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Most Rural Ed. Programs Are Developed in Urban Schools. These Research Centers Want to Change That

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Chronic absenteeism. College preparation. Student mental health. Hot education issues all, and none of them lack for research and programs. But often the interventions proven to work in large urban or suburban districts fall flat in small rural districts, and most of those districts lack the capacity to develop and test out their own solutions.

"That's been going on in a lot of education policies," said Tom Kane, Harvard economics and education professor. "The research is done in urban and suburban areas and we don't stop to learn whether those same things are effective in rural areas."

That's why the Institute of Education Sciences is providing $10 million each to launch the National Center for Rural Education Research Networks at Harvard University and the National Center for Rural School Mental Health at the University of Missouri.

The research networks center will work during the next five years with 60 rural districts in New York and Ohio to develop and test interventions to reduce student absenteeism and improve college-going among rural students. For example, the center may look at how students' distance to school affects their absenteeism, or how outreach from universities can target high-achieving rural students.The center also plans to evaluate Proving Ground, a school improvement program that has shown benefits in urban and suburban schools but which has never been tested in rural schools.

"One of the reasons why rural schools have been too often overlooked in education research is that the cost ... just makes it cost prohibitive for researchers," said Kane, a co-principal investigator for the network center. Creating a research network to support data analysis, information-sharing agreements and implementation studies means "no single district needs to try it out on a big scale."

The mental health center, to be run by Wendy Reinke, an educational counseling professor at the University of Missouri, will work with rural districts in Missouri, Virginia, and Montana to test and expand a program to identify students with mental health problems early and connect them to supports. 

The center builds on an existing research-practitioner partnership with the Boone County Schools (Mo.) Mental Health Coalition, which has piloted a checklist and professional development to help teachers and other staff coordinate mental health services in the district.

"I'm particularly excited because their work is so complementary," said Elizabeth Abro, the commissioner of IES' National Center for Education Research, which awarded the grants. It's the first time the agency has supported two rural education research centers simultaneously. "They are tackling different sets of problems, both of which are extremely critical to improving success for the many students in rural contexts."

The grants were announced Wednesday, along with a $5 million grant to create a Writing Research to Improve Teaching and Evaluation (WRITE) Center at the University of California, Irvine, which will study ways to improve writing instruction in middle and high schools. 

"These centers will provide us with valuable research into topics that are not always given the weight they deserve," said IES Director Mark Schneider, in a statement. "Over 20 percent of U.S. students attend rural schools, and research on schools and education must reflect this fact."

Photo: Jupiter Images

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