Paul Hill On Rural Education, Part One! World Class Standards And Place-Based Education In Rural Schools

I’ve been traveling – apologies for the light posting. Paul Hill is going to pinch hit with some thoughts on rural education for the next few days.  Paul is chair of the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho (ROCI) task force, which has published ten papers on important issues in rural education, including work by Bellwether analysts. Reports from the ROCI task force are available at Stay up-to-date on future publications by following on Twitter: @ROCIdaho.


By Paul Hill

Place-based education is vitally important for rural (as for urban) areas, but it can’t be pursued to the point of denying rural high school graduates a real choice about whether to attend college or do something else. As a country we need to find ways to improve rural students’ options, both in higher education and the world economy, and in their home communities. Unlike some who fear that education to world standards will drain the brains out of rural America, it can give young people the option of living and working where they choose, including returning to and strengthening the communities where they grew up.

Some scholars have created a false dichotomy between place-based education and education to world standards.  These can be complementary, not opposed, both in cities and rural areas. Thoughtfully pursued, place-based education is good education. Children need to understand their home towns – their founding, why and how different groups moved there, how people make a living, cultural assets, political issues, and history of exclusion and inclusion of women and minorities. This is so whether children go on to universities and lead their adult lives elsewhere, or return home. Standards, tests, and university admissions requirements are no excuse for schools becoming ivory towers.

Everyday educators have less trouble with these ideas than some scholars do. In the task force members’ research to date, we met many superintendents, principles, and teachers who believed that education to pre-college standards was necessary for all but the most severely disabled students, and that even the most academically advanced needed both instruction and practical experience with hometown issues. They agreed with leaders of the most prestigious private schools, that students need to volunteer, encounter people unlike themselves, and engage in guided discussion of the issues they see.  Rigorous formal instruction does not need to drive out engagement with community, politics, and the economy.

Standards for K-12 education (whether linked to the Common Core or developed in a particular state) are meant to inform educators about what children need to know in order to be ready for higher education and be able to make a living in a constantly changing economy. Granted that there are important disputes about whether creators of the Common Core Standards have gotten it right, it is still clear that some standards are needed. Standards are particularly important for students, parents, and educators in rural communities who often have scant contact with the higher education institutions and employers that link young people with careers. Rural parents and teachers need to know whether students are learning what they need to succeed in the outside world. Rural educators need this information to set expectations for themselves and to counter local political forces that resist paying, and see no need for, rigorous instruction and advanced learning.

There is a real issue about the ways federal and state accountability policies employ standards. If clumsily pursued or implemented, accountability systems can drive out the flexibility that educators need to integrate standard instruction with exploration of local issues. Where educators replace normal teaching with constant test preparation – whether because of too-demanding a measurement regime or their own anxieties about being assessed –students lose.  However, measurement need not force educators to drain the life out of instruction or alter students’ answers on tests. The diligence and determination of the thousands of educators, both urban and rural, who work hard on formal instruction without isolating their students, proves the point.

How can rural schools link children in two directions, to their home communities and to the broader world? How can state accountability policies protect children from poorly informed or negligent education without making teachers into automatons? The answers to these questions can be found in the real world, where many rural educators want to maximize their students’ opportunities and would not take actions that protect themselves at students’ expense. Like other false dichotomies constructed by theorists, community based education and broader standards can coexist, sometimes smoothly and sometimes in tension. Future work by the ROCI task force will show how this is being done, and how struggling educators can learn from others’ success.

Paul Hill is the chair of the ROCI task force, a research professor at the University of Washington Bothell, and former director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. 

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