a new report of Michigan State University found that Michigan education policy reforms over the past two decades have largely ignored rural schools, and thus failed to support needed community development.
The three-year study asked supervisors in 25 rural school districts across the state to identify the most problematic areas where current policies do not provide opportunities for students to learn and thrive as adults. Key problem areas include teacher recruitment and retention, students’ mental health needs, broadband Internet access and funding.
Because strong schools are closely related to strong communities, the report places its study in the context of detailed geographic analyzes of the population, employment, and socioeconomic characteristics of all Michigan communities. Rural Michigan communities as a whole are losing population, aging and poorer than non-rural Michigan. Rural communities are also lagging behind in job growth; Over the past decade, total employment has increased 7.3% in Michigan’s non-rural counties but decreased in rural counties. Rural residents have less access to health care, and life expectancy in the countryside has fallen sharply compared to non-rural areas.
“Children who grew up in Detroit and other central Michigan cities have very low chances of achieving upward mobility, and the same is true of children in many rural areas,” said the lead author. David ArsenK-12 Professor of Education Policy and Educational Administration.
“In this report, we explain how integrated efforts to advance educational opportunities in rural Michigan schools will stimulate needed development in the state’s rural communities, but will require fresh thinking for long-term problems,” Arsen said.
Recruiting and retaining teachers
More than 80% of principals reported that hiring and retaining teachers was “extremely” or “extremely” difficult for their areas. Rural schools often receive few, if any, applicants for open teaching positions, despite devoting a significant amount of time to recruitment. Many positions are vacant or covered by long-term substitute teachers. Supervisors cited a common set of contributing factors: low salaries, geographic isolation, the low attractiveness of the teaching profession and restrictive state certification requirements.
“For many rural supervisors, receiving a resignation or letter of retirement is what keeps them up at night. Under current policies, finding a replacement is very difficult and often leads to job vacancies” Rebecca JacobsenCo-author of the report and professor of education policy.
Serving students with mental health needs
Two-thirds of supervisors report that meeting students’ mental health needs is “extremely” or “extremely” difficult, and nearly all supervisors report that these needs are a higher priority now than they were before the pandemic. According to the report, two factors are contributing to the growing challenge: an increase in distressing conditions in students’ homes and a shortage of trained mental health providers in rural areas. Supervisors have also expressed concerns about the well-being of overworked teachers and staff working under increasing pressure, particularly during the pandemic.
“While meeting students’ mental health needs is an increasing challenge for all school districts, staffing shortages are particularly acute in sparsely populated rural areas,” Jacobsen said. “In some cases, one cannot get on the appointment queue because there is no one waiting for them.”
Over a third of students in many rural school districts do not have access to home broadband Internet, resulting in large disparities for these students compared to students with home broadband. The lack of reliable and affordable broadband severely limits access to physical and mental health care online. It also significantly limits the economic development of a community in an era when remote work options combined with good broadband allowed many people to live and work comfortably in rural Michigan.
“Michigan is blessed with vast rural areas of stunning natural beauty – lakes, trees, hills – and attractive cities. All rural communities in Michigan need to stimulate sustainable growth are good schools and good broadband access,” Arsene said.
The report found that rural school leaders are working hard to extend connectivity to their local families, but often their efforts are insufficient to overcome a fundamental market failure problem: it is currently unprofitable for private Internet service providers to run fiber-optic cable to low-density areas.
It is important to anticipate, when broadband service reaches previously unserved communities, how that service will be supported. Many rural homes and businesses will need help with internet use and equipment downtime, but often there are no IT services nearby. The report describes school initiatives to teach digital literacy to students and other community members.
“Do you have an IT problem? Bring it to the local school to be addressed by IT professionals and students in training,” Arsene said. Thus, local students trained in IT services can also set up their own business to serve the needs of the local community.
Finance is a major concern for most rural areas. In Michigan, most of the operating funding available to local schools is controlled by state policy. Among these are the high costs per pupil associated with lack of economies of scale, rural isolation, student transportation, and low enrollment rates. Unless the actual costs of educating students in rural schools are recognized in state funding, students in rural communities will not have equitable access to educational opportunities on an equal basis with their peers in non-rural schools.
School funding has declined significantly over most of the past two decades, but has begun to rise in recent years.
“This is great news for all Michigan schools, but we still have a long way to go to get adequate and equitable funding, including a much better alignment of government funding with the costs characteristic of rural areas,” Arsen said.
Schools and local economic development
The report found that schools in rural communities are a major driver of local economies. Apart from being the primary institutions for creating excellent educational opportunities for children, public schools play an essential 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, preparing young people for a range of jobs that are critical to a thriving local economy.
“The rural supervisors we met were eager to provide stronger vocational and technical education programs for interested students and to establish school health centers to better serve students in places where access to non-school providers is limited,” Jacobsen said. “State policies can and should strengthen the links between improving educational opportunities and community development in rural Michigan,” she added.
The American dream?
The report notes that these problems are not limited to Michigan. In fact, over the past quarter century, the nation’s economic dynamism has increasingly focused on the coasts and urban areas in the interior of the country. Meanwhile, employment and population growth stagnated in rural areas.
“The American dream is built on opportunity,” Arsene said. “Research firmly demonstrates that the neighborhood in which a child grows up has strong causal effects on their chances of upward mobility and many other positive outcomes in life. Opportunities for children in much of rural Michigan can be greatly improved through accessible state policy changes. Easily.
“Children do not need to grow up in rich places to be successful. What they do need are environments that provide good schools and broad basic support. We are deeply moved to see rural schools as locations where adults truly care about children and work hard to help them succeed. With supportive state policies, they can Do more. And in places where this is happening, rural Michigan will not only retain residents, but also attract new residents, because communities with high opportunity are desirable places to live and work.” Arsene said.
The report examines current state policies in each of the key issue areas listed above to assess their compatibility with the conditions of a rural community, and makes detailed recommendations for the political changes required in each area. These policy recommendations are guided by three principles: equity, efficiency, and local oversight.
“Effective state policies based on location must establish some basic conditions,” Arsen said. They must address market failures (such as in the case of broadband access) and offset market forces that severely harm rural communities (such as in the employment of teachers and mental health providers). If state policies can achieve this, these service and labor markets can function more equitably and efficiently in rural areas. It paves the way for local appreciation. We believe that a great deal of specific elements of policy implementation should be left for decision-making and initiative at the local level. It should entrust local actors to discover solutions for their communities.”
“We have found that rural supervisors are impressive leaders — loyal, efficient, and in touch with diverse segments of their communities,” Jacobsen said. “Their jobs naturally lead them to think in relation to their entire community, and they speak effectively about community participation and development.”