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Meeting the Challenges of Rural Education

With the launch of a new national initiative and a network of district partners, the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University will partner with rural schools to move the needle on absenteeism and college readiness and enrollment.

The Center for Education Policy Research (CEPR) at Harvard University has been awarded a $10 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education to launch the National Center for Rural Education Research Networks (NCRERN).

The new national center, to be led by Thomas Kane (Harvard Graduate School of Education), Douglas Staiger (Dartmouth College), and Christopher Avery (Harvard Kennedy School), will build on CEPR’s existing Proving Ground initiative and apply its model of evidence-based improvement to address the challenges of chronic absenteeism, college readiness, and college enrollment — and the particular ways in rural schools experience those challenges.

“Because of their small sizes, rural school districts have too often been ignored by researchers and policy analysts. Yet more than 20 percent of students in the United States — nearly 10 million children — attend rural schools. Through the National Center for Rural Education Research Networks, we will be working with rural educators to learn what’s working and what’s not in their own setting,” says Kane. “We hope to gain important insights into the challenges rural schools are facing and to build the capacity of rural schools to use their own data for improvement.”

NCRERN will establish and support a network of 60 rural school districts in New York and Ohio, collaborating with the network to develop, implement, and evaluate interventions. In its second phase, NCRERN will work with additional states to test whether the interventions that worked in New York and Ohio benefit rural schools elsewhere. 

“We are excited that rural schools in Ohio will have this fantastic opportunity to help build their capacity to use data analysis to drive continuous improvement,” says Paolo Demaria, State Superintendent of Public Instruction in Ohio. “Our experience with CEPR’s Proving Ground has shown that student outcomes can be positively impacted when this model is applied.”

The center will be collaborative in scope and mission — both within the partnering districts and beyond — with a focus on developing and sharing evidence about strategies that work. “New York’s landscape is as diverse as its populationm, and with nearly 400,000 students served in our rural and remote school districts, it’s paramount that we do everything we can to leverage our technology and data collection abilities to gain insight into the unique challenges that exist in these districts,” New York State Education Department Commissioner MaryEllen Elia says. “We are delighted to collaborate with the National Center for Rural Education Research Networks and the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University to learn how we can best assist the rural schools in New York State and ensure their students are receiving a quality education and an opportunity to succeed.”

Since 2006, CEPR has worked with urban and suburban school districts across the United States, pursuing joint research projects and training analysts to use data for action. Through its Proving Ground project, CEPR has helped a set of urban districts and charter schools to diagnose challenges and to systematically identify, pilot, and test solutions. Now, CEPR will adapt what it has learned to launch a model of evidence-based improvement for rural schools. 

“The strength of Proving Ground’s approach lies in bringing together our expertise in strategic management and analytics with our partners’ expertise in district operations and school practices to improve student outcomes,” says Bi Vuong, Proving Ground director and NCRERN interim director. “With NCRERN we have the opportunity to put that powerful combination in service of rural educators and students.”

Visit the National Center for Rural Education Research Networks to learn more and find out how to participate.