A renewed focus on innovation and flexibility under ESSA could provide a recipe for establishing new ways to recruit, develop, and retain teachers in rural schools.

By Douglas Gagnon

Of all the unique contexts overlooked by the last decade of education reforms, those of poor, rural communities were particularly underappreciated — perhaps because the dais from which national politics presides and media reports is largely a metropolitan one. Rural advocates rightly pointed to cases where rural schools were not fully considered, such as the de facto urban bias evident in Race to the Top and school improvement grants or the extra burden that NCLB’s highly qualified teacher provision placed on multiple subject teachers in rural schools.

Our collective notion about teacher quality has been challenged by the past 15 years of policy reform. Federal policy remade expectations of how we prepare and develop teachers, what work they perform, how we measure their performance, and how we ensure that all schools have good teachers. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) marks an abrupt change along many fronts of education policy. So we ask, should we also expect changes in how states and districts approach human capital issues in rural schools? What makes rural communities different, and will the current policy landscape better meet their needs?

Being rural

To some, the word rural conjures stereotypical images of hard-working, mostly white, tight-knit communities far from frenetic urban sprawl. But rural communities — which account for roughly one-quarter of all students in public schools — are much more diverse than that. A wide range of circumstances, including proximity to urban areas, industrial composition, racial/ethnic makeup, and level of poverty vary widely across areas that share a rural designation (Lichter & Graefe, 2011). A rural area might lie in the agricultural basin in the Central Plains, straddle a ski destination in New England, spring from a new Hispanic boomtown in the Upper Midwest, sit in a declining mill town in the Pacific West, consist of a poor, black community in the Mississippi Delta, or be any number of countless other rural destinations. Despite such remarkable diversity, understanding what being rural means is important. For example, rural areas are more likely than metropolitan places to experience higher rates of poverty, concentrated poverty, and intergenerational poverty (Mattingly, Johnson, & Schaefer, 2011). A smaller percentage of rural students attend college (Provasnik et al., 2007), and those who do often move to urban locales in search of professional opportunities (Carr & Kefalas, 2009). Small or sparse populations, geographic isolation, and limited choices characterize all rural areas. These characteristics can have serious implications for how effectively rural schools attract and develop their teachers.

Rural staffing challenges

Evidence suggests that rural schools have limited hiring options. Rural teachers, on average, are less likely to hold a master’s degree (Provasnik et al., 2007) or to have attended a selective college (Gibbs, 2000). They are more likely to teach out of field (Lazarus, 2003) and to be novice teachers (Gagnon & Mattingly, 2014). The reasons for such trends are complex. Recruiting teachers to rural schools can be extremely challenging; metropolitan locales may offer more pay, better career prospects for partners, or other life amenities. Their distance from professional learning opportunities places rural schools at a disadvantage in developing the teachers they have. For these and other reasons, teacher migration is headed away from rural schools (Miller, 2012).

Past reform efforts have not fully considered the rural context. Many of NCLB-favored teacher reforms — charter schools, four models of school turnaround, and even aspects of teacher evaluation — rely on an implicit assumption of dense human capital. How realistic is school closure or choice in the absence of a useful pool of qualified teachers from which to staff a new school? How well can a teacher in a content-rich area be evaluated if there are no other professionals with sufficient expertise to do so?

ESSA and rural teachers 

The less prescriptive nature of ESSA offers promise for the rural context. Increased flexibility is most meaningful in unique and overlooked settings. More specifically, modifications to Title II, Part A (the portion of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the granddaddy of ESSA, that deals with teacher quality) herald potential changes. Refinements include newly approved activities, such as those aimed at improving educator evaluation, promoting a more equitable distribution of teachers, and enhancing teacher preparation programs. New language also suggests that funds be distributed equitably between rural and urban in programs such as the Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program. Although it is early to speculate, given the limited federal guidance offered to date, these incremental changes could help precipitate novel human capital solutions in rural schools.

What makes rural communities different, and will the current policy landscape better meet their needs?

A number of states already have proposed specific strategies for staffing rural schools (Gagnon & Mattingly, 2015), and these approaches generally match the timbre of ESSA. For instance, some states aim to increase rural teacher supply by improving how they develop and retain existing talent; the belief is that those with favorable views of rural life are more likely to remain there. “It’s more than hiring,” said one state policy maker. “It’s the right fit.” So-called grow-your-own strategies take many forms, such as programs that promote the profession to high school students or creating new pathways into teaching for paraprofessionals, ex-military, or other service-oriented professions. What’s more, significant changes regarding teacher preparation in ESSA authorize teacher preparation academies, which are not bound by traditional credentialing rules within a state and thus signal a possible expansion of alternative routes into teaching. Tightened partnerships between traditional university-based teacher preparation
programs and rural schools also are poised to become more common. Creating rural-specific coursework and options for student teaching placements in rural schools can help stem the tide of new teachers moving to metropolitan areas.

Other approaches seek to reshape professional development in remote areas just as they have remade classroom learning, allowing far-flung rural communities to coalesce and establish new means of inducting, mentoring, and evaluating teachers. Equally important, however, is the need for rural teachers to be connected with the communities they serve. Thus, broadening and deepening the relationships of rural educators seems imperative if more of them are to remain in their schools.

Finally, well-designed incentives also may play a greater role in attracting and retaining rural teachers. Financial incentives can come in many forms — loan forgiveness, in-kind rewards (e.g. housing), or bonuses. It seems unlikely that considerable base rate increases for all rural teachers would be a realistic or effective solution, but targeted funds toward high-needs schools and subject areas seems more promising. States are becoming more data savvy, and those able to use administrative data to identify areas of need to more efficiently deploy financial incentives — as well as measure the success of such efforts — are poised to have the most success. Given the complicated nature of employment decisions, modest financial incentives may be necessary but not sufficient solutions to rural teacher shortages. Indeed, many states that have proposed financial incentives for teaching in high-needs rural areas are pursuing other strategies in tandem.

Looking forward 

Inertia created by the 15 years of teacher quality reform leading up to ESSA coupled with ESSA’s renewed focus on innovation and flexibility, might provide a recipe for improving recruitment development, and retention of teachers in rural schools. Many hope that developing complex and tailored staffing solutions could lead to real and measurable progress. Certainly the proponents of local control have much to smile about with the passage of ESSA and the increased latitude it will offer. But with great power comes great responsibility; now is the time for states and districts to work collaboratively to promote the best teaching possible throughout America’s diverse rural schools.


Carr, P.J. & Kefalas, M. (2009). Hollowing out the middle: The rural brain drain and what it means for America. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Gagnon, D.J. & Mattingly, M.J. (2014). Rates of beginning teachers: Examining one indicator of school quality in an equity context. The Journal of Educational Research, 108 (3), 226- 235.

Gagnon, D.J. & Mattingly, M.J. (2015). State policy responses to ensuring excellent educators in rural schools. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 30 (13), 1-13.

Gibbs, R. (2000). The challenge ahead for rural schools. Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, 15, 82-87.

Lazarus, S.S. (2003, April). Preparing rural educators to teach students in an era of standards-based reform and accountability. Paper presented at the Promoting the Economic and Social Vitality of Rural America: The Role of Education national research workshop, New Orleans, La.

Lichter, D.T. & Graefe, D.R. (2011). Rural economic restructuring: Implications for children, youth, and families. In K.E. Smith & A.R. Tickamyer (Eds.), Economic restructuring and family well-being in rural America (pp. 25–39). University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Mattingly, M.J., Johnson, K.M., & Schaefer, A. (2011). More poor kids in more poor places: Children increasingly live where poverty persists (Carsey Issue Brief No. 38). http://scholars. article=1149&context=carsey

Miller, L.C. (2012). Situating the rural teacher labor market in the broader context: A descriptive analysis of the market dynamics in New York state. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 27 (13), 1-31.

Provasnik, S., KewalRamani, A., Coleman, M.M., Gilbertson, L., Herring, W., & Xie, Q. (2007). Status of rural education in America (NCES 2007-040). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

DOUGLAS GAGNON ( is a research associate in the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, N.H.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 Phi Delta Kappan, 97 (8), 47-49.