The New Narrative of Rural Education

Archived Information

The New Narrative of Rural Education

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the Ohio Department of Education and Battelle for Kids Rural Education National Forum

October 31, 2013

Thank you, Dr. Ross, for that kind introduction and for being a great partner in reform.

I'm pleased to be here today to address the Rural Education National Forum because, too often, the challenges of rural education are neglected.

After nearly five years in Washington, I've learned that much of the public narrative surrounding education is wrong or badly exaggerated.

And so today, I want to suggest that a new, and more promising narrative about rural education is showing real results across the country--and that many of the leaders at this forum are helping to lead that quiet transformation.

Last month, a day before Congress shutdown the federal government, I gave a talk at the National Press Club in Washington.

I said that the debate over education which I hear inside the Beltway and the blogosphere doesn't begin to reflect the reality I see in classrooms and schools all across America.

When it comes to education, Washington--which so often thinks it is the center of the universe—is, instead, an alternative universe.

Some members of Congress think the federal government should have no role at all in public education. They think investments in education should be cut, not increased. And the Beltway blogosphere contains many armchair pundits who insist that our efforts to improve public education are effectively doomed to fail.

Fortunately, most people in the real world have tuned out this ideological debate. They are too busy actually getting the real work done. They're focusing on students—whether they live in Appalachia or Anaheim.

All across the country, state and local leaders are tackling complex challenges and making courageous choices to better educate children and give them a real shot at life.

States have raised standards and expectations for students, and are piloting new and better assessments to show what students know and can do.

Teachers are thinking deeply about their practice and their profession. They're rewriting curricula, drafting new lesson plans, and sharing lessons online.

Technology is expanding access to knowledge, innovation, instruction, and professional development in unprecedented ways. Technology is driving both greater equity and an increased focus on excellence.

And, in truly heroic work, many of our lowest-performing schools are implementing ambitious reforms for the first time to drive improvement and increase student success.

This outside-the-Beltway rewriting of Washington's educational narrative is also transforming rural education.

Inside the Beltway Bubble, rural education is still often treated as the poor second cousin of education reform.

Rural communities are said to be too isolated to attract top-notch teaching talent and provide a rigorous, well-rounded learning experience.

Some believe rural districts are too poor to pioneer innovation and technology. They lack the resources and the leadership pool to turn around low-performing schools. They are losing population--and the tax base necessary to drive powerful partnerships in the community.

In short, the narrative inside the Beltway and Blogosphere is that rural school districts cannot compete with their city and suburban counterparts. They cannot compete for attention, or results, or funding.

And they cannot be expected to execute ambitious, far-reaching reforms. Increased formula funding is typically prescribed as the only solution to the challenges of rural education.

Now, as is often the case with the conventional wisdom, it is half true.

The challenges facing rural and small-town districts are real and urgent. They do suffer from shrinking tax bases. Access to AP courses can be limited.

Rural districts have struggled to recruit and retain great teachers, especially in shortage areas like special education, ELL, and STEM.

It's also true that formula funding and programs like REAP are vital and necessary for rural districts.

That's one reason our administration fought for and won a $22 billion increase in Title I and IDEA funding in the Recovery Act-- and it's why the administration maintained funding for REAP during the recession.

Yet with all of that said, I absolutely reject the idea that simply more of the same is the answer to the challenges facing rural education.

I reject the idea that rural districts are too isolated to pioneer innovation and propel powerful partnerships.

I reject the narrative that says rural America cannot provide a rich and rigorous curriculum, or compete for attention or funding.

And I reject the idea that rural America cannot implement transformational reform.

Now, here is what I do believe.

I believe that geographic location should not dictate results. In America, poverty is not destiny—and neither is geography.

I believe that traditional formula funding must be supplemented with competitive funding and incentives for change--with appropriate priorities for rural areas to help ensure a level playing field.

And I believe that a balance of formula and competitive funding is necessary to drive innovation, raise the bar, and expand the capacity of rural districts to implement far-reaching reforms.

I am not going to kid you. When we proposed four years ago that rural districts and rural states could compete for Promise Neighborhood grants, i3 awards, Race to the Top grants, and school turnaround dollars, the experts in Washington told us we were wrong--or at best naive.

We heard that rural districts would never find the matching dollars to fund i3 grants.

We heard that rural districts would not win Promise Neighborhood grants because they lacked the manpower and grant writers to win awards.

We heard that rural districts would be left behind by higher college- and career-ready standards like the Common Core--and that overwhelmed teachers in rural schools wouldn't get the support and professional development needed to implement more rigorous standards.

We heard that rural districts and states with larger rural populations would not win Race to the Top awards, RTT-Early Learning Challenge grants, or RTT-District awards.

We heard that rural districts would not get their fair share of school improvement grants to turn around chronically low-performing schools.

That was four years ago. Four years later, the results are in--and they are at odds with much of the conventional narrative in Washington.

Experts were stunned when the first two states to win Race to the Top awards were Tennessee and Delaware. Numerous states with substantial rural populations went on to win RTT-Early Learning Challenge grants--and most of the 16 states that applied earlier this month for the second RTT-ELC competition have a high proportion of rural and small-town residents.

In Kentucky, the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative won a $40 million Race to the Top District award to provide personalized learning to nearly 60,000 students in in 22 rural school districts.

Nationwide, one-fifth of the schools eligible for school improvement grants were in rural communities-- and rural schools did, in fact, receive one-fifth of SIG grants.

In the first round of the $650 million i3 competition, grantees like eMINTS in Missouri and the Niswonger Foundation in Tennessee applied to the rural competitive preference, and they have spent the past three years expanding high-quality professional development for teachers and increasing access to college-credit courses for rural high school students.

In round two of i3, we created a more robust rural emphasis, and more than 20 percent of the competitive awards went to grantees with improving rural achievement as their absolute priority.

And contrary to the prevailing wisdom, every rural winner has found the matching grants they need from the private sector and non-profits.

In Kentucky, Berea College won both a Promise Neighborhood grant and an i3 grant to work in some of the most impoverished rural communities in America. Two of the counties in their Promise Neighborhood grant are the third and fourth poorest counties in the United States.

I understand that Dreama Gentry and Kevin Hall from Berea's Promise Neighborhood initiative are here today. Thank you for your commitment and vision--I look forward to hearing more about your innovative, community-based programs as you move further into implementation.

Now, beyond simply providing funding for innovation and to expand capacity, the administration has also helped propel a sea-change in college access and broadband availability in rural communities.

By eliminating subsidies for banks, we funded a landmark $40 billion expansion of the Pell Grant program, enabling the number of Pell Grant recipients to grow by 50 percent in the first term. We did this without going back to taxpayers for a nickel.

The Rural Community College Alliance has called the Pell Grant program "the single most important economic development tool for rural America"—and I agree.

In Kansas, for example, Pell Grant dollars for students nearly doubled just between 2008 and 2010, and enrollment at community colleges—especially of full-time students--shot up as well.

Nationwide, fully one-third of community college students are in rural areas, and almost two-fifths of Pell Grants award recipients attend rural community colleges.

Thanks in part to the dramatic expansion of Pell Grants, the number of students enrolled in rural community colleges increased by 267,000 students during the Administration's first term, to 3.75 million students.

That is 267,000 more people who are getting their shot at the American Dream and the opportunity to thrive in a globally competitive world.

Fortunately, the storyline of rural communities as isolated, technological backwaters is also being rewritten.

Since 2009, USDA and the Commerce Department have provided about seven billion dollars in Recovery Act funds to expand or improve broadband service in more than 7,000 schools--with more than 3,300 additional schools slated for connection or upgrading.

We know we still have a long way to go before we reach President Obama's five-year ConnectED goal of connecting 99 percent of America's students to high-speed Internet. But we are making real progress.

All told, the expansion and upgrading of broadband service under the Recovery Act will reach more than 10,000 schools with 2.5 million children in 43 states.

That expansion of broadband access is beginning to transform educational opportunity in rural America, underscoring the importance of meeting the President's ConnectED goals to ensure high-speed access throughout our rural schools.

A high-speed Internet connection can enable rural students to take online courses and gain access to cutting-edge research at universities.

It can bring AP classes and foreign language programs to small rural schools with limited resources.

And it can help teachers customize lessons for students at different learning levels by leveraging a huge variety of online curriculum and resources.

So despite the conventional wisdom and skepticism in Washington, the actual narrative of rural education is being rewritten by courageous education leaders. And, despite the very real challenges facing rural educators, I am absolutely optimistic about the future.

Why is that? I'm optimistic for two reasons.

First, rural education made important strides in the Administration's first term.

Today, high school graduation rates are higher nationwide than they have been in more than 30 years. In rural communities, the on-time high school graduation rate rose to a new high of 81 percent in 2010. Here in Ohio, 88 percent of rural high-school students graduate on time.

Nationally, the number of rural high school dropout factories—high schools that fail to keep 60 percent of a ninth grade class three years later—declined significantly during the Administration's first term, from 360 high schools in 2008 to 275 in 2011.

These are schools that actually perpetuate poverty and social failure. And 92,000 fewer students attend those rural high school dropout factories today than in 2008.

That is 92,000 students who now have a better chance of getting a good job, owning their own home, supporting a family, and contributing to their communities.

You might ask, what happened to those rural SIG schools that were supposed to be too poor, too isolated, and too lacking in human capital to turn around?

The final results aren't in yet. But first-year data suggests that student achievement is up in math at about two-thirds of SIG schools in small towns and rural areas, and reading achievement went up in about 60 percent of the schools.

Now, there is a second reason why I'm optimistic about rural education in America. And frankly, that reason is you--so many of the leaders who have gathered here today are already rewriting the Beltway narrative about the futility of rural reform.

I see Gayle Manchin here, who is the godmother of the groundbreaking Reconnecting McDowell partnership in West Virginia. When Gayle was the First Lady of West Virginia and on the state Board of Education, she reached out to my friend Randi Weingarten at the American Federation of Teachers, asking what could be done to strengthen the community and improve the schools in McDowell County.

Under Gayle and Randi's leadership, more than 100 public, private, non-profit groups, and state and local leaders have signed on to the McDowell initiative.

The partners have pledged to provide services, money, products, or expertise to attack both the in-school and out-of-school obstacles to children's success.

McDowell County is one of the poorest counties in West Virginia. Students ACT scores there rank 54th in math and science and 55th in English and reading out of West Virginia's 55 counties. Ten years ago, the State Board of Education took over McDowell's schools.

I had the privilege to hold a town hall in McDowell County with Gayle and Randi last year. The challenges there are painfully clear, but the students' commitment to getting an education and bettering their lives was inspiring.

It's still too early to say how the Reconnecting McDowell partnership will work out. But I'm encouraged by signs of progress.

In May, the state returned control of schools to the McDowell County Board of Education for the first time in a decade.

County residents have new access to broadband and wireless internet, thanks to a $10 million commitment by Shentel Communications. With funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission, Reconnecting McDowell will be distributing new laptops to middle-school children throughout the county.

At the federal level, we are supplementing those efforts with $5.8 million in SIG turnaround grants for four schools in the county.

Turning around a low-performing school, much less a district, is some of the toughest work in education. But it is also some of the meaningful and important work we will ever engage in--and we must be in this for the long-haul.

I would add that Reconnecting McDowell's innovative initiative is not alone. It has plenty of company right here today.

The Ohio Appalachian Collaborative, or OAC, is another example of groundbreaking work in rural districts—and I am glad to have the opportunity to applaud this innovative partnership between the state and Battelle for Kids.

Ohio currently has the fourth largest concentration of rural students in the country. And the problems in Ohio's Appalachian region are all too real.

Almost 60 percent of Appalachian Ohio students are exposed to less than a minimum college prep curriculum. And in five of the 22 rural districts in the OAC, not a single graduating senior—not one-- participated in an AP exam in 2009.

Contrast that with what I saw recently at TransMountain T-Stem Early College High School in El Paso, Texas, where an entire class of poor, predominantly Hispanic ninth-graders was taking a college biology class, for college credit.

In a knowledge-based, global economy, the heartbreaking reality in those districts must be challenged—it is a testament to a devastating lack of opportunity and an alarming lack of rigor. Our students deserve better.

That's why it is so exciting, and so important, to see the OAC working to transform rural education and create a culture of high expectations for 37,000 students in 22 rural districts in Ohio.

In the first year of the OAC, about two thirds of its funding came from Race to the Top and the Teacher Incentive Fund. It's truly remarkable how ambitious and comprehensive the OAC's work has been--you are creating a coordinated community of practice to assist districts.

OAC's overarching goal is to accelerate learning to produce more college- and career-ready graduates. It is using RTT funds both to support the alignment of college-ready curriculum in high school and to establish community and business partnerships to spur economic development and entrepreneurship.

And it is not only providing value-added reports for teachers, it is also providing professional development and coaching support for administrators and teachers to use the new student progress reports to improve instruction.

Battelle for Kids has even taken on the challenge of developing additional growth measures in non-tested grades and subjects, one of the most important but complex challenges facing educators today. Your leadership and efforts here can help inform the work in suburban and urban districts throughout the country—it truly has national implications.

Already, OAC districts are starting to show improvements in graduation rates and academic achievement. At the end of the first year of the program, three districts had a 100 percent graduation rate. Two districts saw math achievement jump by as much as 15 percentage points.

As many of you know, Ohio has also long been a national leader in the movement to redesign high schools. A decade ago, Ohio launched 73 redesigned high schools, and nine Early College High Schools, of which I'm a huge fan. Graduation rates in those redesigned high schools jumped by a third between 2002 and 2008.

Redesigning high schools, so they do a better job of developing both college- and career-ready skills, is important both to President Obama and me.

We want to see many more high schools develop partnerships with colleges and employers, and expand STEM education that builds the skills employers are looking for now and in the future.

Collectively, our goal should be to see every student graduate with postsecondary credits or an industry-recognized certification. Today, just a high school diploma isn't enough.

Rural and small-town schools can help lead this work. Reynoldsburg High School, in Reynoldsburg, is a beautiful case-in-point.

Reynoldsburg High's eSTEM program follows a blended learning approach. Business provides internships in medicine, airport operations, heating and cooling jobs, and engineering—to name just a few. And all 560 eSTEM students are either prepared to go to a four-year or two-year college, or to go to work with industry-recognized certificates.

Students get to do engaging, cool projects—the kind of learning that makes school relevant and fun. As part of the design engineering class, students get to work with Capitol University at a rural site, researching and observing their trap-and-release program with turtles.

Robotics students designed a better-automated solar powered trap. In fact, they did so well that seven students on the robotics team won $10,000 college scholarships.

The eSTEM program has a 100 percent on-time graduation rate. And in the first class of graduates last year, 80 percent went to their first choice of four-year colleges. The other graduates went to two-year colleges or straight into jobs--often with the employer with whom they had interned.

The consistent theme with all of these examples is that, outside the Beltway bubble, educators and school leaders are coming up with creative solutions to tough challenges.

Name any educational challenge, and somewhere outside the Beltway, people are working successfully to solve it.

Whether it is Purdue University's "STEM goes rural" program--which trains math and science teachers to serve a minimum of three years in a rural community-- or Iowa's cutting-edge approach to career and technical education, you are walking the walk.

In Iowa today, nearly 39,000 high school students are taking courses for credit at local community colleges. And here is a stunning statistic: More than half of all high school seniors in Iowa are joint enrollment students. That is transformational change, not tinkering.

In Kentucky, educators and state leaders are tackling other problems that are supposed to be just as intractable, whether it is expanding AP participation in rural districts, preparing teachers to teach to higher standards, or turning around low-performing schools.

As many of you know, Kentucky was the first state in the nation to adopt and implement the Common Core Standards.

One of its first steps was to create an electronic statewide classroom module that teachers could use to find lesson plans and pacing guides, aligned to instructional targets for the Common Core.

After just its first year of operation, the classroom module network houses 31,000 lessons plans.

The classroom module bank also enables teacher to create standards-based formative assessments, drawing on more than 11,000 test items for ELA and mathematics assessments.

The AdvanceKentucky program is addressing another historically unmet need—to provide all of Kentucky's students with rich and rigorous academic opportunities.

AdvanceKentucky's aim is to dramatically increase access to AP courses. Since 2008, the number of students taking AP exams in Kentucky is up 92 percent, with an additional 28,000 students taking AP exams.

The number of students with a score of 3 or better on AP exams has doubled—it is up 100 percent during that time. That, too, is transformational change. It is important to remember Kentucky's students aren't twice as smart as they were five years ago. They simply have a new world of opportunity open in front of them.

Finally, school leaders and educators in Kentucky are also driving dramatic improvements in low-performing schools like Eminence High School and Leslie County High School.

In 2010, Leslie County High School was ranked 224 out of 230 high schools in Kentucky in overall achievement. Only six high schools were worse in the entire state.

That year it implemented a federal turnaround grant to transform the school. Professional learning communities met on a weekly basis to provide teachers with the opportunity to review student data and decide on interventions for struggling students.

Each student has a data notebook to track their performance, and class lessons center on providing targeted instruction to students, based on their needs.

After a year of implementing its federal turnaround grant, the percent of students who were proficient in reading and math had jumped by almost 40 points from two years earlier.

Remarkably, the school has moved up to be ranked 17th out of 230 high schools statewide--the same students, same families, same socioeconomic challenges, but different expectations and very different results.

Before concluding, I want to pause for a moment to recognize the tremendous contributions of my deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach, John White.

John's appointment marked the first time that the Department has elevated rural education to the deputy assistant secretary level. John has been a tireless advocate for rural education. John, could you please stand and let folks acknowledge your outstanding public service?

So to sum up, I am optimistic about the future of rural education--despite two, urgent challenges ahead.

To succeed as a nation, and for rural communities to thrive in a globally-competitive economy, we must, first, dramatically increase college enrollment and completion.

Only about a third of young adults living in rural areas are enrolled in postsecondary education today. And as long as adults in small towns and rural areas are the least-likely people to have earned a bachelor's degree, local economic development, job creation, and entrepreneurial ventures will be under-capacity.

The other urgent challenge is to leverage emerging opportunities to connect to new resources, expertise, and commerce online.

Realizing the ConnectED vision--including the FCC's modernization of the E-rate program-- will allow millions more students and teachers to connect to the world around them.

Most of these investments will be made in rural America—and we need rural communities to voice their support, and explain the urgent need for universal, high-speed connectivity, and the benefits of being connected.

With your advocacy and the FCC's leadership, we can get this done over the next few years—it is an absolute game-changer.

In the end, I am optimistic that these challenges will be met—not overnight, but through collective commitment, creativity and courage, and community-based coalitions.

Our progress over the last four years, and the outstanding examples of innovation and capacity-building that I see here today, tells me that the narrative of rural education is being rewritten, even as we speak.

Race to the Top and other competitive grants were an invitation to the entire country to put forward its best ideas on education. And I'm pleased to report that many of those best ideas came from rural education leaders.

Collectively, you proved the skeptics wrong. Your ideas are proving their worth, transforming children's life chances, and helping create the DNA for increased achievement all across the country.

I hope that lawmakers and pundits inside the Beltway bubble who are so skeptical of the possibilities of change will come to Ohio. I hope they will come to Kentucky to see what change looks like.

I thank you for your efforts to help all our students--no matter how poor or how isolated--receive the world-class education they need and deserve. And I thank you for helping lead the nation where we need to go. I look forward to your questions.