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Duncan: Rural America Must Create College-Going Culture

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who certainly isn't known for crafting policies aimed at rural America, issued this challenge today to a group of rural advocates: "Make a commitment to ensure rural students complete college at higher rates."

For his part, Duncan said his department—and others across the Obama administration—will help.

He spoke alongside Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in Washington at the National Summit on the Role of Education in Economic Development in Rural America, sponsored by the Education Commission of the States.

Duncan used his speech as another opportunity to tout President Obama's challenge that the U.S. lead the world in producing college graduates by 2020. Rural America "hasn't created a college-going culture," Duncan said.

He also used the speech as an opportunity to talk about how he thinks his agenda helps rural schools—from his ESEA reauthorization draft to the 300 rural schools that are using School Improvement Grant money to turn themselves around. He pointed to the administration's Promise Neighborhoods program (targeted at poor, urban areas) as money that can be tapped to help impoverished, rural America.

Duncan's policies are often considered to be urban-centric. (Think the four turnaround models, Investing in Innovation, and his support for charter schools.) And his outreach—at least in the beginning of his tenure—to rural advocates was lacking. But, as is evidence today, he is working on it.

The rural advocates in the audience, for their part, didn't seize the opportunity during a 30-minute Q-and-A to ask Duncan any tough questions.

Still, those working in the rural education trenches see weaknesses in federal policies as they apply to their areas. Consider this: South Dakota Education Secretary Melody Schopp told me that the four turnaround models do the opposite of what schools in her state need—stability. Especially on Indian reservations, where conditions are tough, turning over the staff—which is a hallmark of most of the turnaround models—isn't the problem. Keeping talented people, however, is.

Duncan told the advocates that he understands challenges like that one. He acknowledged that rural schools often don't receive as much funding as their suburban and urban counterparts. He also acknowledged the teacher recruitment and retention problems in rural areas.

"These challenges are different" than those in urban centers, he said. "I've seen the struggles rural communities face."

Rural advocates shouldn't get too excited, though. Duncan didn't propose any new ideas or solutions for those challenges.

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