State officials and education experts blame a shortage of good teachers and applicable curricula for the lower performance statistics of rural schools throughout Arizona.
According to the most recent U.S. News and World Report rankings, Prescott High School is the only school outside of the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas that broke the top 40.
Chris Kotterman, deputy director of government relations at the Arizona Department of Education, said that pursing “rigorous, college-ready curricula” in rural areas like that of larger cities requires committed teachers, but that attracting teachers to those areas is extremely difficult.
Bruce Johnson, head of the Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies Department at the University of Arizona, agreed that a lack of strong educators is one of the first hurdles in improving rural education.
“How can we help them get more qualified teachers to begin with?” he said.
One solution he and his department — part of the UA College of Education — are trying is called Teachers in Industry. It is aimed at encouraging young people to become educators in outlying areas and better understand the way that rural students learn and what they bring to the table.
As part of the program, graduate students go to rural schools and work alongside teachers there for three consecutive summers, Johnson said. The students do coursework online to earn a teaching degree or certificate while they are there.
“The focus of the program is really trying to identify what kind of science and math is being used,” he said. That way, teachers understand what principles are most relevant to the students in that area.
As the graduate students progress through the Teachers in Industry program, they should be prepared to be educators in the rural areas they have been working in, Johnson said.
Vanessa Anthony-Stevens, an assistant professor with Johnson’s program, said that a significant contributing factor to lower relative achievement in rural schools starts with the birth of the curricula in urban areas.
“Largely, our education policy is being designed and decided upon in cities, in legislative, urban offices by people who have largely been socialized into or have moved to urban centers,” Anthony-Stevens said.
The other problem is that students from rural areas are not represented in their textbooks, she said. Math problems might ask for students to estimate the distance someone rode their bike on a college campus. She said that many students in rural areas do not have bikes and have never been to a college campus, which makes it difficult to relate to the material presented to them.
Anthony-Stevens said that the best learning happens when someone is exposed to something similar to what they already know and understand but have not yet experienced. She said it is critical to “build upon the resources that kids bring with them to school” to create compatible lessons for the students.
In regards to ranking systems, Kotterman called the lists “subjective.” He said there are real issues regarding education in the less populated areas, but that it is important to bear in mind that a tremendous number of urban schools receive poor grades from the state’s Department of Education. Schools that do not score well exist in all places, not just small towns, he said.
Kotterman also said that schools that perform well can misrepresent a particular part of an urban area because of open enrollment allowances.
The Arizona Department of Education has a “comprehensive report card system” that measures how well a school compares to state standards. The state has set up a searchable website with those results that show that among small-town districts, Bisbee, Seligman and Casa Grande high schools all scored Cs, while Duncan High School received a D and Baboquivari, one of two high schools in Sells, scored an F. Only Ajo received an A, according to a quick, non-comprehensive search of the website.
Anthony-Stevens said the state needs to give rural school districts flexibility when it comes to their curricula.
“If we are not doing a good job in school to build upon the resources that kids bring with them … it’s very hard to build compatible and useful repertoires of knowledge for them,” Anthony-Stevens said.
Zac Baker is a reporter at Arizona Sonora News, a service from the University of Arizona. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @zj_baker.