Rural schools: RIP

by Steve Wyckoff on March 22, 2010

Rural schools may be an endangered species. I’ve written many times that I believe that our model in public schools for educating kids is obsolete.  I’ve also written that our goals in public schools are also all wrong. But if we are going to persist in that model then it will take a great deal more money in order to succeed. Unfortunately, especially for rural schools, we are in an era of declining revenue sources not increasing revenue sources.

So what do I see happening? The very existence of many rural schools is being threatened.  You can do the math. In the current model you have a minimum number of teachers necessary to maintain the system regardless of how few kids you have. You must have a teacher in each of the core curriculum areas and also teachers in the areas where students are required to earn credits.

There seems to be a minimum of about 10 professionals in a building to maintain it as a high school in the current system. With budget cuts many rural schools are approaching the point where, based on student enrollment and budgets per-pupil, they can’t afford the number of teachers necessary to cover all the required areas.

So consolidation becomes the default solution. But in many rural areas consolidation may mean closing schools and sending kids to neighboring towns. Unfortunately, those trips to neighboring towns may mean that kids are on a bus more than an hour one way. For the little kids this is unsatisfactory. For the older kids, many of whom are involved in extra curricular activities, there are a plethora of issues with sending kids that far.

But is there another solution to the problem? I think there is. But it will require us to take a very different approach to how we educate kids. It will require us also to change the mental models that students, parents, citizens, and educators have about how schools should look and operate. And I think the solution will lead to more highly educated students, who are much better prepared to be productive in the 21st century.

My solution, project-based learning. It can be accomplished with fewer teachers, in the case of very small schools perhaps with as few as half the number of teachers.

So how his project-based learning better for kids? My opinion comes from my observations of Erie high school. I believe that those students are receiving an education that is far superior to kids in other schools in terms of preparing them for the 21st century.

So the problems we face today may actually lead to  a more well-educated student population. While there are other solutions that will cut cost and do minimal damage to the current system, I believe that moving to a project-based curriculum is the only solution I’ve seen that will reduce cost and at the same time lead to more well-educated students.

In an era of standardized test mania, student scores may not look as good in project-based learning, although I think there is evidence emerging that project-based learning schools aren’t any worse than test preparation schools in terms of standardized test scores.  But in terms of what students gain; 21st-century skills, individualized and customized education, learning by doing, student engagement, and preparation for heuristic work rather than algorithmic work, there is no doubt that project-based learning is a much better approach. And it costs less to do. –  Steve Wyckoff

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