Last Updated: January 25, 2011
To encourage projects focusing on rural education in its first round of Investing in Innovation (i3) program grants in 2010, the U.S. Department of Education offered two bonus points in the scoring system for “projects that would implement innovative practices, strategies, or programs that are designed to focus on the unique challenges of high-need students in schools within a rural [school district] and address the particular challenges faced by students in these schools.”
This report analyzes the impact of this rural competitive preference by examining the applications and the reader-scorers’ reviews of the 19 applicants who claimed the rural preference points, and were ultimately successful in securing an i3 grant. This report does not address the question of whether the applicants should have been awarded a grant, but only considers whether the rural claim was well-made by the applicants and well-evaluated by the readers.
Of 1,698 applications received by the Education Department, 652 (38%) made the rural competitive preference claim (“the claim”). Among the 49 grant recipients, 19 (39%) made the claim.
Most applicants making the claim propose using innovations that did not originate in rural schools and have had little or no prior use in rural schools. Although some proposals pledge to adapt the innovation to rural contexts, most are vague about this process. Some explicitly insist that the innovation not be adapted in any way, for the sake of fidelity to research design.
Only two proposals are designed to operate entirely in rural schools. For most, the proportion of the total project effort that is rural-focused is small relative to the scale of the project, or too indeterminate to be estimated. In one instance there was actually no intent to engage in any rural school district.
Two-thirds of the potential rural points were awarded by the readers who scored these 19 proposals. In many cases, readers made little or no effort to explain the basis for their scoring decisions and in most cases there was little evidence that readers gave attention to the requirement that innovations be designed to address “unique challenges” of rural students or schools.
Rural schools exist in a context that is fundamentally different from the urban context that draws most of the attention of education policy makers and scholars. Certainly, rural students and educators share many challenges common to the education process everywhere. But they also face unique challenges. Those are the challenges that proposals claiming the rural competitive preference in i3 were supposed to address. With only a few exceptions, they did not.
Open competition is not the best way to encourage educational innovation in a rural context. “Making rural matter” in the quest for innovation will require greater attention to the distinct character of rural communities in our society, as well as greater reliance on rural people for their own ideas and for the ways by which ideas from elsewhere might be best adapted to their needs.