Rural schools really matter to Tennessee’s future. If there’s any doubt in your mind, consider these facts presented in Why Rural Matters, a report released earlier this month by the nonpartisan Rural School and Community Trust (see page 135 of the report for complete Tennessee data):
- The state has the nation’s fifth-largest number of students attending rural schools, with more than 293,000 rural students — well over three times the roughly 86,000 students enrolled in Metro Nashville Public Schools, for example.
- Rural schools in the state had the seventh-lowest average level of spending in the US for the instruction of each rural student. This figure and others are based on federal data, slightly dated, and education funding has been on the rise in Tennessee. Still, the state should redouble its efforts — especially for school systems serving the neediest students who need the most support.
- The state had the nation’s 11th-lowest average adjusted salary for educators, taking local salary levels into account. Former Governor Bill Haslam and current Governor Bill Lee have made higher salaries, especially for teachers, a greater priority in the state. This is a step in the right direction. The state also needs to do more to provide and support teachers in high-need rural areas.
- Dual-enrollment rates for rural Tennessee high school juniors and seniors were below national averages, although this is likely changing as the state expands dual-enrollment for students.
- Tennessee has a high rural student-mobility rate: More than one in ten rural students changed residence in the previous year, suggesting that more wraparound support and mental health programs may be needed.
- In better news, the state sees decent results for rural students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, (although the state does have a substantial achievement gap between rural students in poverty and rural students not in poverty).
- Tennessee had the seventh-highest rural high school graduation rate and higher-than-average rates of rural students passing Advanced Placement exams.
One major area of concern for rural schools in Tennessee and many other places: The struggle to recruit and retain highly effective teachers. This challenge is not insurmountable, however, if we give it the attention it deserves.
The National Rural Education Association has recommended several possible solutions through SCORE and the Tennessee Education Equity Coalition’s recent report on rural education in the state, including “grow-your-own” programs based on examples in other states (Alabama and New Hampshire, for example) that would help recruit and support teachers in the poorest rural counties in the state. These programs would be relatively inexpensive to establish and grow, and could include:
- In the highest-need districts, scholarships to cover up to $32,000 in student loans at a Tennessee public college if graduates teach in a rural district for four years.
- Smaller stipends to offset tuition costs of up to $4,000 each for additional college students in approved educator-preparation programs who agree to teach in a rural school or district for at least three years.
- Stipends of up to $6,000 each to teachers in rural areas who seek National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification to advance their skills, or candidates from other careers who complete an alternative-licensure program allowing them to teach in a rural area or high-need subject area.
- Through additional stipends, encourage teaching assistants working in rural schools to finish their undergraduate degrees and become licensed teachers. Colleges would agree to accept these potential teachers and fast-track them toward licensure.
SCORE has been so supportive of rural schools over the years, and we know the organization will continue to advocate for improving rural students’ educational opportunities in Tennessee. In fact, we all need to do the same by educating community members, policymakers, and education advocates across the state.
Allen Pratt, EdD, is executive director of the National Rural Education Association, a nonprofit organization based at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He previously was a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent in Tennessee and led the Tennessee Rural Education Association. Alan Richard is a national education writer based in Atlanta. He is a national board member of the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust.
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