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From Isolation to Collaboration: Networking around the Common Core in Rural Schools

by Catherine Awsumb Nelson and Robert Mahaffey, June 4, 2014

Catherine: Since the release of the NCLE study on the role that teacher collaboration is playing in Common Core implementation, I’ve had the opportunity to talk about the findings with educators from a wide spectrum of locations, roles, and constituencies. One message that seems to resonate across contexts is the message that standards implementation is going better in places where teachers are given time and support to work together on building them into their curriculum. Perhaps the most enthusiastic response I’ve gotten has been from Robert Mahaffey of the Rural School and Community Trust.

I was intrigued by Rob’s sense that the power of teacher collaboration as a driver of standards implementation was a particularly important message for rural schools. I began digging into the data to see if there were differences in how rural schools are going about putting Common Core in place, what is working for them, and what challenges they face. About 30 percent of the 5,000 educators who participated in the survey indicated they worked in rural or small-town settings, allowing us to look closely at how standards implementation is playing out in those communities.

It turns out that in most aspects of Common Core implementation, there are few systematic differences between rural schools and schools in urban and suburban areas. On average, teachers in all of these locations indicate very similar levels of familiarity with and support for the standards, and they report similar amounts of training. Educators in rural, suburban, and urban areas are moving at roughly the same pace to make changes in their classrooms, with about 64 percent of educators in all locations saying the standards are having a moderate or significant impact on the content of WHAT they teach and 74 percent reporting moderate to significant impact on the methods of HOW they teach.

There is one area, however, in which rural educators are notably different from their urban and suburban peers, and it helps to explain why the NCLE message about the power of teacher collaboration as a change force is so crucial for rural schools. Teachers in rural schools reported significantly smaller amounts of weekly dedicated time to collaborate with their peers—38 percent of rural educators report having 30 minutes or less of time each week to work with colleagues, compared with 26 percent from urban areas and 30 percent from suburban schools. Following from that basic lack of time and opportunity for collaboration, rural educators were less likely than those in other areas to report frequent participation in specific powerful practices identified by our study as drivers of successful standards implementation: co-designing lessons and assessments and examining student work relative to the standards.

Perhaps not surprisingly, rural educators identified the lack of collaboration time as the #1 challenge they face in standards implementation—a challenge greater even than lack of instructional time, the #1 challenge named by educators overall.

Why might this be the case? Digging deeper into the data, we see that rural educators are less likely to report being part of any of the collaborative teams we asked about: grade level teams, subject area teams, data teams, inquiry groups. Thinking about the size and structure of many rural schools, it suddenly became obvious to me why collaboration may be a particular challenge: if you are the only third-grade teacher, or the only biology teacher, in the building, or in a twenty-mile radiusit takes more effort and intention to make collaboration happen. Taking advantage of collaborative technologies that bridge physical distances is crucial.

With this in mind, I went back to Rob with a few questions about the particular challenges and opportunities of collaborating around the Core in and between rural schools.

Catherine: Why were you so excited about these findings? How do they speak to the schools and communities you work with?

Robert: First of all, we were excited to have such a strong representation of rural and small-town educators. So often in these studies, rural voices are muted, if there at all. I think the most important thing to point out is the commonalities—that rural teachers are moving just as quickly to change what and how they teach to align with the Common Core, creating  opportunities for lessons to be shared across geographic distances. Rural teachers should be part of these conversations; with the use of technology there are ways to create learning communities to engage across boundaries.

Catherine: Did it surprise you to learn that rural educators report spending less time collaborating? Why or why not?

Robert: It doesn’t surprise me simply because of what you point out, that there may only be one biology teacher. And educators in rural schools are more used to wearing multiple hats—they may also be the bus driver or serve lunch. They pitch in to do what needs to get done, but that may leave less time for formal collaboration. On the other hand, with the kinds of relationships you have in rural schools and communities, there tends to be a lot more informal collaboration going on.

Catherine: How can teachers who are the only ones in their grade level or subject area in their school find peers to work with as they make the shift to the Common Core?

Robert: Instead of seeing this as a negative, this can be incredibly stimulating from a practice standpoint. If you are the only one at your grade level or subject, you naturally collaborate across those lines. The kinds of conversations about vertical articulation and interdisciplinary integration that the Common Core calls for—that happens more naturally with a smaller staff. It really enriches the process, and rural schools may have some lessons to share with schools in other locations because of that.

Another thing that rural schools are really good at is creating place-based approaches to curriculum, tapping the relationships that teachers have with the community, whether through a community garden, an approach to sustainable agriculture, or connections to local manufacturing. In rural schools it is especially important to think about collaboration beyond the school walls, connecting our children with the realities and resources of their communities.

Catherine: What are some opportunities for rural schools to use technology to overcome physical distance and engage in substantive collaboration?

Robert: I see so many opportunities for online communities of practice:

  • Connecting teachers who may be the only ones in their area teaching a certain AP course or foreign language
  • Connecting educators who are dealing with the same issues—for example, the high mobility of students from families who come in to work in agriculture or food processing
  • Linking novice teachers and veterans for more intentional engagement and sharing.

To make those connections happen, it’s important for schools to map both their assets  and common outcomes they are working towards. Technology then increases the momentum. Of course all of that assumes the tools. 95 percent of schools do have the infrastructure to access the internet, but that may be a dial-up connection. The information superhighway is still evolving, and for the sake of our rural communities, we need to continue to invest in technology infrastructure.

Catherine Awsumb Nelson is Director of Evaluation and Learning for the National Center for Literacy Education.

Robert Mahaffey is Director of Communications for Rural School and Community Trust & President of Organizations Concerned about Rural Education.

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