The politics of rural education — interview with Ashley Jochim | VIEWPOINT

Ashley: So, as part of our national political
conversation right now, I think there’s a larger discussion around people feeling like
they’ve been left behind, that they’ve been neglected and not attended to, that they’re
not getting their fair share of resources. And I think all of those concerns definitely
dominate discussions around rural education. Andy: Ashley, welcome, from the Center on
Reinventing Public Education. It’s a real pleasure to have you here. Ashley: Thank you for having me. Andy: So, we have been talking today about
rural schools, and you have written a paper, who’ve co-authored a paper about the politics
of rural education reform. So let’s start off at the very beginning. What do people get wrong about the politics
of education reform in rural areas? What don’t they know? Ashley: Yeah, I mean, I think most people
assume that rural education is perhaps less political than what you might find in a city
like Chicago, or New York City, where you have a lot of entrenched political
interests fighting for power and influence, and a lot of big political actors, mayors
and superintendents. But what I think people don’t realize is that
while the politics in rural communities may look different, they can be just as challenging
for the rural superintendent to navigate, making it hard to press for reform or launch
new initiatives. Andy: So give us some examples. So, jobs, for example, right? Like, they have to think about the employment
of their people in the communities, running into someone at Walmart in a way that maybe
a big district superintendent won’t. Right? Ashley: Yeah, absolutely. So, in rural communities, schools are a source
of jobs, and maybe a big source of jobs, depending on the community. And so, when you say you wanna fire an ineffective
teacher, that creates conflict between someone who might be not just your employee but also
your neighbor. And unlike in a big city school system where
you might be able to rely upon your HR department to process that paperwork, you’re gonna have
to tell that person, in person, personally yourself. So there’s no bureaucracy in a lot of these
systems because they’re small places, and the rural superintendent is wearing a lot
of hats. Andy: That’s right. So, let’s now talk about the rural schools
themselves and the communities that they are in. It turns out that rural schools often have
really high graduation rates, high school graduation rates, but they don’t have such
good college going or college graduation rates. Why is that the case? Ashley: Yeah, I think there is a confluence
of factors, and I don’t think anybody knows exactly why, but one piece of it is, in the
status of the rural economy means that, in general, rural communities have fewer adults
that have a college degree in the first place. So, it’s grown over time, like, college going
rates across the country, but it’s still much lower than what you find in cities or the
suburbs. And as a result of that, you can imagine in
families in rural communities, that the adults that students are looking towards for sort
of expectations around this, oftentimes do not have the same sort of drive to say, “You
are going to go to college,” as a kid. Andy: Well, let’s talk about this because
there’s that one element where if just the general adult population has been less likely
to go to college, they may have different expectations. But there is also something about these are
small communities, and if the schools, if the principals, the teachers are telling kids
to go off to college, they might not come back to the community. So there is this tension about, “Do we tell
our kids to go away, knowing that could an effect on this community? We could be losing our best and brightest
who we never see again.” That’s an issue, right? Ashley: Absolutely. In fact, that’s exactly what we see. The empirical evidence suggests that the rural
communities that are most successful in promoting economic mobility, so sort of the American
Dream, are also…promote out-migration. So kids that leave are more likely to rise
up the economic ranks and to achieve more success in life compared to students that
stay behind. But this creates a real tension in rural communities
because to the extent that they’re successful in the goals that we’ve set for them, raising
achievement and promoting college, they very well may undermine the communities in which
these schools exist in. Andy: Yeah, if you think of, like, Boston
or New York or Chicago, no principal really has to worry about, you know, Chicago or Boston
or New York is gonna fall apart if our best and brightest go off to college. No, there are gonna be lots of kids. A lot of kids are gonna come back and get
jobs. But if you have a graduating class of 20 kids
every year, and the best leave and they decide that jobs are 100 miles away, you may have
a pipeline out of the community. And the next thing you know, the community
gets smaller and smaller. You have to close schools. It’s tough. It puts these schools and administrators in
a really tough position. Ashley: It does. And, you know, when you look at the status
of the rural economy, a lot of those issues are shaping schools in a big way. So the fact that many jobs have left rural
communities to relocate to cities and urban centers, or just because those jobs just don’t
exist in the United States anymore because of automation or they’ve become mechanized. So I think it’s economic development intersects
in big ways with rural education. In fact, what we see is 85% of all persistent
poverty counties that exist in the United States are rural ones. So, creating this sort of self-reinforcing
cycle. Andy: Well, that’s such an important point
that we should pause on this, and I think this is something that most folks don’t know,
especially people who probably study urban schools, is that if we look at America’s,
what we call persistently poor counties, where there’s intergenerational poverty, a lot of
people would assume that those are our big cities. That’s actually not really the case. Eighty-five percent of them are actually rural,
where poverty is sticky, where generation after generation of kids, and then their kids,
they’re poor born, poor, stay poor. So, what is the role of schools in all of
this? Are they causing that? Can they solve it? Ashley: I don’t think they can solve it on
their own. And I think one of the big challenges in rural
communities is not only are schools typically under-resourced, in part because they’re serving
just fewer kids so they don’t have the economies of scale, but also because the other sort
of services that we might expect to come in and support schools in their charge to address
the challenges that come with poverty are weaker or even nonexistent in rural communities. So, mental health services, things of that
nature, job training programs, just don’t exist in the same density that they do in
cities. So if you’re in North Philly, which is a place
that has a lot of poverty, you’re very proximate to a job center, as well as other social services
in a way that, you know, most rural communities, they just don’t have access to those. Andy: Well, so there’s this interesting tension
between rural communities which are often isolated, and the outside, whether it’s policymakers
in Washington, D.C. or state capitals. And part of the story of these communities
and these schools, it actually dates back 100 years to the Progressive Era. A lot of people think of the Progressive Era
of like big city reformers who wanted to deal with the influence of big migration from European
countries to cities, better politics and so forth. But there was also this influence on rural
communities. Education reformers 100 years ago wanted to
fix rural schools in rural communities. So even beginning a century ago, there was
a tension between people in their communities and these outsiders, do-gooders who thought
they were gonna do things for the best interest of the community, telling them what to do. And there’s been tension for the last century. Ashley: Exactly. And I think it’s a really underappreciated
aspect of the progressive legacy, in part because historians have spent a lot of time
thinking about progressive impact in school systems like Chicago, for example, and the
factory model, and training newly arrived immigrants to contribute to their communities. So, progressives, they viewed rural communities
with a lot of skepticism, right? They came in with their ideas around scientific
management, and viewed rural school systems as inefficient in a lot of ways. And they also didn’t trust the local people
to run their own school system. So this was a time in American history where
there was a lot of one-room schoolhouses. You know, thousands of them across the United
States. And there was a lot of local control in those
context, with the community members essentially running the school system. And progressives didn’t like that system and
didn’t trust it either. Andy: So let’s take a step back. We’ve talked a little bit about the Progressive
Era and progressives, but just to make sure we’re clear about this, about 100 years ago,
we generally, in America, talk about this Progressive Era, it was an era of rapid industrialization,
rapid immigration from European countries, when cities were changing, America was changing. And there was a sense among a lot of people
who had power, people who had been in this country for a long time, that we needed to
be more efficient, we needed to have good government, less corruption in cities. What else am I missing? What else is the Progressive Era about? Ashley: Yeah. So, I think, you know, it’s important to note
that the progressives were not what we think of progressives today. This was sort of a broad-based social movement. But I think what they were fundamentally interested
in was good policy. So, sort of bringing the ideals of, you know,
the efficiency movement, and industrialization and scientific management, into the public
sector. So they wanted things free from corruption. And this was a time, you know, that party
machines were rampant. There was a lot of…yeah. There was a lot of politics, real politics,
on the ground, in cities. And so, they spurred a movement to sort of
change that. And this is one of the reasons why we have
independent school boards. That’s a legacy of the progressives, because
they believed education should be insulated from these political pressures that were,
in particular, in cities and had some consequences. Andy: Yeah, there was a view that we could
just professionalize the business of education, if we just got the nasty politics out of this
and got professionals who had technical expertise, who could be put in charge. I even think, at the time, they used the term,
“The best men of society,” would take control of the school system of our schools, and they
would just run it efficiently and well, and everything would be taken care of. It didn’t work out always so well, right? Ashley: Exactly. And that’s where we sort of had the idea of
the factory model born. And it’s called the factory model precisely
because it was influenced so much by that period of industrialization in which factories
and automation were rising at the turn of the century. Andy: Historically, we see a lot of these
fights happening in cities where immigrant communities felt like the people who had been
in charge, had been in the country for a long time were taking their power away. They were saying, “Well, we don’t want you
to speak German in the schools. We’re gonna speak English. You’re gonna use our textbooks.” And so, this wasn’t just about from the people
in charge. The progressives, they were doing what was
best for everyone. But a lot of people felt like, “No, you’re
taking away my culture, my history, by not allowing me and my community to be in charge
of our schools.” And this relates to rural education as well,
when people in cities think they have the best answer and they’re going to apply that
to your schools. You can see why rural communities got their
backs up and said, “No, we actually know how to run our schools. We know what’s best for our kids.” Ashley: Exactly. The progressives, I think, because they believe
in these idealized visions of government and what schools can and should do, they put in
place a very uniform set of expectations and [crosstalk 00:11:25] the right way of doing
things. Exactly. And that rubbed a lot of people the wrong
way, in cities as well as rural communities. Andy: That’s right. A lot of national reformers or state reformers
that are in state capitals probably still think some rural communities are backward
or they’re behind in the times, and we, the people who know better, the technocrats, just
need to brief them up. We need to tell them what to do. So, a question is, are rural schools good? Do they know what they’re doing? What do you think? Ashley: I mean, I think when you look at the
outcomes in general, we see higher than average outcomes in rural communities, and rural communities
do possess a lot of advantages despite some of the challenges that we’ve discussed, including
just having those personal connections between teachers and students, between teachers and
their principal. So, in general, there’s less bureaucratic
system, but they do face challenges, and I think in particular, rising challenges in
the aftermath of the Great Recession. That could, over the longer term, undermine
some of the success that we do see in rural communities. Andy: So what should we make, then, of…your
paper has some really interesting statistics about, I guess, the 2012 election, 2016, that
the truth of the matter is, a lot of these counties, school systems are in very red areas
of America. A lot of them voted for Mitt Romney before,
and then they’re in Trump country. So how do we think about national politics
and the schools and what happened in 2016 and so forth? What do we know about national politics and
what’s happening in these school systems? Ashley: Yeah, I think there’s a few intersections. So as part of our national political conversation,
right now I think there’s a larger discussion around people feeling like they’ve been left
behind, that they’ve been neglected and not attended to, that they’re not getting their
fair share of resources. And I think all of those concerns definitely
dominate discussions around rural education. I think people on the ground in these communities
don’t feel like they’re getting the resources they need to do their work, and in general,
that there’s just a lot of neglect around the issues that they confront on a day-to-day
basis. And when there’s not neglect, I think they
also feel that there’s been this imposition of a very urban vision of school reform which
dates back to the Progressive Era but has continued since. So when you think about a lot of the big reform
initiatives over the last, you know, 30 years, from state takeovers and mayoral control,
to statewide teacher evaluation systems, these types of reforms either were irrelevant for
rural communities or actually were a huge imposition and not a good fit for the types
of challenges that they confronted. A particularly salient example, I think, that
came up in the Obama administration was the School Improvement program, which, for people
not familiar with that program, it required people…to get the grant, you had to fire
the principal in place and put a new one in charge. And the idea was, you know, very rational. It was that new leadership can help spur improvement. But in a rural community where they already
struggled to hire new teachers and principals, this was a real misalignment in terms of problem
and policy solution. Andy: Yeah, I was working in the state at
the time, and there was a school, a district that applied for one of these grants, and
the requirement on the school was they would get rid of half of their staff and their principal. But it turned out the state didn’t recognize
that there was only one high school in the district. And so, if you’re gonna fire a high school
principal and the high school staff, who do you replace them with if a lot of these people
aren’t…the rest of the people in the district aren’t certified to teach at high schools
or are not prepared to teach in high schools? It’s a great case of a federal policy maybe
not understanding rural America all that well, or rural districts at least. Ashley: Exactly. And they could’ve done much more, for example,
to help them, you know, identify new pipelines or train new people. That would’ve been a huge help to their talent
challenges. But simply, you know, rearranging the deck
chairs and firing the beloved principal was probably not the best approach. Andy: Okay. So, what should we be thinking about in this
era of ESA, a new federal law that gives a whole lot more power to states to have accountability
systems and decide what success looks like, not just reading and math scores but maybe
other metrics? Can you give us any guidance on what the politics
of school accountability, school success might look like for rural schools in the next couple
years? Ashley: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. There’s some data that looks at rural superintendents
in terms of what do they see as sort of the key benchmarks of success for their districts,
and there are key differences between rural and urban areas. So, not surprisingly, rural superintendents
are less likely to say that the extent to which their kids go to college isn’t an important
marker of success for them. So I think, you know… Andy: What is the measure of success for them? Getting a job? Ashley: It’s employment opportunities. They do prioritize reading and math scores,
but again, to a lower extent. So there’s just…I think there’s different
expectations, and I think for folks in these communities… I mean, you can never design a system that’s
gonna satisfy everyone, but I think the broadening of requirements around ESA in terms of broadening
the measures of success is an important step forward to being at least more responsive
to the needs of these communities. I think the biggest challenge, of course,
is with any federal law, it’s a huge burden on rural districts. So in small rural districts, we do not…they
don’t have access to, you know, federal program officers who are managing this paperwork there. The superintendent is literally doing it on
her own. So I think that’s an area where we haven’t
seen much progress, but I think could be of huge help to small rural districts in particular. Andy: Well, from the conference we had today,
and reading your paper, this is something that has come across to me that I think a
lot of the education community might not really think much about. New York City has, what, about a million kids
in its school system. LA probably has 750,000. And so, we’re talking about not just hundreds
but thousands of central office administrative staff. There are often cases in a rural community
where they have one, two, three schools. They have a superintendent who might have
two or three administrative staff in a central office. It’s just an entirely different administrative
unit than the big urban school districts that lots of people think about. Therefore, the politics are different. This is an entirely different world. So the last question I kind of want to leave
you with is, as we think about policy, federal, state, whatever it is, how do we think about
policies that can actually serve the million, 1.1 million student, New York City school
system and pick your traditional rural district that has three schools and a couple hundred
kids and, I don’t know, a couple dozen teachers in a few of these schools? Can policy actually help apples and oranges
in this way? Ashley: Yeah, I think it can both help and
hinder. I think the important point, and from the
perspective of thinking about rural education politics, is due to the legacy of the progressives,
as well as other recent reform measures, I think that there’s a lot of distrust of federal
and even state policymakers in rural communities. So what that means is that outside initiatives
and posts from above are likely to meet resistance, and that can play out either by actively trying
to undermine the policy or just not doing it very well. And neither of those are good outcomes, I
think. Policymakers would not be satisfied with that. So I think where we see the most potential
is really trying to leverage the advantages that rural communities possess, so their closeness,
their community mindedness, and use that to support local initiative-taking. I think another place where states in particular
can help rural communities is by leveraging the learning that happens, you know, in individual
districts, and sharing that out. So I think one of the big challenges for the
rural superintendent is just professional isolation. Many of these folks are in remote communities
where just geographic distance divides them from their peers. And so, to the extent that states and other,
you know, intermediate organizations can help connect those folks, that could be a powerful
lever. I mean, just to conclude, I think that what
people don’t realize about politics is, you know, politics can be a constraint but it’s
also a powerful source of energy. And when you get people to buy in to something,
that can deliver you, you know, much good things. Andy: No doubt. Ashley: Yeah. Andy: Well, thanks so much for being here. Great conversation. Ashley: Thank you for having me. Andy: Hey, everyone, that’s the end of our
discussion with Ashley Jochim. Thanks for watching. As always, let us know what other topics you’d
like AEI Scholars to cover on Viewpoint. And to learn more about rural education or
rural education politics, check out the links in the description below.

1 thought on “The politics of rural education — interview with Ashley Jochim | VIEWPOINT”

  1. Why the emphasis on "College" so much? Is it just more of the common disdain for Trades? There are other paths to wealth than college.

    If we only ever tell people that college is always the next step after high school, you lead to the problems we have today with not enough people going into the trades such as electrical, plumbing, HVAC, welding, carpenters, etc. You can still make great earnings from the trades, in fact we have a bit of a trades deficit in the US right now. The people performing those trade jobs are essentially naming their hourly wage and getting it, and getting as many hours as they care to work because there just aren't enough people who do those jobs. Being a plumber today will make you as much as having a Master's Degree ($40k-80k annual). Master Electricians can earn $40k-90k, and Electrical Project Managers can earn upwards of $100k. It's less expensive to get the schooling for the trades jobs, and you know going into them that the job is in demand and will be for the foreseeable future because of this pervasive idea that everyone has to go to college or you're just not accomplishing anything in life. Really? $60k a year after two years of schooling and two more years of experience is a a Life Failure because he didn't go to college? $60k a year at 22 years old, and likely is half way to paying off his education loans already, Is already living a middle-class lifestyle, if not upper-middle class, and can invest and even send every one of his kids through college should they choose that route. The only thing that beats the Trades is a Master's in Computer Science, not even Medicine and Law.

    Also, college isn't for everyone. Given the current political environment on college campuses, there is a growing number of people who want nothing to do with such a toxic, regressive, post-modern, education. Beyond those individuals, you have people who just don't do well in the classical education environment, and need something different to meet their potential. You also have a whole lot of people who just aren't intelligent enough to do the college thing. I'm sure that there are others, but these are the ones that spring to mind immediately, and I think should be sufficient to prove my point that college isn't, and in truth shouldn't be, for everyone.

    Rural means farms and orchards and such. You don't need a PHD to run a farm/orchard. You also don't need an MBA to run that farm, and I've even heard some say it is in fact a disadvantage in running a farm. Take the local extension office's Master Gardener certification. Take a Permaculture Design Course. Learn Aquaponics (there isn't even really a developed training regimen for this yet, nobody's developed one to my knowledge). Intern at Polyface Farms or one of the other similar farms for a year. Learn Engine repair and maintain all those tractors and such that everyone has running all over those farms. Should you take a business management class? Sure, it would likely be quite helpful. Marketing and accounting classes too. Maybe even a financial management class. Doesn't mean you need a degree in anything specific, just more education, and that education can be had in many different forms, it need not be "college."

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