According to a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), rural school districts “faced challenges in meeting No Child Left Behind (NCLB) student proficiency goals and implementing teacher qualification requirements.” The report, No Child Left Behind Act: Additional Assistance and Research on Effective Strategies Would Help Small Rural Districts, also found that rural districts faced some of these challenges “to a greater extent than nonrural districts.”
The report found several challenges to NCLB implementation that are unique to rural districts around the country. For example, rural districts are more likely to enroll a large number of economically disadvantaged students who lack access to valuable resources, such as libraries and computers, that could be used to increase student achievement. Other key obstacles affecting rural districts’ ability to implement NCLB include geographic isolation, limited access to teacher training facilities, and internet line maintenance difficulties.
To meet these challenges, rural districts were more likely to increase computer capacity. However, small rural districts-defined as school districts located fifty-five miles or farther from a metropolitan area, and having three hundred or fewer students-were less likely to report using other strategies to improve student achievement, such as teacher mentoring.
Since the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002, the U.S. Department of Education has tried to address the challenges incumbent in rural education by establishing a task force on rural issues and by awarding a $10 million grant (in September 2004) to the National Center for Research and Development in Rural Education.
However, the GAO report found that rural officials needed further assistance in providing teacher development opportunities and in identifying effective remedial services to improve student achievement. For example, it found that “almost three-quarters of rural district officials” reported a need for information on remedial services that will help students meet academic proficiency goals. In addition, small rural districts and those that may be very isolated “continued to face unique challenges in recruiting, retaining, and training teachers, and lacked strategies to address them.” Overall, 52 percent of rural districts reported teacher recruitment and retention as a problem, compared to 36 percent of nonrural districts. Professional development opportunities for rural teachers were also limited because small staffs made it difficult to release teachers and administrators for conferences and other training.
The report noted that current research on the effectiveness of different strategies to improve student performance is limited and asked the Department of Education to direct its National Research and Development Center on Rural Education to focus on effective, scientifically based methods that can be applied to improve student performance in small rural districts.
In a response from the Department of Education at the end of the report, Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok expressed satisfaction in the report’s finding that the department “made considerable efforts and progress in promulgating regulations, providing assistance, and working with the states in the first two and a half years of NCLB implementation.” However, he also noted that the report’s authors might not have understood all the actions that the department had already undertaken and provided more detailed information on past and planned efforts by the department in the area of rural education.
In the 2001-02 school year, rural districts comprised 25 percent of all school districts in the country.
The complete GAO report is available at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04909.pdf.