Academic journal article Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)

Working with What They Have: Professional Development as a Reform Strategy in Rural Schools

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)

Working with What They Have: Professional Development as a Reform Strategy in Rural Schools

Article excerpt

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In the current educational environment, scholars and policymakers alike are focused on improving student outcomes. Their efforts have been particularly directed toward sources of inequality, typically defined on the basis of student racial/ethnic identity and geographic locale. A variety of reforms aimed at increasing the number of viable school choices for underprivileged students, holding schools accountable for results, or unifying academic standards across states and regions have formed the basis for policy change in recent years. In addition, and in recognition that teacher quality varies markedly across contexts (e.g., Aaronson, Barrow, & Sander, 2007; Rockoff, 2004; Rivkin, Hanushek, & Kain, 2005), many of the latest reforms are directed specifically at the teaching profession.

Nearly all the literature on teacher quality and the achievement gap has focused on the differences between suburban and urban (and particularly inner-city) schools. It is well-documented that urban schools with primarily minority students, students of lower socioeconomic status, and students with low academic performance are generally served by less effective teachers (Boyd, Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2005; Chester & Beaudin, 1996; Goldhaber & Hansen, 2009; Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2004; Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff 2002; Loeb, Darling-Hammond, & Luczak, 2005). Rural schools remain under-examined relative to their suburban and urban counterparts across a variety of reform dimensions (Arnold, Newman, Gaddy, & Dean, 2005; Ballou & Podgursky, 1995; Ingersoll & Rossi, 1995; Miller 2012; Sherwood, 2000). The absence of emphasis on rural locales in the educational policy literature generally, and in the teacher quality literature specifically, is especially glaring given the possibility that improvements to the teaching workforce are among the more direct ways in which policymakers may plausibly influence student achievement in these areas.

In rural locales, reforms based on school choice and accountability may either be infeasible, of limited long-term impact, or at least in need of application to a particular rural context (Cowen, Butler, Fowles, Streams, & Toma, 2012; Miller, 2012). For example, one tenet of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) reform is that schools will respond to accountability pressures to improve outcomes. Although the literature varies somewhat, studies of NCLB and other similar performance-based regimes in typically large, urban settings have generally shown improvement in student test scores (Carnoy & Loeb, 2002; Dee & Jacob, 2011; Hanushek & Raymond, 2005; Jacob, 2005; Rockoff & Turner, 2010). In such locales, however, one of the primary sanctions for sustained low performance is the threat of school reorganization; closure; or, especially, competition from charter schools and other alternatives. These options are often not available in rural districts, particularly those in which only one school at each level serves the community's schoolchildren.

Moreover, even more broad-based teacher quality reform strategies may be difficult to implement in rural contexts. The most recent of these reforms emphasize the use of teacher evaluation based on student achievement. In more than 20 states, teacher employment is at least partly contingent on evidence of student learning (Winters & Cowen, 2013a), but implicit in any effort to improve the teacher workforce by dismissing ineffective teachers is the idea that more effective teachers are available to take their place (Rothstein, 2012; Winters & Cowen, 2013b). Research on teacher staffing in urban areas has emphasized the difficulty in recruiting and retaining high quality teachers for at-risk children (Boyd et al., 2005; Chester & Beaudin, 1996; Goldhaber & Hansen, 2009; Hanushek et al., 2004; Lankford et al., 2002; Loeb et al., 2005), and there is reason to believe that rural locales face similar, yet unique, challenges in this regard. …

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