Rachel's Notes: December 4, 2008

Last Updated: December 04, 2008

December 4, 2008

Secretary of Education

In the next few days, President-elect Obama will name his Secretary of Education. Among the many names that have been floated three seem to continue to be discussed: Arne Duncan, the Superintendent of Chicago Schools; Colin Powell, former Secretary of State; and Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor at Stanford and head of the transition team for the Education Department.

All of the people mentioned and almost all of the people on the transition team and advising Obama have spent most of their time focused on urban schools.


But there were two camps among the advisors. While there is much overlap there are also clear differences.

One group thinks NCLB is good policy and just needs a few changes to strengthen it; supports charters and other alternatives like Teach for America as the main way to reform public schools; bashes teacher unions as the main deterrent to change and argues for pay for performance plans for teachers; favors national standards and more federal regulation of schools.

The second group supports the aims of NCLB but thinks major changes are needed in the assessment system; thinks teacher quality is very important but favors working with the unions not bashing them; finds charters and alternatives interesting but does not believe they are the salvation of public education; supports pay for teachers in hard to staff schools and experiments with pay for performance; favors investments in out of school learning and other family supports as necessary to close the achievement gap.

Obama moved back and forth on this continuum of positions saying he would spend more on charters and explore pay for performance but also saying that major changes were needed in NCLB and we needed to scale up ideas that work. He focused most of his attention on early childhood education and helping more students head to college and be successful.

His choice for Secretary will determine where he lands on this continuum. I had expected a former governor might be in the running in order to build an agenda of the items that both camps could support. Governors spend much of their time focused on education policy since it is a state responsibility and they have to find common ground in their states on these contentious issues. The three names still floating about all lean toward the second camp. But I won’t be surprised if other names rise in the next few days.

The first issues on the President’s agenda will be the economy, energy and health care.

Little will be done on education especially NCLB in the early months of the administration. The stimulus package is likely to contain some school construction money. Current versions have the dollars being targeted to states using the Title I formula; this means states with low tax bases that spend comparatively less of schools will not benefit as much as they should. We really need to revise the formula so that it reaches poor rural children at an adequate level.


Our analysis of election returns in RPM shows that most of the low income rural places in the country voted for Obama. Many of them are blue islands in a red sea. The Southeast around to Texas, Appalachia, the Plains and Mountain states all have pockets of blue in otherwise Republican regions.

The analysis of most others makes it seems as if all of rural America voted Republican. This will make it harder to have policies that are good for rural places rise up in the new administration. All of us will have to make the case for investment, for designing new policies in ways that will reach rural regions and for paying attention to the children in the poorest places in America which are rural.

One idea we have been exploring is the creation of an office of Rural Education Policy Research in the Department of Education.

The Case for An Office of Rural Education Policy Research in the U.S. Department of Education

More than 14 million children—30% of all students—attend the 42% of public schools in rural areas or small towns. Although widely dispersed, and richly diverse in many ways, these students are largely invisible, ignored in educational research, overlooked in state and national policies, and sometimes caricatured as backward or worse.

The significant strengths of rural schools derive from their small size and closeness to community. They are more personal. They offer safer and more nurturing school climates. Student achievement is often higher. Low drop out rates reflect the attention given to individual students in small communities. Parental support is high. Many rural schools have distinguished themselves as academic exemplars and models of innovation.

The benefits of small schools are often not realized in rural places amid the daunting challenges of today. Globalization and transition of resource-based economies have had an enormous negative impact on school finance systems leaving states with large rural regions unable to provide adequate and equitable schooling for all children. Some rural regions have experienced an out-migration that threatens the vitality of entire communities. Other historically homogeneous rural communities have had a large and sudden influx of minority members, often immigrants with limited English language proficiency increasing the costs of education at the same time budgets are declining and expectations of higher achievement are rising. Poverty continues to be a very serious and persistent problem in many parts of rural America, particularly among rural African-Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics, and in Appalachia and the Great Plains.

At the same time expanded state and federal mandates, extraordinary special education obligations, and external pressures for accountability confront rural schools in unique ways. The unanticipated consequences of such requirements on rural schools are unknown. No Child Left Behind has either complicated management for some rural districts that have for years had some of the highest test scores in the country, or it has intensified the severe problems other rural districts have long had in competing for highly qualified teachers and principals. And all of these challenges have aggravated any inadequacies or inequities in state school finance systems, heightened concerns about inadequate facilities, and increased pressure to close many schools. Beyond these policy problems, many rural schools operate in sparse, remote areas where it is difficult to deliver services efficiently. Yet the national solutions impose one size fits all thinking.

Despite a generation of research to the contrary, the educational benefits of small schools are not widely known or understood. Many states continue to have policies that provide incentives to consolidate or force consolidation in an ill-informed attempt to improve academic quality and student achievement with what they mistakenly believe will be less financial burden. Ironically, these consolidation policies continue at the same time unprecedented efforts are in place in major American cities to restructure large schools into small ones. We cannot continue to let anecdotes and conventional wisdom guide us; policy must be based on sound research and analysis.

Because policy research focused on rural issues has been nearly nonexistent, policymakers and educators lack the information they need to understand the problems adequately and to craft solutions that fix the problems identified without the introduction of large unintended negative consequences. Data, when available in the Common Core, the school and staffing survey, or NAEP results, is rarely arrayed or analyzed in a way that highlights rural problems or points to appropriate solutions.

Policymakers and educators who seek to improve education need to understand the extent of these problems and the impact of these problems on rural schools and students. Thus they need up-to-date, accurate and readily available data arrayed and analyzed in ways that contribute to thoughtful decision making.

In summary,
  • Rural America is home to many children and many schools. It is too large to be ignored but too small and diverse to be highly visible.
  • Rural schools and communities have unique assets and unique problems that must be acknowledged and addressed if national educational goals are to be met.
  • Information and analysis are not available in a timely and comprehensive way for policy makers, nor is the anticipated impact of any policy weighed in the process.


We propose the creation of an Office of Rural Education Policy Research (modeled after the Office of Rural Health Policy Research in the department of HHS) headed by a Director that would perform the following tasks:
  1. In cooperation with the National Center for Educational Statistics, produce an annual report on the condition of rural education
  2. Establish and maintain a national clearinghouse on rural education issues
  3. Advise the Secretary on the impact of major proposed changes in law, regulation, administrative rule and budget on rural schools and communities
  4. Identify gaps in research on topics important to rural schools and communities (e.g. the use of cost of living indices in school finance formulas) and recommend study of these topics to the Institute for Education Research
  5. In cooperation with IES and the Regional Education Laboratories, convene an annual conference on the state of rural education research
  6. Identify innovative research and demonstration projects on topics of importance to rural schools that can become part of Department of Education requests for proposals
  7. Coordinate activities with in the Department that relate to rural education
  8. Maintain relationships with other federal departments that have education functions including but not limited to the Departments of Agriculture, the Defense, Energy, and Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, and the Commission on National and Community Service
The office should focus on K-12 education including teacher preparation and report to the Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education.

The initial annual budget should be $25 million.

As always, keep in contact.

Rachel Tompkins