The Coalition of Essential Schools and Rural Educational Reform

By La Prad, Jim | Rural Educator, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

The Coalition of Essential Schools and Rural Educational Reform


La Prad, Jim, Rural Educator


Education has always been evolving; however, the phrase school reform is a relatively new term that began in the late 19lh century and continued through the 20th century. Combine this term with a 21st century term sustainable and we ask what does sustainable school reform look like? This is not merely an academic question, but also a question important to educational leaders, researches, policy makers, as well as school board members and perhaps most importantly tax paying citizens. "These are the dog days of public education and large-scale reform" (p. ix). So begins the preface to Hargreaves and Shirley (2012) The Global Fourth Way: the Quest for Educational Excellence. I begin this article with a smaller assertion; the schools we have today require more intentional improvement. We may not need to look globally for improvement ideas as suggested by Hargreaves and Shirley. Over the last hundred or so years many school reform life cycles have met their end; however, the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) is now in its thirtieth year. Is thirty years long enough to award the term sustainable? As a citizen educator situated in the rural heartland of the Midwest, a study of rural nonurban/suburban CES schools provides valuable insight into the possibility of revisiting this thirty year-old educational reform model.

The Coalition of Essential Schools includes hundreds of public schools that are diverse in size, population, and programmatic emphasis. This article seeks to answer one question; what might this reform model look like in a rural school? Heeding Coladarci's (2007) advice, this article makes no attempt to generalize rural educational context or critique current reform movements in rural schools. Rather, the aim is to share possibilities for reform. A grounded theory approach is utilized to investigate and describe the impact of the Coalition of Essential Schools reform model on these schools.

Background: Rural Educational Reform?

Unlike many reform efforts in urban or suburban school districts, rural educational reform has taken different routes. Rural communities and school districts view films like Waiting for Superman (2010) or The Lottery (2010) and are sympathetic to the plight of urban schools, bewildered parents, and underserved children. However, the contextual situation of their rural communities is very different. Often rural school districts are the largest employer in the area and along with the waves of federal and state educational mandates, are faced with consolidation issues that place educational reform agendas on the distant 'back burners,' however; close to one-fourth of all United States students attend a rural school and the quality of their education matters (Johnson, Showalter, Klein, & Lester, 2014). While, Budge (2006) and Sherwood (2000) explain that it is difficult to define the exact characteristics that identify rural schools and their communities it is recognized that they are very diverse and unique. Historically, Tyack (1972) acknowledged that this uniqueness has created some tension at state and national levels and was identified as the "Rural School Problem" (p. 5). Kannapel and DeYoung (1999) claim, "Over the past 100 years, the drive to make rural schools more centralized, standardized, bureaucratized, and professionalized has nearly robbed them of their distinctiveness and has failed to deliver on the promise of improved quality of education" (p. 76). However, Kannapel (2000) was cautiously hopeful that some middle ground could be found between standards-based reform and rural school improvement efforts. Where is the middle ground? What I have witnessed is regional educational leaders struggling to meet AYP under the standards based accountability movements and complaining that state legislators are driving education into the ground. Schafft (2010) and Powell, Higgins, Aran and Freed (2009) explain that the current standardized accountability movement has had devastating effects on rural schools by weakening educational programs, disempowering educational leaders, demoralizing teachers, and disengaging students. …

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