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Country Secretary, City Secretary

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So this week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a former big city superintendent, is headed up to Alaska as part of a cabinet-level push to connect with rural states.

The tour has been going on all summer, but the Last Frontier is Duncan's first stop.

The trip is part of a larger effort to reach out to rural America, but the education emphasis may be coming just in time to soothe some friction between rural schools and the administration.

For instance, on a call last week, one rural official said he thought the competitive grant programs created under the economic stimulus program penalized rural districts, which are unlikely to be able to find private partners to provide the "matching" funds that could be required under the Innovation grant program, which is meant to reward districts. (Department officials encouraged him to apply and said they would work with rural districts to help them figure out how to meet the criteria, which haven't been released yet).

And this commentary, published last month in Rural Policy Matters, the magazine of the Rural School and Community Trust, ponders whether Duncan and other cabinet officials on the tour are actually just trying to help Democratic incumbents who are likely to face tough re-election battles (like Rep. Larry Kissell of North Carolina, a former high school social studies teacher who ran on an anti-NCLB platform).

The stop in Kissell's district, which will focus on education, could be beneficial "only if the Secretary will listen rather that preach two of his favorite turnaround solutions: charter schools and paying teachers according to the test scores of their students," the commentary

And it continues:

If participants in the Rural Tour listen well during the rural education stop in Hamlet, North Carolina they will hear that rural poverty can’t be overcome by labeling schools failures, that schools can’t hang on to poorly paid teachers by bullying them to improve test scores, and that fiscally starved traditional public schools can’t get better by sending their funds to charters.

That sounds like a direct rebuttal of Duncan's EdWeek commentary, in which he wrote that, "Rural schools shouldn’t let their unique challenges become excuses for keeping the status quo." That may have rankled some folks.

Andy Rotherham, of Eduwonk fame, predicted a few months ago that the rural/urban divide could pop up in education policy debates.

What do you think? Major tensions with the rural community, or just the usual back-and-forth between the feds and the states? And, if there is an issue here, can the tour make a difference?

1 Comment

As a very long time teacher in a rural area, I am anxious to find a way to fix public secondary education, which is surely malfunctioning. However, the national debate sounds foreign to me.

Charter schools? Merit pay? Accountability? To my ear, these sorts of things sound like annoying distractions. Is this because of my rural background? I honestly do not know, but I can tell you that no voice in current educational debate appears to be talking about what I am witnessing in my high school.

As I am seeing it, school dysfunction has its main cause in something not talked about in polite company, while educational reform breezily ignores human nature and mainstream values.

First, the true cause of our problem is not really all that deep and mysterious: People believe in education as a general and undefined concept, but not so much as a daily activity. Thus, successful school improvement would have to coerce the Americans I know to do things they do not believe in.

Let me explain: Maybe we are an exception, but I cannot imagine walking down the hallway with a group of parents during our school day, inviting them to hear lessons concerning oblique triangles, quantum physics, the Missouri Compromise, and Charles Dickens, and then expecting them to respond, "Sure, this stuff is so important, I’m going to make my kid limit his social life, his sports, his computer games, etc. so that he can study these things day after day." I cannot vouch for what people in other communities believe, but I know for a fact that around here, most people, including most school administrators, believe that there are more important things in life. In fact, suspect hard-working foreign exchange students of some sort of emotional imbalance and mutter darkly at tales of those hyper-motivated Asian students.

Everyone wants the grades and the various certifications of education.... and they SAY they want the education... but, in practice, they only insist on students putting academics ahead of the other things in life, if someone can offer a money back guarantee that that particular information will be of practical use in earning a good living. However, since students do not yet know what they will do for a living, they and their families can pretty much write off any particular lesson as non-essential, and go on with the more entertaining aspects of life.

I’m going to be blunt here: Any solution offered by politicians or business is going to boil down to giving the public what it really wants, and what the vast majority really wants is the certification of education without any unpleasant demands. On the local level, the education war is fought between school administrators who try to save public education by giving the public the grades it wants and those teachers who see this as dishonest. Merit pay and accountability schemes are effective tools in administrators’ efforts to win this war once and for all.

A totally separate problem plagues the reform movement, and it is, in my view, a fatal flaw.

Most people I know embrace the principle of equal opportunity, in school and otherwise. However, they rebel at the more radical idea of guaranteed equal results. There is very good reason for this distinction: once you make others accountable for the disadvantaged achieving equal results, you fatally undermine personal effort and motivation.

This is a moral and philosophical swamp, easily be misconstrued as blaming the disadvantaged for being disadvantaged, an entirely unacceptable outlook. However, one can no more deny the dis-empowering effects of guaranteed results than one can deny the effects of gravity, and I no more trust an educational policy debate that overlooks this truth than I would trust a space program that overlooked gravity.

Every teacher I know understands that many of the most intractable learning problems in the classroom today have resulted from the schools already accepting so much responsibility for students’ success that students and their parents feel a dramatically diminished responsibility. Again, I cannot say whether this is particularly because of the rural area – I can easily imagine that things might play out differently in an upwardly mobile suburban neighborhood, but I have no experience in that regard.

However, it is no wonder that sincere school reformers focus upon equality of results, not opportunity: we can measure results, but we cannot measure opportunity, an extremely uncomfortable fact that hints at another unpleasant truth, that neither education nor school reform is most likely to thrive when analyzed in a statistical manner.

I will not hold my breath waiting for national debate to address any of this, meaning I will not hold my breath waiting for national debate help the malfunctioning school I look at on a daily basis.

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