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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response


February 2020


What resources are available on shared service models in rural settings?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies and policy overviews on shared service models in rural settings. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Advance CTE: State Leaders Connecting Learning to Work. (2017). Providing learners access to diverse career pathways. Silver Spring, MD: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Rural communities all too often face scarce funding, instructors and facilities, forcing institutions to choose between offering a variety of introductory courses across a breadth of subjects or providing more narrowly focused, sequenced programs within one or two priority Career Clusters. Providing learners access to diverse career pathways in rural areas is a persistent challenge for all states. This brief from Advance CTE is the third installment in the ‘CTE on the Frontier series,’ designed to help states identify promising strategies for expanding the variety of career pathways available in rural areas. The brief profiles how states such as Nebraska, Alaska, North Dakota and Idaho have leveraged strategic partnerships and new technologies to reach economies of scale and offer a wider breadth of career pathways to rural learners.”

Bard, J., Gardener, C., & Wieland, R. (2006). Rural school consolidation: History, research summary, conclusions, and recommendations. Rural Educator, 27(2), 40–48. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The consolidation of rural schools in the United States has been a controversial topic for policy-makers, school administrators, and rural communities since the 1800s. At issue in the consolidation movement have been concerns of efficiency, economics, student achievement, school size, and community identity. Throughout the history of schooling in America, school consolidation has been a way to solve rural issues in the eyes of policy makers and many education officials. Today, faced with declining enrollments and financial cutbacks, many rural schools and communities continue to deal with challenges associated with possible school reorganizations and consolidations. This paper, developed by the National Rural Education Association (NREA) Consolidation Task Force, provides a review of the literature on rural school consolidation, defines consolidation, addresses current research and issues related to consolidation with respect to school size, economies of scale, and student achievement, and concludes with proposed recommendations for the NREA Executive Board.”

Beem, K. (2006). In the name of survival: The dual superintendency. School Administrator, 63(3), 18. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Dual superintendency is a popular tack in rural America for the preservation of proud communities. The job is not for someone who wants to coast. There are two budgets to develop and monitor, two school boards, two sets of priorities. Keeping everyone in two school districts satisfied is more than a full-time occupation. Other school communities see the dual superintendency as part of a prolonged courtship dance, giving them time to size up each other before considering a permanent merger. For some districts, sharing a superintendent is the only way to stave off forced consolidation, which many rural communities see as the beginning of the end. This article describes the dual responsibilities of superintendents who are willing to shoulder the administrative tasks of two or more districts in an effort to save each district money.”

Brown, D. (2012). Rural districts bolster choices with online learning. Learning & Leading with Technology, 39(6), 12–17. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “All schools can benefit from giving students the option of online learning, but for many rural schools, online learning is a lifeline. In the past two years, Lane Education Service District in Oregon, USA, has developed online resources for 14 Lane County school districts, which vary in size from 170 students to as many as 17,000. Many of the smaller districts, which offer fewer courses due to the size of their staffs and limited space on the schedule, turn to online learning to give students a richer selection of offerings. Some have found online credit recovery courses to be an excellent tool for helping students graduate on time. Their goal is to remove barriers, develop free and low-cost shared services, and innovate using online tools. In this article, the author describes how four small rural school districts in Oregon use online learning to offer enrichment courses to advanced students and give struggling students a way to retake courses to graduate.”

DeLuca, T. A. (2013). K-12 non-instructional service consolidation: Spending changes and scale economies. Journal of Education Finance, 39(2), 150–173. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Educational policy makers (e.g., legislators, state and local school boards) continue to promote inter-district service consolidation as one method to reduce operating expenditures citing economies of scale as the source of any savings. This study uses survey data to identify the extent of non-instructional service consolidation in Michigan, with these data then merged with financial and other administrative panel data from 2004-2010. Except for a small spike in the number of consolidations in 2009, the annual trend showed no apparent acceleration or deceleration in the pace of service consolidation. Financially, this study measures and finds non-significant spending reductions associated with the consolidation of services from the local district to the Educational Service Agency (ESA). Although this is only one of several service consolidation models, (e.g., local districts sharing services with each other, local districts sharing services with municipalities, privatization of services), this study finds no support for the prediction that consolidating non-instructional services significantly decreases service spending. Conversely, the findings show that consolidating business office services significantly increases instructional spending.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Gross, B., & Jochim, A. (2015). The SEA of the future: Uncovering the productivity promise of rural education (Volume 4). San Antonio, TX: Building State Capacity and Productivity Center. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “‘The SEA of the Future’ is an education publication series examining how state education agencies can shift from a compliance to a performance-oriented organization through strategic planning and performance management tools to meet growing demands to support education reform while improving productivity. This is the fourth volume in the series. Like their urban counterparts, rural schools and districts are being asked to stretch their dollars further but with limited economies of scale, difficult teacher labor markets, and inadequate access to time and money-saving technologies. While rural schools and districts educate millions of American students, they do so with less support and attention than their urban and suburban counterparts. Regardless, there are examples of rural districts and schools that are innovating how they deliver services to students, recruit teachers, use technology, and serve special populations. This volume details those efforts, provides potential solutions to challenges, and compels state leaders to keep the unique needs of rural education in mind when crafting policies that are designed with urban and suburban districts in mind.”

Howley, A., Howley, M., Hendrickson, K., Belcher, J., & Howley, C. (2012). Stretching to survive: District autonomy in an age of dwindling resources. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 27(3). Retrieved from Full text available from

From the ERIC abstract: “This case study focuses on a four-district collaborative that shared services for more than 15 years in an effort to retain rural schools and thereby to preserve community identity. With population losses in the four districts and suburbanization in the largest, the collaborative made extensive use of distance education in addition to itinerant teachers and shared administrators. Data concerning dynamics in the collaborative came from interviews with administrators, teachers, students, and parents. Qualitative data analysis surfaced two themes relating to shared services: tenacity in the face of decline, and strategies with limited sustainability. Findings also pointed to a disjuncture between the way administrators and parents, on the one hand and teachers and students, on the other viewed the success of shared services and the probable future of the collaborative. A review of changes in the written plans of the collaborative over a several-year period revealed that sharing of buildings through school consolidation was the inevitable next step. This finding fits with research showing that shared services in rural locales—a strategy initially used to forestall reorganization—often leads to consolidation.”

Melton, B. (2018). Remote possibilities. Learning Professional, 39(2), 28–32. Retrieved from Full text available from

From the ERIC abstract: “This article describes a project initiated to address the challenges of providing high-quality professional development to teachers in rural schools. Spread over the vast northwest corner of Colorado, where it takes over two hours to drive from one end of the region to the other, the Northwest Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services (NW BOCES) was awarded a U.S. Department of Education Investing in Innovation (i3) grant to address the challenges which include inadequate access due to remoteness, limited resources available to individual school systems, and small school sizes leading to teacher isolation. Named the System for Educator Effectiveness Development (SEED), its ultimate goal is to improve student outcomes. The project plans: (1) Using teacher evaluation data, teacher needs, and evidence-based practices to drive the content of professional learning; (2) Addressing the needs of teachers by leveraging technology to engage them in professional learning opportunities; (3) Embedding professional learning organically within the teacher evaluation process; (4) Providing teachers options for professional learning; and (5) Giving teachers the support they need to apply their learning in unique classroom settings over time. By designing professional learning that meets these criteria, it is expected that teachers’ knowledge of best practices will increase, principals will become more engaged in the professional learning of those they supervise, teachers will regularly apply what they have learned in the classroom, and student engagement will increase, thus leading to improved student achievement.”

Timar, T., Carter, A., & Ford, N. (2018). The network solution: How rural district networks can drive continuous improvement. Berkeley, CA: Policy Analysis for California Education, PACE. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Rural school districts face unique challenges in procuring funds, recruiting staff, and obtaining high-quality technical assistance. This environment creates problems in identifying high-quality instructional materials and implementing best practices. A collaborative learning network can address these challenges by providing access to professional development, collaborative time with peer districts, and economies of scale. This report discusses rural networks, specifically Pivot Learning’s Rural Professional Learning Network, can cost-effectively provide expertise and build a professional culture.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “Boards of Cooperative Educational Services” “rural schools”


  • “Economies of scale” “rural schools”

  • “Shared resources and services” “rural schools”

  • “Shared service model”

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.