David Arsen, Professor of Education Policy and K-12 Education Administration
A new Michigan State University report finds that Michigan’s educational reforms over the past two decades have largely ignored rural schools, thereby failing to support needed community development.
The three-year study asked principals in 25 rural school districts across the state to identify the most problematic areas where current policies are not providing students with the opportunities they need to learn and thrive as adults. Key areas of concern include teacher recruitment and retention, student mental health needs, broadband internet access and funding.
Because strong schools are inextricably linked to strong communities, the report places its study in the context of detailed geographic analyzes of the population, employment, and socioeconomic characteristics of all communities in Michigan. Michigan’s rural communities as a whole are declining in population, aging and becoming poorer than non-rural Michigan. Rural communities also lag behind in employment growth; Over the past decade, aggregate employment in Michigan’s nonrural counties increased 7.3% but declined in rural counties. Rural dwellers have less access to health care and life expectancy in rural areas has fallen sharply compared to non-rural areas.
“Children raised in Detroit and other central Michigan cities have very little chance of achieving career advancement, and the same is true for children in many rural areas,” said the lead author David ArsenicProfessor of Education Policy and K-12 Education Administration.
“In this report, we explain how integrated efforts to improve educational opportunities in Michigan’s rural schools will drive needed development in the state’s rural communities, but it requires rethinking long-standing problems,” said Arsen.
Recruitment and retention of teachers
More than 80% of superintendents said recruiting and retaining teachers for their districts is “very” or “extremely” difficult. Rural schools often receive few, if any, applicants for open apprenticeship positions, despite spending a great deal of time recruiting. Many positions remain vacant or are filled by long-serving substitute teachers. The superintendents pointed to a number of common factors: low salaries, geographical isolation, the declining attractiveness of the teaching profession, and restrictive state certification requirements.
“For many rural superintendents, receiving a resignation or retirement letter is what keeps them up at night. Under current policies, finding a replacement is extremely difficult and often leads to vacancies,” he said Rebekah JacobsenCo-author of the report and Professor of Education Policy.
Support for students with mental health problems
Two-thirds of superintendents said meeting students’ mental health needs is “very” or “extremely” difficult, and nearly all superintendents said those needs are a higher priority now than they were prior to the pandemic . According to the report, two factors are contributing to the growing challenge: an increase in traumatic circumstances in college dormitories and a shortage of trained mental health providers in rural areas. Superintendents also expressed concern for the welfare of exhausted teachers and staff working under heightened stress, particularly during the pandemic.
“While providing student mental health care is a growing challenge for all school districts, staffing shortages are particularly acute in sparsely populated rural areas,” Jacobsen said. “Sometimes you don’t get on the waiting list for an appointment because there’s no one to wait for.”
More than a third of students in many rural school districts do not have broadband Internet access at home, creating large inequalities for these students compared to students who have broadband at home. The lack of reliable and affordable broadband connections also severely limits access to online physical and mental health care. And it dramatically limits the community’s economic development at a time when remote working options, coupled with good broadband, would otherwise enable many more people to live and work comfortably in rural Michigan.
“Michigan is blessed with expansive rural areas that boast stunning natural beauty—lakes, trees, hills—and quaint towns. All that many rural Michigan communities need to fuel sustainable growth are good schools and good broadband access,” said Arsen.
The report finds that rural school leaders are working diligently to expand connectivity for their local families, but all too often their efforts are not enough to overcome a fundamental market failure problem: it is currently unprofitable for private ISPs to Fiber optic cable to low population density areas.
It is important to anticipate how this service will be supported as broadband services come to previously unserved communities. Many rural households and businesses need help with internet usage and device failures, but IT services are often not available nearby. The report describes school-based initiatives to instill digital literacy in students and other community members.
“You have an IT problem? Take it to the local school to be covered by IT professionals and students-in-training,” Arsen said. “Local students trained in IT services in this way can then start their own businesses to meet the needs of the local community as well.”
Funding is a major concern for most counties. In Michigan, most of the resources available to local schools are controlled by state policy. Chief among these challenges are higher costs per student coupled with a lack of economies of scale, rural isolation, student transportation, and declining enrollment. If the true cost of educating students in rural schools is not recognized in government funding, students in rural communities will not have equal access to education as their peers in non-rural schools.
School funding has declined for most of the past two decades, but has begun to improve in recent years.
“This is great news for all Michigan schools, but we still have a long way to go to achieve adequate and equitable funding, including much better matching of state funding to the unique costs of rural counties,” Arsen said.
schools and local economic development
The report found that schools in rural communities are an important engine of the local economy. Aside from being the primary institutions for providing excellent educational opportunities for children, public schools play an integral role in rural community life and economic development. They are one of the largest, if not the largest, employers in most rural communities. Schools are important buyers of services from local businesses and prepare youth for a range of crucial jobs in a thriving local economy.
“The rural superintendents we met yearned to offer stronger career and technical education programs to interested students and establish school-based health centers to better serve students in settings where access to outside-of-school providers is limited,” said Jacobsen. “State policies can and should strengthen the links between improved educational opportunities and community development in rural Michigan,” she added.
The American dream?
The report notes that these problems are not unique to Michigan. Indeed, over the past quarter century, the country’s economic dynamism has become increasingly centered on the coasts and inland metropolitan areas. At the same time, employment and population growth are stagnating in rural areas.
“The American Dream is built on opportunity,” Arsen said. “Research clearly shows that the neighborhood in which a child grows up has powerful causal effects on their chances of advancement and many other positive life outcomes. Opportunities for children in much of rural Michigan could be dramatically improved with state policy changes that are within reach.
“Children don’t have to grow up in wealthy circumstances to be successful. What they need are general conditions with good schools and a broad range of basic services. We were deeply impressed to see rural schools as places where adults genuinely care about children and work hard to help them thrive. With supportive government policies, they could achieve even more. And in environments where that happens, rural Michigan will not only retain residents but attract new ones, because opportunity communities are desirable places to live and work,” said Arsen.
Rebecca Jacobsen, Professor of Education Policy
The report examines current government policies in each of the key areas above to assess how well they match the circumstances of the rural community and provides detailed recommendations for required policy changes in each area. These policy recommendations are guided by three principles: equity, efficiency and local control.
“Effective place-based public policy needs to establish some basic conditions,” Arsen said. “You need to address market failures (as in the case of broadband access) and balance market forces that severely disadvantage rural communities (as in hiring teachers and mental health providers). If public policy can do this, then these respective service and labor markets in rural areas can function more fairly and efficiently. And it creates the conditions for local discretion. We believe that much of the specific elements of policy implementation should be left to local decision-making and initiative. Local actors should be empowered to find solutions for their communities.”
“We have found that rural superintendents are impressive leaders – engaged, competent and in touch with different segments of their communities,” Jacobsen said. “Their work naturally leads them to think in terms of their wider community, and they speak effectively about community engagement and development.”