Rural Mobility and Education Policy

From The Rural Blog:

Studies regarding student mobility — how often students switch schools — has usually been focused on poor urban areas, but new research suggests rural student mobility may be as big a problem. A recent analysis of five states by Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning suggests “in a small rural district, it takes a lot fewer kids moving around to play havoc with your staff assignment, special education supports and even course offerings,” Sarah Sparks of Education Week reports on the Inside School Research blog.

High student mobility can affect individual students as they struggle to adjust to news schools and other students as teachers and administrators work to catch up new students, Sparks writes. “Andrea Beesley, McREL senior director and lead author on the report, studied state-reported student mobility data for Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming,” Sparks writes. “The research team found that in Wyoming and North Dakota, rural districts had higher student mobility than did cities, though the smaller school populations in these districts may skew the sample.”

This topic lines up nicely with a guest post I did at The League in 2009 about the premise of a national curriculum. In the post I wrote:

A standardized curriculum also provides both students and parents with a higher degree of mobility. Parents could move to another state to take a new job with less fear of damaging their children’s educational progress. Kids could transfer from one school district to another within the same state and have a fairly seamless experience academically. The mobility provided to parents has an economic impact and the mobility provided to students has an academic impact. It’s a win – win.

While my personal feeling is that the best thing we can give our children is deep roots in a community, I also recognize that for some parents mobility is necessary in order to compete economically. With a national curriculum we remove at least one hurdle for parents that makes mobility more difficult.

I would also point out that this highlights a common misconception which is that rural folks generally stay in one place while urban dwellers move around a lot more. While it may be true that inter-urban mobility is common (within the same city) the studies cited indicate that long-distance mobility is more common in rural areas. One could argue that this indicates either a less diverse economy or a less diverse workforce where niche workers compete for a small pool of jobs and lack the additional skills to change careers if necessary.

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18 thoughts on “Rural Mobility and Education Policy

  1. Having worked in a nationally-standardized education system, I now favor the exact opposite.  Everyone should learn something different, so everyone has a unique perspective on the world. Covering the same material twice (i.e. earth science taught in fifth grade in the old school and sixth grade in the new school) in two different ways and in two different styles can be edifying.

    Far too often nationally-standardized systems select mediocre textbooks and other materials that avoid offense first and teach second. If we want to remain a nation that has an edge in innovation, a nationally-standardized school system is a terrible idea.

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    • “Covering the same material twice …in two different ways and in two different styles can be edifying.”

      Or it can be a complete waste of time. As an example, studies show that many of the gains created by having kids attend jump start and head start are canceled out when the kids get to kindergarten and are tracked in with other kids who didn’t go through those programs. By the end of 1st grade they are all on par with each other because the head start kids stalled out.

      As for textbook problems, I’m fine with different schools using different textbooks as long as they all hit the same milestones at the same time (example: use different  textbooks and different teaching methods but every school teaches kids about the Bill of Rights in December of their 8th grade year).

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  2. A fellow graduate student of mine wrote a paper on New Orleans’ school system before and after Katrina. If you are unfamiliar with the circumstances, before the hurricane, the school board had total control of all public schools and was generally regarded as one of the worst systems in the country. The city/state government reformers were unable to breach the institutions that had built up surrounding the system over the decades.

    After Katrina hit, reforms were made possible (the author posited this as an exception to the broken window fallacy – disaster can aid growth with the cheap destruction of deleterious institutions) and the public schools were subject to competition with charter schools. His data suggest that the charter schools, a decentralized system, have provided more and better opportunities for talented individuals to gain access to success and higher education. He continues to compile his data as the years go by, and I’d be surprised if we didn’t see a book about this once a few more years provide a better sample population.

    I mention this because it serves as a cautionary tale about monolithic decision making in schools. The relatively small tyranny of the New Orleans Parish school board presided over disaster; how much more dangerous could a nation-wide school board be?

    Your point is well taken that high population mobility can lead to education costs. I suggests these costs simply make the positive benefit of (relatively) self-determined curricula only marginally less so, and that the loss of initiative on the part of teachers and school administrators to a federal school curricula czar would be disastrous.

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      • “what to teach and when”

        Newspaper editors choose which stories to run, which to drop, and on which page they are printed. Though the stories may be entirely factual, the preferences of the editor are reflected in their placement. Teachers and their students will find themselves subject to the editorializing of the education czar, who was appointed by someone else (the president, perhaps?), who, no doubt, have their own preferences.

        “2 + 2 = 4”

        Yes, certainly addition should be included in the curriculum, and this is an easy choice. But considering the thousands of years of human history, which culture’s tradition do you leave on the cutting-room floor? Into which history will you delve deeply? If you do decide to include a section on the English Corn Laws, shall they be they cause of, or a reasonable response to famine? These are the choices this czar will face, and 13 years of education will be subject to myriad such ambiguous editorial dilemmas. With that in mind, do persist in suggesting historical editorializing is as simple as 2 + 2?

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        • Austin,

          There are certain basic benchmarks and pieces of knowledge that everyone should know. I have no problem with building in locally-specific lessons into history curriculum, for example. The point, again, is meeting the same milestones each year so students can have mobility between school districts with no ill effects. There’s plenty of room for flexibility within that framework.

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          • I don’t doubt that you could start it like that with nothing but the best intentions, but central governments are nothing if not excellent at mission creep.

            But really, since I recognize the individual’s frictional education costs in a decentralized education regime, surely you could return the favor of recognizing the possibility of centralized bureaucratic inefficiencies. At that point, its a question of which cost is greater.

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    • Of course, when you throw all the special ed and ESOL kids into public schools and scoop up the smartest kids, shockingly charter schools score better. If you give me the first five picks in an NBA draft, I’ll have the best team on the court.

      I don’t doubt New Orleans had problems with it’s school system. The answer isn’t to sell off the school systems to the highest bidder.

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      • Would you feel better about the motives and methods of the charter schools were you to learn that the students were assigned to schools by the authority of the city instead of selected by them? Surely you don’t suggest that the best team in the NBA is the one who was randomly drawn from all available players?

        It seems charter schools have earned your enmity, but I am sorry that in this case, your assumptions are demonstrably false, and your conclusions therefore seriously flawed. I encourage you not to take my word for it, though, as I have no doubt you won’t.

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        • What I recognize is that if we always assume govermnetal policy will fall victim to the kinds of problems you outline – then really, what is the point of any reform effort?

          I also think the havoc created by woefully misaligned state-to-state curriculums and suspect goals in some states (read: teaching intelligent design) is a bigger concern that possible federal overreach in curriculum design.

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          • I agree: reforms designed to centralize decision making authority will always result in interested parties lobbying for their preferences. Wouldn’t you want to make sure that the Curriculum Czar didn’t mandate teaching only intelligent design?

            Are some goals suspect? I agree bang along side with you there. Which is why I wouldn’t move into a school district that only taught, for example, scientological origin. Or, if I did, the kids would be going to private schools; the extra cost of that would figure in to my decision to buy that house or not.

            On a related point: would only public schools fall under the authority of this czar, or would private and parochial schools as well?

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          • I also think the havoc created by woefully misaligned state-to-state curriculums and suspect goals in some states (read: teaching intelligent design) is a bigger concern that possible federal overreach in curriculum design.

            And what do you think will happen when the fundies gain control over the national curriculum?  They’ll get to inflict their nonsense on the entire country with no way to escape it.  The reason teaching evolution is such hard work in the US is not because your education system is decentralised, it’s because you have a lot of evangelical protestants in your polity.  Centralising the education system isn’t going to change that it will just make debates over curriculum more rancorous.

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  3. I think a national curriculum would work okay, so long as it was limited to basic knowledge. The problem I had was with getting assigned the same material over and over, even though I never moved. It might be solved by having say 30% of the material be standardized and 70% be at the teacher’s discretion. I take it about 0% is at their discretion now.

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    • An online acquaintance of mine once told me a story about his local school curriculum rules. He was a math teacher and they had rules, rules, and rules for word problems.

      He could not make a word problem that involved the protagonist riding a bike, as some of his kids were low income and might not have bikes.

      He could not make a word problem that involved the protagonist counting the eggs laid by chickens (or other farming chores), as some of his kids were urban and never saw the countryside.

      He could not make a word problem that involved the protagonist traveling a certain number of city blocks, as some of his kids were bussed in from the sticks.

      And so on and so forth. This was for a guy in Philly.

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      • Perhaps I should clarify again (and myabe ‘curriculum’ is a bad word to use). What I am talking about is agreeing on basic blocks of knowledge that ALL kids should know. Then establish a 12-year schedule so that all schools teach those basic blocks at the same time.

        The point of this is to create mobility for the kids and consistency, ensure a certain basic level of knowledge for all high-school graduates and lastly, to encourage collaboration.

        I’m not interested in Uncle Sam telling teachers how to teach or micro-managing subject matter. That isn’t the point.

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      • It sounds like your acquittance’s school took things way to far. However there is a grain of sense in what the school was trying to do. If kids don’t understand the objects or things in something like a word problem it is a lot harder for them to learn. So there are stories from up here in AK, from years ago, of Eskimo kids given word problems involving violins or  subways. Things which they had never seen nor did they even know what they were, which was really confusing for the kids as opposed to being educational.

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