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While we have several large urban and suburban population centers a majority of our decisions in Jefferson City are driven by the needs and opinions of our rural legislators.
And when it comes to education, many of those legislator’s priorities are driven by the largest employer in their district — most frequently the traditional public school district.
So creating real, lasting reforms for our education system is always an uphill battle.
But it is a battle that is worth fighting if we want to escape the downward spiral many other rural communities across the country find themselves in today (shouldn’t the largest employer be a private business or industry instead of the public school system?).
Their strategy calls for five key ingredients to transform rural education to become an incubator for economic revival. We will look at each of the ingredients and see how Missouri is doing at providing these options to our rural communities.
Ingredient #1 Embrace personalized, student-centered learning approaches that make competency and mastery of subject matter the primary goal.
Personalized/competency learning focuses on allowing students to learn at their own pace, speeding through material they understand and spending as much time as they need on material they are having trouble with.
This student-focused, instead of class-lesson focused, strategy can be hard to achieve in rural districts with limited staff, but CER suggested it can be easily achieved by leveraging new technologies like virtual education platforms.
The program still has some kinks to work out but it is a good step to opening the door to more competency-based learning and providing students in rural areas access to more specialized course offerings.
Missouri also still has some work to do on providing high-speed broadband to every rural area before online resources can provide their full impact.
Ingredient #2 Build new teacher pipelines that provide sustainable talent and ensure students have the quality instructors they need to be set up for success in school and life.
Good teachers are what make good classrooms. Multiple studies have shown that a quality teacher can have a significant impact on student performance. This means that if we want all of our children to have access to quality education then we need to make sure we are filling schools with quality teachers and working to weed out ineffective teachers.
How is Missouri doing?
Unfortunately, Missouri has an ongoing state-wide teacher crisis. We have trouble recruiting teachers across the state, partially due to our ranking as one of the states with the lowest teacher salaries in the country.
In rural areas, recruiting high-quality teachers can be even harder because of even lower salaries and a lack of access to amenities found in an urban area. A growing number of school districts have tried to combat this by shortening the school week to only 4 days, but this approach hurts student achievement and creates nightmares for parents — especially those who live in areas with limited day-care opportunities.
Missouri is working on trying to grow a new generation of teachers through its “Grow Your Own” program which encourages existing students to pursue becoming a teacher. Additionally, various levels of state government are considering ways to improve teacher pay in the state.
One additional option would be to give teachers more control over their classrooms and more freedom in how they interact with students. This helps teachers better enjoy their careers and makes teaching fun again. Charter schools and private schools traditionally do a much better job of letting teachers be teachers.
Ingredient #3 New School Models that expand opportunities for rural students and teachers.
There are a plethora of innovative educational models that are leading to real student success. But, it can be hard to implement these innovations in a system that is controlled by a single monopoly that is focused on preserving the status quo as we find in many rural communities dominated by the local school district.
CER points out that charter schools (and private schools for that matter) provide much more flexibility to implement innovative new learning opportunities because of the flexibility they have on a building level.
How is Missouri doing?
If you are looking for free alternatives to the traditional school system in rural Missouri that provide more options for innovation you have few choices.
Charter schools are only allowed in two school districts (both urban) in the state.
There are many private schools (both religious and sectarian) throughout rural Missouri, but Missouri does not have any form of private school choice program like an ESA that would make it possible for students to attend these schools without worrying about the cost of tuition.
Faced with these choices, many rural families choose to homeschool, but again there is no funding to help them with costs associated with homeschooling.
Clearly there is a need to expand parental choice options and support to the entire state. Rural communities should have the same right to support a charter school as their counterparts in St. Louis City and Kansas City. All Missouri families should have support to send their children to the school that fits their needs.
Ingredient #4 Building a new pathway for workforce and higher education to ensure the new school models actually map directly into a clear and successful course for life.
Access to a high-quality education is a key foundation for economic success, but that education also has to produce skills that the workforce of tomorrow needs if it is to be truly successful in building a better economy for rural areas.
As a result, properly aligning certification offerings with workforce needs is key. Schools need to be talking to employers and learning what those employers need. Schools need to be working with community colleges and 4-year institutions to make sure they have clear and easy to access pathways for students to quickly and economically get the education they need to get into the workforce.
How is Missouri doing?
Missouri could always do better at creating clear pathways from education to employment, but we do have a number of programs throughout the state that are being successful.
Missouri has several CAPS programs, which are designed to build partnerships between businesses and education institutions. We also have a number of proactive technical schools that work with industries across the state to help build workforces in specific regions.
We also have a governor who is focused on economic development and working to make sure that all levels of state government are working together to improve our workforce pipelines. Unfortunately, this initiative has yet to significantly reform K-12 education and as a result, it may have limited long-term impacts.
Ingredient #5 Attract new capital into Opportunity zones to take advantage of the federal incentives for investment in communities that need those investments the most.
Opportunity zones help bring federal incentives to underserved communities and can be used to attract new industries or help existing industries remain in rural areas. CER points out that Opportunity zone funding can also be used to help incentivize new school development and teacher training centers.
How is Missouri doing?
Missouri has 161 established Opportunity zones in both urban and rural areas of the state.