Does Geography influence Equity

Susan Collins Education, Education Policy, Social Issues

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I recently read an article in Ed Week titled Is Geography Destiny? The author seems to support “school choice” as the solution. While I agree that choosing the best educational environment is a great solution for ensuring a quality education, those choices are not equitable for everyone. What about the family that lives in a rural, remote area?

My understanding is that equity means everyone gets what they need to achieve a common goal.

In 12-step programs, their guidelines, called traditions, state that “Our common welfare should come first, progress for the greatest number depends upon unity.”

I live and teach in a community that is 40 miles from the next community. The local school district runs buses approximately 6,000 miles per day and covers 3300 square miles. Along with the mileage, there is a significant amount of distance driven on unimproved roads. These rocky, uneven roads are not only difficult to navigate, they put a lot of stress and strain on the buses, increasing amount and cost of maintenance and repairs. In addition to the district schools, there are one publicly funded charter school and one very small faith-based private school. Where are the school-age citizens suppose to “choose” to get an education? Some are already traveling 2-3 hours each day to get to the school CLOSEST to them.

Online opportunities? Have you investigated getting high-speed internet when you live off the grid, 60 miles from the nearest incorporated town? That’s a significant challenge. Online education cannot replace the relationships, social skills, and personal interactions that are necessary for human development. This is especially evident in pre-k through 3rd grade students and English Language Learners.

What is the state doing to help these districts recruit and retain high-quality teachers? Is there loan repayment offered for a set number of years teaching in a rural/remote district? Is there a state-funded stipend for National Board Certified Teachers? Is there any financial assistance or compensation for earning a master’s degree?

I am not suggesting that throwing money at the situation is a solution, but there are solutions that cannot be considered without appropriate funding.

National Board Certification is the gold standard in the education profession. Teachers voluntarily submit to a rigorous process of presenting evidence of accomplished teaching, reflecting on their instructional decisions and how those decisions promote student achievement. According to research posted on students taught by a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) gain an additional 1-2 months of academic growth over students taught by a non-NBCT with similar experience. Studies indicate that the impact is even greater for low-income students. According to an article in Hartsville Today, the state of South Carolina saw an average teacher turnover rate of 7.7% in the 2016-17 academic year. For NBCT’s that rate was 1.9%. This information indicates that National Board Certification not only increases the quality of learning, it significantly decreases teacher attrition.

Teach For America (TFA) seeks to place recently graduated teachers in 52 low-income communities across the country. In Arizona, the only community served is Phoenix. TFA provides support and financial incentives for participants and has an 88% retention rate. Students who are taught by a TFA participant average 1.5 months additional academic growth over non-TFA 1st and 2nd-year teachers. Why isn’t this also being implemented in our rural and remote districts?

With these statistics and the alarming rate of attrition among teachers in Arizona, I wonder why we are not doing more to recruit and retain NBCT’s or TFA corps members in our rural districts. Does the state see the disparity in educational services in rural and remote areas? The difficulty of recruiting well-qualified teachers to rural and remote areas is very complicated, and there is no easy solution. I believe that our rural and remote districts, like the one I teach in, are doing the very best they can with the resources they have.

What if the state provided more resources to attract NBCT’s or facilitated implementation of programs like Teach for America in our rural and remote districts. Would it slow the teacher attrition rate? Would it allow time for the “grow your own” teacher initiatives to take root?

I don’t have answers to those question. What I do know is that when you keep doing what you have always done, you will keep getting what you have always gotten. The open position crisis in Arizona will not change course until we start doing something different.

I’m interested in hearing your suggestions for what we could do differently. How can we be more unified to promote optimal outcomes for all students?  How can we make sure that geography does NOT equal destiny?



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Susan Collins began her teaching career in 1991 in rural Mississippi. She served in 4 different communities in central and north Mississippi as a music educator, mostly elementary general music with one year as a middle school band director. She stepped out of working full-time in the classroom for 9 years when her children were very young but never left teaching. She set up an early childhood music studio and taught music from birth to age 5 (with an adult caregiver). Susan moved to Kingman in northwest rural Arizona in 2016 where she teaches k-5 general music. Susan achieved National Board Certification in the fall of 2016, just after moving to Arizona. She has served as a 2017-18 Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow and a Candidate Support Provider for National Board Candidates. She is passionate about advocating for the needs of rural schools and ensuring that every student receives an excellent education. When she is not teaching, advocating, or writing about education issues, she is outdoors hiking, reading, and going to musical performances. She can often be found off the grid pondering her next writing piece!

Comments 4

  1. Jaime Festa-Daigle

    There was a time in my life that I was very much against TFA. How dare we not support traditionally trained educators. However, the more I speak to my urban teaching counterparts, they have really appreciated TFA teachers and the spark they have provided, especially in secondary content areas. I would love to have access to these young graduates, along with support for National Board Teachers to move our community forward.

    1. Susan Collins

      I once held the same opinion of TFA and of alternative certification. I have realized that good teaching requires skills that can be taught, a disposition that one must possess, and a passion that knows no bounds. When we find a person with that disposition and passion, shouldn’t we do everything possible to teach them the needed skills? We have to think outside of tradition to meet the needs of our profession.

  2. Jess Ledbetter

    I really enjoyed reading (and sharing!) this piece. I never knew about the inequities in rural schools until we met. You are such a great advocate for these stories, and I think you are asking the right questions. Our state needs to consider how to make things more equitable so that rural schools have the financial support they need to deliver academic opportunities that more similarly resemble the opportunities in urban schools.

    1. AZSusan_C

      Thank you Jess. I feel like I have more questions than answers. I suppose that’s how we start conversations.

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