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Rural Turnaround Schools Face Unique Challenges, Report Finds

Cross-posted from Politics K-12.

By Andrew Ujifusa 

A study of rural schools implementing one of four turnaround model under the federal School Improvement Grant program found that few rural schools fully implemented all the "transformation" model, and that implementation challenges were more common for strategies related to staff and community engagement than they were for curriculum- and data-related approaches.

"Reshaping rural schools in the Northwest Region: Lessons from federal School Improvement Grant implementation" was written by Caitlin Scott and Nora Ostler at the Regional Education Laboratory At Education Northwest, and prepared for the Institute of Education Sciences. It's not part of the federal "Study of School Turnaround" that has looked at SIG more broadly across the country.

The study was conducted in the spring of 2014, after most of the SIG activity undertaken by the first cohort of schools was done. It included a survey of 135 principals, or roughly two-thirds of the 201 schools surveyed.

There were a total of 12 strategies available to principals under the SIG transformation model, but they reported receiving varying levels of technical assistance for each area. And there's a clear pattern, which you can see here:


And which of the above strategies were principals able to push over the finish line most often? The report says, "77 percent of principals reported that their school had fully implemented the use of student achievement data to inform instructional decisions, whereas 52 percent reported that their school had fully implemented staff-evaluation systems that tied evaluation to student achievement, and 40 percent reported that their school had engaged families."

"Overall, it was really an important connection between technical assistance and full implementation" of transformation strategies, Scott told me in an interview.

However, just 5 percent of principals reported implementing all 12 of the SIG transformation strategies, and on average, principals reported fully implementing six out of the 12. 

Partnering with outside organizations beyond districts and states proved particularly challenging for many of the schools, Scott told me, in part because the areas where the school are located are often not just at some distance from large urban areas where universities and other K-12 organizations tend to cluster, but also in impoverished areas.

"They may have businesses that are struggling, or that are non-existent ... you don't have businesses to partner with to do a fundraiser, or to bring in community volunteers," or to help provide care for students outside of schools, Scott said.

Here are a few more findings from the report:

  • "Almost all schools received technical assistance from at least one provider, with districts the most frequently identified provider. Most principals (93 percent) reported that their school had received technical assistance from at least one provider for at least one of the transformation strategies examined in the survey."
  • "[A]lmost half (47 percent) of principals reported challenges to rewarding staff financially--a strategy related to ensuring high-quality staff--and about a third (34 percent) reported challenges to engaging families and communities. In contrast, fewer principals (26 percent) reported challenges to expanding learning time to improve instruction."
  •  "When principals reported challenges with three or more strategies, they also reported that their school had fully implemented an average of only 5.2 strategies. In contrast, when principals reported challenges with fewer than three strategies, they reported that their school had fully implemented an average of 7.5 strategies."
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