This article was originally published by the LEARN Network here.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately one in five public school students are enrolled in a school with a rural designation.1 Rural schools face unique challenges such as a lack of adequate resources, high transportation costs, difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers, and a shortage of professional development opportunities and early childhood services.2,3,4 For evidence-based educational products to scale in rural settings, product teams must understand and address the unique context of rural schools.
We reached out to Dr. Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association (NREA) and an advisor for the LEARN Network, to get his take on what education researchers and developers should consider in designing products for rural settings.
Conversation with Dr. Allen Pratt, Executive Director of the National Rural Education Association
We want to start with a question about your background. How did you come to be involved with NREA?
I have been with NREA since 2016, when I joined as a state director for Tennessee. I’ve been in the executive director role since 2017, but I’ve worked in rural education in some form or fashion for over 27 years. I started as a director and liaison in rural Tennessee and have since had various roles focusing on workforce development, school reform, professional learning communities, and rural education.
Now let’s turn to some questions about your constituents. In your experience, how do rural educators typically learn about new products and programs?
Most constituents learn about or explore products and programs through emails, trade shows, and referrals. These aren’t the only avenues of discovery, but the most common routes involve the process of a search or making a call to someone who might know the proper direction. Rural districts may rely on word-of-mouth more than cold call outreach from companies. If a neighboring district deems a product or service as trustworthy or dependable and the cost is within a rural district’s budget, it would be easier to push for board approval and, more importantly, provide a better chance of stakeholder buy-in.
What factors are most important to rural districts and schools when selecting new products and programs? Who is usually making decisions about what to adopt?
The first issue is always going to come down to affordability. Many rural districts don’t have the economies of scale that come with large student enrollments, so they must provide the same services with fewer resources. The implementation process, meaning what is needed for onboarding and the number of staff that need to be trained, also factors into it. Products and programs should be transparent and clear on what is needed from understaffed central offices to prepare and benefit their students and stakeholders. There’s also the matter of who “owns” the implementation of the new product or program. Rural educators often wear multiple hats, so making sure someone will add that implementation “hat” to their responsibilities is essential.
What role do research and evidence play in rural educators’ decision-making about adopting new products and programs?
Like their nonrural counterparts, rural educators are interested in knowing what institutions have been involved in researching a program. That might be a state department, a district doing its own research, or research conducted at a local college or university. If a product has the blessing of one of these institutions, that will mean a lot. Alternatively, rural educators may consider evidence of success from another district in their region if they see something succeeding in a similar setting; that goes a long way. A product being research-based or tested is vital, but having the endorsement or assurance of success is essential to rural districts’ trust and understanding of the work from the company or industry.
What should education researchers especially consider when developing products and programs for rural districts and schools? In what ways are their needs different from other types of districts?
Involving rural voices through a rural advisory group is a significant first step for researchers and product developers. This group can help developers think through ease of use, onboarding, and implementing a program or product.
What is the technology is available to support product implementation in rural schools and districts? Has this changed since the COVID-19 pandemic?
The landscape of technology changed during the pandemic in more accessibility to devices and broadband internet, and more reliance on both. There was also increased use of web-based cloud services to support direct instruction and communication between students, parents, and schools.
Thanks for sharing with us today! Anything else you’d like to add?
The good news about the rural context is that less human capital often means fewer decision-makers. In other words, there’s usually only a single person you need to win over to get your product on board. It’s all about relationships.
1 National Center for Education Statistics. (2023). Enrollment and School Choice in Rural Areas. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved [date], from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/lcb.
2 Burrola, A., Rohde-Collins, D., & Anglum, J. C. (2023). Conceptualizing rurality in education policy. The Rural Educator, 43(3), 17–33. https://scholarsjunction.msstate.edu/ruraleducator/vol44/iss3/2/
3 Cummins, A. (2019). The rural reality: A call for a focused effort on challenges and needs. California Schools (Spring 2019). https://publications.csba.org/issue/spring-2019/#ruralreality
4 Showalter, D., Klein, R., Johnson, J., & Hartman, S. L. (2017). Why rural matters 2015–2016: Understanding the changing landscape. Rural School and Community Trust. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED590169