They’re going to basically try and create a Teacher Village. They’re going to create a place where great teachers can live and walk to work, or travel a short distance.

We were there, and we heard about teachers driving 60-80 miles one way. And amazing teachers will do that for a while.  But if you get a job 10 or 20 miles from home, it’s hard to drive past that job to go into McDowell County.

But now the county is going to have a Teacher Village where great instructors can live and work as well as other professionals.

I’ve visited hundreds and hundreds of schools around the nation; it’s how I learn.  It’s where I hear the good, the bad, and the ugly—and where we are struggling, what’s heartbreaking, and what’s inspiring.

One of the most inspiring trips I ever took was in Columbus, New Mexico. That community engages with students that actually live in Mexico, but those students are American citizens and they travel across the border every single day.

Little kids, four and five years old, get up before dawn, carry their birth certificates, and cross that border.

What I saw there were teachers and social workers and student counselors and a principal who—way beyond any job description, way beyond any expectation—got up at the crack of dawn, met those children at the border, and brought them across. The principal also took them back at the end of the day, and hoped that they made it back to their families safely.

These are children chasing the American dream. They’re from very uneducated families. Families that often don’t have running water, don’t have indoor plumbing on the other side of Mexico. But these families desperately want something better for their children.

That community has come together to try and provide opportunities to transform the life chances of those children.

So everywhere I go, I see the challenges, I see the difficulties, but I see the hard work, I see the commitment, and I see the values that so many rural educators live every single day.

And those are the values that are going to strengthen not just those communities; those values are going to strengthen our nation.

And whatever we can do at the federal level to be a good partner, to listen, to learn, to help you on the technology side, to try and get resources to scale what’s working, to see more collaborative efforts like OAC grow and flourish, to change students’ lives, please count on us and hold us accountable for being a great partner.

Thank you so much and I look forward to your questions.