Finding What Works for Rural Schools: Lessons from the National Center for Rural Education Research Networks (NCRERN)

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By Hayley Didriksen, NCRERN Senior Research and Partnerships Manager, and Jennifer Ash, NCRERN Director

In the wake of the pandemic, students need help, both academically and emotionally, to recover from the disruption and to be set up for success in the future. While the need for support is clear, what to do is not always so obvious. Federal education policy often directs schools to use evidence-based practices to support student success. The dilemma for rural schools is that most education research is conducted in urban and suburban districts, which may not translate to rural contexts.

Here at the National Center for Rural Education Research Networks (NCRERN), we’re committed to collaborating with rural districts to better understand what works for rural students. Launched in 2019 with funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, NCRERN’s mission is to expand the use of evidence-based decision-making in rural education.

To do this, we partner with networks of rural districts to test innovative strategies. This model helps rural districts to learn from each other and to generate evidence about promising practices for rural settings.

A Research Model Designed for Rural Schools

The network model is a key strategy to understanding what works for rural schools. To be able to test whether a program is effective, a minimum number of participants are required to know — with confidence — whether something worked or not. In rural districts, small numbers of students can make it difficult for a single school to conduct a research study. If multiple districts pilot the same program as part of a network, however, their results can be pooled together to create a large enough sample size to evaluate a program’s effectiveness.

It’s not enough to simply conduct research in rural settings — it’s also critical to ensure that programs studied are responsive to rural school districts’ contexts, constraints, and strengths. Leveraging local data and staff expertise, NCRERN works with districts to reflect on historical data trends, unpack obstacles to students’ success, and identify solutions that make sense in a rural context. Our process also provides a framework for districts to use evidence generated to make decisions about whether to continue, revise, or discontinue strategies tested.

NCRERN Model in Practice: Increasing Attendance in Rural Schools

During 2020-21, for example, over 40 NCRERN districts embarked on a continuous improvement process focused on increasing attendance rates. Districts worked together to identify and test four promising strategies to reduce absenteeism. Through this process, districts generated information about what did — and didn’t — improve attendance rates for their students. They learned that just one of the strategies they tried, a personalized messaging program, increased attendance rates.

We believe NCRERN’s approach could serve as a model for other states and districts interested in testing innovative solutions designed by and for rural contexts, as well as a strategy to grow the evidence base about what works for rural schools. Together, we can help all rural schools have the support necessary to succeed.

Education Family & Children Services

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