Season 3 | Episode 3 Do the Math with John White
Michelle Rathman: Hello, everyone. And thanks for joining us for a new episode of the Rural Impact, a podcast that aims to help connect the dots between policy and rural everything. I'm Michelle Rathman. And as always, it's great to be here with you, wherever you're listening or watching. We do invite you to become a subscriber and join our Rural Impact community.
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We make it pretty easy for you. Okay. Now that we have that box checked, let's get into today's episode, which is the final in our series focused on rural education. But I promise you, it's not the last you'll hear from us on this because we are really committed to continuing the conversation through our Rural Impact Extra episodes, so be staying tuned for that.
Earlier, I had an opportunity to speak with Mr. John White. Now, John is a rural education expert. He is also the former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach at the U. S. Department of Education, during President Obama's Administration, and he continues to have his finger on the pulse of policies and practices that are impacting rural schools across the United States today.
So, with that, I invite you to get comfortable for my conversation with John White. Let's go.
Michelle Rathman: Have you here with us today to close out our series on rural education. So, thank you for joining us.
John White: Oh, absolutely. Likewise, thank you for the invitation.
Michelle Rathman: Oh, my pleasure. For our listeners who don't know this, our paths kind of crossed in the past. We both were a former host of another podcast, and I reached out to John because the name just comes up routinely when we're talking about rural education, and you are closing out our series.
We've talked a lot about kind of a master class of the lay of the land of rural education, the challenges, some of the really good, important, interesting and innovative things happening. But I think it's important for us to circle back because you cannot turn on any news program today or pick up any reputable publication and not see some kind of piece that's focused on the state of education in America.
And a lot of times the mainstream media doesn't carve out rural, but I have a statistic that I'm going to read just as we go into this conversation. And we don't talk about rural higher education either. So, I want to make sure we touch on that. And I read a piece that it was just a nonprofit news agency that has a statistic that reads, the number of rural students thinking, just thinking about going to college has plummeted and America's most rural states have slashed funding for colleges in some states as much as 30 percent. You know, so we, we have a lot of grades to go through before we get to that point.
If you could give our listeners a bit of background on yourself, because for almost five years, you were Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach in the Office of Communication in President Obama's Administration. You created and executed a national communication strategy, which I love, to support education reform and innovation of rural America.
So, give us some background, and then set the tone for where you're at today in the work that you're doing for rural education.
John White: Sure. Absolutely. So, I had been at a school district in Maryland. I live in Maryland, and I was just fortunate to join the Obama Administration in 2009. And at the U. S. Department of Education in the Communications and Outreach Division, in the beginning, just when we were trying to sort of figure out how we would not just communicate policy but receive feedback.
The Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, longest serving big city superintendent in America when he was in Chicago, you know, readily admitted, "We don't know what it looks like and all the issues involved in places beyond cities, beyond the suburbs. And the further you go from cities and suburbs, resources become thin and partners are harder to find." So, he said, "we need to figure this out," and asked me if I would sort of map out a strategy to communicate, but also receive feedback and that would help contribute to policy and improving programs. And so, we did that and I traveled to 42 states in about four and a half years, and I saw a lot of great educators and people and partners.
And it really was eye opening. I remember the first meeting where we invited about a dozen rural superintendents to come to DC, in the U. S. Department of Education and sit down with the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan and the Policy Team and the Communications Team, and just have a conversation to understand what was needed, what the challenges are, and where maybe changes to policy could help.
So, during the middle of this conversation, I remember a superintendent from Raisin City, California. So she was the principal of a K-8 school. It was the only school in her district, so she was also the superintendent. So she was the principal and superintendent. She did everything necessary for that school.
If it meant driving the school bus, that's what she did. And everything essentially that was needed for the children, she made sure they got it. And I looked around the room at that time and, it was eye opening. I could see some eyebrows raised when they heard there was actually you know, somebody who was not just the superintendent, but a principal, and there's only one school from kindergarten to eighth grade in the entire district.
So that doesn't happen everywhere, but there are many other schools like that across the Midwest, across rural America. In many cases, you know, the public school is the only school to serve that community. And in some cases, it's the only school in a district. So, the challenges, but also opportunities for, rural communities and rural students and schools are different than in a large suburban area or urban area.
So, from there, we started mapping out policy to see how we could understand and add support to small rural schools.
Michelle Rathman: It does not surprise me about Arne Duncan. I have an Arne Duncan story. Many, many years ago, I've been working in health care for a very long time, and prior to rural health, I worked in academic urban health, and Arne was the superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools at the time. And I created a program where we would pair girls within the Chicago Public School systems, 4th through 8th grade with women in health care and also created a partnership with the Chicago Sky. And it was about self esteem building. And I share this because I remember his visionary ways, way, way back then, and he still is very much a proponent of expanding opportunities for young people.
So, what a privilege to be able to serve under him. You know, John, I know, as you've described and you're right. I mean, you've seen one rural school. You've seen one, but they have a lot of similarities. And one of those is a lack of resources. So during your time working with the Department of Education, it's almost certain that rural students, teachers, and schools had, as they do today, very unique challenges that hinder academic growth. We know that the primary reason to provide quality rural education is for academic attainment and go on to live, whatever it looks like, prosperous, productive adult lives.
Can you share what you believe to be some of the greatest challenges facing these same groups today as when you were doing that work? You know, it seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?
John White: It does. 2009 to 2013. Time flies, but I still keep in touch with a lot of those educators I met and try to be a resource when I can but one of the, not just the digress, but one of the things I always appreciated about Secretary Duncan is he always wanted and was willing to listen. When I think about my own small town, rural community that I grew up in Huntington in Southern Maryland you know, like you said, you've seen one rural area because we thought being an hour from shopping and from, you know, places to go was a long distance, but when you travel across this country, there are vast distances and in midwestern states like Wyoming before you get to resources.
And if you're in the Appalachian Mountains, for example, mountainous terrain can be a barrier to resources. And some of the educational challenges also come into play because, for example, in Appalachia, internet can be not available. And in some cases I've spoken to people who not only did they not have internet, but they didn't have a landline telephone either.
So, if they got a cell, which was also a problem you know, that was their communications to school or the outside world. And in some cases, like, during the pandemic, the way that schools would communicate and share materials to educate students was simply put it on the school bus and have it delivered to the mailbox at the end of the road.
So, the challenges are vast and very different in rural places and it's all about resources and support for learning. Now fortunately in many places they have what's called an education service agency, a BOCES, any kind of a service agency that provides resources to the school district.
In some cases, they help with special education. In some cases, they help with professional development and other academic needs, fill in those gaps. But the one thing that they in many cases aren't able to fill in the gap for is a teacher. So, the teacher shortage, not only does it affect the entire country or urban areas, but again, it's another unique challenge in rural places.
I'm thinking of a superintendent who told me we haven't offered physics in a few years because not only do we not have a physics teacher, but we didn't have anyone apply for the position. So, the challenges of recruiting and retaining are also different in rural places. Sorry to go off on a tangent.
Michelle Rathman: No, no, that's okay. Because it's very similar to what other industries are experiencing. However, you know, although a superintendent can fill in as a bus driver, it is impossible for me to wrap my brain around that somebody who is not skilled and trained in a particular subject matter, is then stepping into the classroom and trying to. I am the mother of an educator, I mean, it is not an easy job and gosh, John, there are so many other challenges that we're facing because when you were in your, in that other capacity. I wonder if you had any notion, any way to see what's happening now coming your way, coming our way. So, we've got, you know, in my estimation, teachers, the decks are stacked against teachers today. You know, there was a program on this morning and I was getting ready this morning on the news that talked about so many school districts do not offer paid leave. If you want as a teacher, you want to start a family, you better do it during the summer and make sure you can plan and accordingly.
So I wonder if you can expand a little bit about your, you know, maybe surprise. I don't want to throw words in your mouth about how teachers are being vilified and what you foresee that, you know, what is that going to do to compound this challenge that we have with recruiting and retention?
What does that mean for our students?
John White: Well, the, when you say vilified, what I would add to that is sort of the sensational news coverage of what they call the, the teacher wars or the education wars over hot topics, and library books, and etc. Most teachers are focused on what's happening in their classroom and doing the best they can for their students.
That's the bottom line. And they are in many cases underpaid. I met a teacher in Montana she was making, I think she said $37,000 a year, and she had been working for 31 years. So that's just hard for people to wrap their head around. And I understand the differences in economy, but I think that states need to take a hard look at how they can help rural places fill in some of those gaps that are needed to retain and to attract the best talent.
Michelle Rathman: I would say the last thing we need to be doing is defunding public schools, because where do the resources come from? Philanthropy, although extremely important in this space, and we've already had a conversation about philanthropy in this particular series, philanthropy is not sustainable, in the long run to make sure.
So, moving on the Center for School and Student Progress, released a brief titled, "The Forgotten 20% - Achievement and Growth in Rural Schools Across the Nation." And in the key findings of this report, non-rural students increasingly outperform rural students from grades 3 through 8, which I felt was interesting and state the shift is likely driven by significantly larger learning loss for rural students during summers in a time where teachers and schools are already combating learning loss from the pandemic. Here we are, and John schools being dismissed because of bomb threats, shootings, and whatnot.
We've already seen a number of schools have to go off just when they started this year or go off for a day. And then the emotional and mental trauma that causes to go back into the classroom and pretend like everything's normal.
So, what are your thoughts about how we can work to expand access to summer learning opportunities, and some newer models where it's not just this strict.
You know, certain amount of months, certain amount of hours every day. You're done learning. We'll see you next year. What are some of the things that you're seeing out there that are innovative and working?
John White: Well, first, when you read that statistic, it made me think, and I would never doubt the research. But it made me think, we can look at statistics in a number of ways. And overall, rural kids actually graduate at higher rates and seem to do better in high school or in K-12 than many, you know, rural districts and rural kids, but that's not the point.
The point is, after that they're the least likely to go on to college and post secondary education. When, if you think about it in rural places, we need to develop the talents of the youth in order to sustain the communities and to grow those local economies. So, I really am very interested in creative and innovative ways to, not just encourage kids to go on to college, but to define what you mean by college. College is more than just Harvard and the university system, it can be state colleges, community colleges, technical school, the military, you name it, any way that we can train students for the types of careers they're interested in and the types of careers that they can sustain a family with.
So those are the types of things that I pay attention to. And as far as summer learning goes in rural places the community is often, or the school is often the center of community life. So. That doesn't mean that the access to summer learning is always easy because you might have an hour bus ride to get to school.
There have been innovative programs, I'm thinking of Berea College in Kentucky, that works with the school districts in their area to provide the types of technology and internet activity that's needed so that students can not just work from home and connect to the school, but actually have the outreach with their parents as well.
So parental involvement has been a key piece of the work that they're doing to support education, in the summer, during the school year, you name it. And the more partners that we can incentivize and stimulate to work with rural schools, that's really helpful to overcome some of the barrier of distance and lack of resources.
Michelle Rathman: Yeah, I just think about all the opportunities that we could, you know, nontraditional classroom learning and experiential opportunities over the summer that then can be applied to what they're learning in the classroom when they return in the fall. And so it's a really interesting point that you bring up, because when higher levels of education, educational attainment are positively correlated with employment, earnings, health outcomes.
What hurdles, I'm asking you to put in your crystal ball here about what hurdles to educational attainment do rural students face? And in your estimation, are they better or worse off today than they were a decade ago?
John White: So, I'm going to say they're better off in and let me put a caveat there. So, there's still a lot to do. But with innovative partners and programs who are using technology in innovative ways, for example, if they don't have internet, you know, load the information and programs on a laptop that the student can take home and work without connecting to the Internet.
There are a number of innovative ways that partners, nonprofits, colleges are doing to reach out to rural schools and communities, but also to, to stay connected with them and to keep them learning throughout the year, but also to to marry that with overcoming food insecurity, for example. So, if a child is hungry, they're probably going to be distracted from learning.
So there are great programs connecting, not just academics, but other basic needs.
Michelle Rathman: How are we and what have you seen? How are we accommodating you know, we talk a lot about this on this podcast and any rural focused podcast that you listen to, we, really beg the public to recognize that rural is just not this one track, it's not all white, middle-aged, you know, we have diversity in rural.
How are schools adopting, acclimating, what are they doing to ensure that there is a, robust conversation and opportunities to make sure that we do have inclusion, for students for English as a second language, for example, for communities where there's more migrant workers, for example, how are schools accommodating, making sure that these young people also have what they need to go on to their future and be a thriving, productive, healthy adult?
John White: Sure. So, in rural places, they're doing the best they can with the resources they have, and they're trying to find partners to support them. But, but you're right. Most people don't understand that rural America is diverse. If you go down through the Southeast and the Southwest, it's a very diverse community.
Often times it's a black and brown community. It's a high poverty, but, you know, high potential. And with partners, I'm thinking about West Alabama University that works with the black belt region. I mean, with partners, anything is possible. And I just think the more we can do to incentivize those partnerships and grow those partnerships, the more we can help rural schools and rural communities.
You said earlier that I think you said something about grants or, one-time grants not being the solution. And you're right. It's not a silver bullet, but grants can start something. And grants can incentivize partnerships that can sustain the work beyond the grant. And that's sort of the strategy that we tried to implement when I was at the U.S, Department of Education in the Obama Administration, we tried to incentivize those partnerships and, for example, in grant competitions.
The incentive was to have a coalition or a collaborative application so that it wouldn't just be a small rural school that doesn't have a grant writer and couldn't compete anyway. It was a small rural school partnered with an education service agency or a local college going into it with a nonprofit partner and coming at it from a, a local, a collaborative approach from the beginning.
Michelle Rathman: I like what your line with partnerships comes possibilities. And I've said before, without a pathway, there's no pipeline. And so, we have to be thinking about how we are creating pathways to fill those pipelines of opportunities, beyond just what people think is just agriculture, for example.
So let's turn our attention to something I know that we're both passionate about. I'm in communications. You're in communications. It seems to me that the messages about the real issues, we've got all the inflammatory issues that any one person could ever need. But when it comes to the real issues facing rural schools, rural teachers, rural students, that are being overshadowed by these sensational headlines.
Let's talk about how rural school districts and this is where you shine, can effectively shift conversations to the real critical issues, such as teacher shortages, access to broadband, big one, early childhood development is another gaping hole in the whole system, if you will, post-secondary education attainment, and so on.
These are the real challenges. So, how can rural school districts in your estimation articulate the need and then with that it's one thing to say it. It's another thing for to land on someone in such a way that it inspires them to take action. What are some of the communication tools that you think are necessary for us and to be able to communicate to our lawmakers at a state level?
I want to go into that in just a moment as well.
John White: Sure. So, you hit the nail on the head. The idea is to invite people in. You know, show them what you mean, show them what you're talking about. So, if there is an opportunity to invite a lawmaker into your school district, that's a great way to not just tell them about your challenges but show them the reality that your community lives with daily, and what those needs are and what's working. Don't just don't just tell them what the problems are but show them what's working so that it can be, replicated and expanded.
That's a great way to educate lawmakers. It's a great way to educate the media, whether it's your local newspaper reporter or local television reporter or even a national reporter who is covering an issue that's happening in your school district. If you don't have the means to connect with them or find them, look for those partners, who again, not only can help you at school, but can help you with communications as well.
Most colleges, most education service agencies can help you reach out to the media who are covering the topics that you're struggling with, or are covering the areas that, you want to expand it. And you'd be surprised what a good story can do as far as attracting, not just attention, but attracting partners, attracting investment.
I think about when I was at the department, we had a a grant program called Investing in Innovation, the I3 Grant Program, and we started an I3 registry. And it was a place where you could put up, the challenge that you're trying to overcome and partners could come in and match their mission with your goals.
And so, I think about that as well when you're thinking about telling your story. So how do you attract partners who have the same mission and can help you tell that story? You have to let them in. You have to reach out everything you can do to communicate and tell your story.
Michelle Rathman: Yeah, storytelling is so powerful. And I think about what the media tends to focus on, which are the challenges, the tragedies, the deficits. They're not out there sniffing for the good stories. And if they are, there's this tiny little snippet of something that maybe is at the end of a broadcast or something.
And I've seen the things that you've contributed to, and I think you're right storytelling and we do it quite naturally sitting around the table. And so, I think we just have to take a look at, you know, might there be something in here that, we could share with somebody else that would then spur their attention and get them interested in investing in the future, because that's what we're doing. It's not about, it is about how we are nurturing children and educating children today. It is an investment in their future and ours.
John White: And let me just add one other thing. People may watch the national news at night and it's pretty much urban centric news coverage. It's from a big city. It's from a place where, there is controversy and they wonder why don't, why don't they come see what it's like in our rural area?
I can tell you from talking with reporters all over the country, that when you do talk to them about a rural place, they're often interested because they don't get a chance to cover rural places as often, and they're not familiar with the challenges that are different from urban areas. So, by reaching out, you can attract interest and you can find a reporter who's interested in your story.
Michelle Rathman: John I wonder if you've had any conversations, we do know that through the pandemic, that a lot of people decided to lift up their families and relocate to rural for whatever their reasons. And I work with in a lot of rural communities where that is a mixed bag of good and bad.
Have you had any conversations about the impact of an influx of students? Traditionally, those students who are non-rural, who are now located living in rural and then being introduced into rural schools. What is there anything there that you can share about the state of how that those transitions are being managed?
The resources are still what they are.
John White: So like you, I've heard of towns, small towns that have actually grown in population because of migrant workers and migrant communities who come in to town and essentially revitalize the town. They help with the economy with labor that's needed and increase enrollment in schools, which we know increasing enrollment increases investment. So, diversity has definite benefits and can strengthen small towns in rural areas. If we're open, if they're open to and welcoming to families that come into town. I think of a town in Crete, Nebraska.
They had a meatpacking plant in Crete, Nebraska, and a number of migrant workers would come in there, and I remember a boy I met who went to school in Crete and did very well and decided to stay after college because he wanted to be a pharmacist right there in town. So, their diversity can strengthen small towns in rural areas.
And we shouldn't think of rural America as a monolith where it's only white and and poor. In many places you do have poor white communities, but in many places, you have diverse communities that are doing well. So, it's, rural America is more diverse than many people know and has strengths that many people are unaware of.
Michelle Rathman: Isn't that the truth? I've been doing, I've been working in rural for a long time and there are no truer words. And I think the word that comes to mind for me is capacity building because when we talk about the connectivity, this podcast is all about connecting the dots, right? So, when we talk about building capacity, we need our rural schools to be able to meet those educational needs of that diverse community.
If we are to expect any industry to come into any rural community, there are two things they're going to look for, first and foremost. They are health care and the education system. Entertainment, luxury, leisure time, restaurants, culture, that's all secondary to, can I send my child to school confidently that they're going to get the best possible public education? Because I got a secret for people there's not a lot of private schools dotting the maps. Am I right, John? School options, not such a thing.
John White: And I hear all the, right. And I hear all the time certain think tanks and other people who are very smart people, act like choice is something that is very easy to implement in rural places. And it's not. It can complement the existing education system, when you think about online learning, online resources, and et cetera. But as far as a choice goes, the further you get from an urban area, or an urban cluster, the fewer choices kids have. And in remote rural areas where you have a town with one school, and if the school happens to merge with another school in the neighboring town, one of those sides tends to go away. That community tends to fade when it loses at school. So, increasing choice in my mind for rural areas should be, increasing opportunities to complement the education that exists, hopefully increasing internet connectivity, increasing partnerships, increasing dual credit and opportunities with community colleges and technical schools that may be in the community.
There are opportunities to strengthen the system through partnerships and resources rather than create something new that that may draw away from.
Michelle Rathman: Actually deplete resources, actually really weaken capacity. In our previous conversation, we talked about place-based learning, and I just loved hearing about it because it just shows us that there are so many innovative models without building new facilities per se but really creating programs and funding those programs and valuing educators.
John White: I don't want to disparage any choice option. I'm even thinking of a school that used a charter school grant to redevelop and recreate an existing school. So, they use the charter school grant in, I want to say, Walton, Kansas. The Walton Rural Life Center was a school that used a charter school grant to redevelop its whole program.
So, they partnered each classroom with a family farm, they turned their whole curriculum into project based learning, and they strengthened their education system through that charter grant program, and attracted partners and actually drew additional families to the school from neighboring towns.
So, there are tools and there are resources to strengthen education in rural places without blowing it up and dispersing it.
Michelle Rathman: Right. I like that you said that. You said that we don't have to blow it up. We don't have to start over. We just have to strengthen. The few minutes that we have left because, policy is something that I'm also very passionate about. I say, all roads to quality of life are paved by policy. Where whatever it is, whether it's health care, whether it's education, whether it's access to food, transportation, housing, what have you. Let's just close out by talking about the Department of Education and, you were there before, and if you take a look at where things are, what do we need our United States Department of Education to understand about the needs for rural and how they can continue to pay attention, invest? What do we need from them to make sure that our rural students today at every grade level, have opportunities to succeed in life?
John White: Well, I think to begin with. There's a natural need to almost reinvigorate after each administration. So, after each administration, you may lose some of that institutional memory. For example, there's a new person who is now the Director of Rural Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education where I was, but that person wasn’t appointed for two or three years. So, since the previous administration. So I'm thrilled that there is a person in that position now to be the conduit to the Department from Rural Communities. And I think the more the department can do to reach out to rural communities to inform rural communities of opportunities for support, to seek feedback so that when they're developing programs, that they are flexible and that they recognize the challenges that rural schools face.
I think that we can continue to improve and get better in the way that we deliver services and support rural kids.
Michelle Rathman: And the Department of Education is one entity, but at a state level I wonder if you could just take that same question and we take a look at opportunities to communicate. You said, invite your state representatives to come to your school. What are some of the key messages, if we have any rural legislators listening to this podcast, what are some of the key messages of the importance of deliberately and frequently taking a look at the importance of supporting rural education, rural teachers, rural students learning? What are some of those things that, you know, if you just a few tips of how we can advocate for ourselves to ensure
John White: Sure,
Michelle Rathman: that they don't fall prey to the sensational headlines and really hone in and focus on the real challenges.
John White: Sure. So, I think about funding at the state level first and foremost, because in, in some states, particularly in rural areas, they receive less funding, and they have more urgent needs. So, like we said earlier, if you don't have a teacher, you may not have a program. If you don't have funding in rural places, programs go away or services aren't provided, whereas in an urban area, partnerships are easier to find, investment is larger because you have more students. So, we need to recognize the differences and disparities in rural places and compensate for that when it comes to funding for education and for students.
Michelle Rathman: We want rural schools to thrive. When rural schools thrive, their students thrive, their, we have people interested in pursuing a career in education and goodness knows we need it. As long as we have children, we need educators out there. My gosh, John White, thank you so much for your insights.
We really do appreciate you coming and talking with us. It's, we've known each other, through the internet. And so, it's great to finally meet you in person. Listen, if you are a part of a rural school. Any of you listening out there, part of a rural school, and you've got some really interesting things happening. We want to hear about it.
Share us what your rural impact is. Talk to us about your success stories. We'll share them on this podcast. Cause there's a lot of, this is a heavy subject. I say it all the time. These are not light subjects. In the end, we really hope that what we've done here in this series is to enlighten you.
So again, that's a wrap of our series on rural education, but I want to invite you to stay tuned because, you know, we're going to have additional conversations in the future. We have what we call Rural Impact Extra episodes, and we're going to be trying to get people who are in the know in the news, making policy to join us and talk to us about the things that are important to them.
So, again, we know we just thank you for listening and just know that you're going to talk to us again on a new episode and a new series of The Rural Impact until then take good care.