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Recent research on rural education — July 2018


Could you provide recent research on rural education, including K–12 and higher education?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for recent (in the past two years) research reports and resources on rural education, including K–12 and higher education. The sources included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

Research References

Barrio, B. L. (2017). Special education policy change: Addressing the disproportionality of English language learners in special education programs in rural communities. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 36(2), 64–72. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “Research suggests that disproportionate representation of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education has been a recurring topic of concern in the field of special education within the United States. Over the past few years, this concern has shifted to focus on the disproportionate representation of English Language Learners (ELLs) in categories of mild to moderate disabilities, specifically within the category of learning disabilities. Although improvements in educational policy have been made through federal legislation, local rural school districts continue to battle this concern, especially those in rural areas. The following article focuses on the recommendations for development, implementation, and evaluation of local policy change to improve the disproportionate representation of ELL students within rural school districts.”

Culbertson, M. J., & Billig, S. H. (2016). Decision points and considerations for identifying rural districts that have closed student achievement gaps (REL 2016–130). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Central. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Rural districts have long faced challenges in closing the achievement gap between high-poverty students and their more affluent peers. This research brief outlines key decision points and considerations for state and district decisionmakers who wish to identify rural districts that have closed academic achievement gaps. Examining these districts’ experiences with organizational and instructional policies and practices may suggest activities associated with making achievement gains and narrowing achievement gaps that can be systematically investigated. Key issues in the process are highlighted by examples from recent work with rural stakeholder groups in Colorado and Nebraska.”

Lazarev, V., Toby, M., Zacamy, J., Lin, L., & Newman, D. (2017). Indicators of successful teacher recruitment and retention in Oklahoma rural schools (REL 2018–275). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The purpose of this study was to identify factors associated with successful recruitment and retention of teachers in Oklahoma rural school districts, in order to highlight potential strategies to address Oklahoma’s teaching shortage. The study was designed to identify teacher-level, district-level, and community characteristics in rural Oklahoma that predict which teachers are most likely to be successfully recruited (as defined in this study as having completed a probationary period of employment in a district for three years and obtained tenure status in their fourth year of teaching) and retained (as defined in this study as the duration of employment of tenured teachers in a given school district). For context, the study also explores patterns of teacher job mobility in Oklahoma in rural and nonrural schools. This correlational study covers a 10-year period, the 2005/06 to 2014/15 school years, and uses data from Oklahoma State Department of Education, Office of Educational Quality and Accountability, and community characteristics from data in federal noneducation sources. The study found that teachers who are male, those who have higher postsecondary degrees, and those who have more teaching experience are harder than others to recruit and retain in Oklahoma schools. Another key finding is that for teachers in rural schools, total compensation and increased responsibilities in job assignment (as measured by full-time equivalent and additional nonteaching assignments) are positively associated with successful recruitment and retention. The exploration of the patterns of teacher job mobility in Oklahoma showed that teachers at rural schools have a 70 percent chance of reaching their fourth year of teaching in the same district and, therefore, reaching tenure; this rate is slightly lower than the rates for teachers in nonrural areas. Also, rural school districts in Oklahoma had consistently lower rates of success in recruiting teachers than nonrural school districts from 2006/07 to 2011/12. In conclusion, the evidence provided by this study can be used to inform incentive schemes to help retain certain groups of teachers and increase retention rates overall. In addition, the results of this study could inform the design of more rigorous studies, such as impact evaluations, of such incentive schemes.”

McHenry-Sorber, E., & Budge, K. (2018). Revisiting the rural superintendency: Rethinking guiding theories for contemporary practice. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 33(3), 1–15. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This conceptual article challenges researchers and practitioners to reconsider the utility of current constructs used to understand the rural school superintendency. We evaluate the rural leadership literature through two waves of scholarship: insider/outsider conceptions and place-conscious/critical place-conscious constructs. We assert critical place-conscious leadership as potentially responsive to contemporary rural realities, but we provide a number of revisions for theoretical development to increase applicability to the realities of the rural superintendency in practice in the early part of the twenty-first century.”

Molefe, A., Burke, M. R., Collins, N., Sparks, D., & Hoyer, K. (2017). Postsecondary education expectations and attainment of rural and nonrural students (REL 2017–257). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This study examined rural–nonrural differences in postsecondary educational expectations and the attainment of expectations for grade 10 students attending rural and nonrural high schools in the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest region and how these differences compare with rural–nonrural differences in the rest of the nation. For grade 10 students who indicated that they did not anticipate attaining more than a high school education, the study also examined rural and nonrural students’ reasons for not expecting to continue their education past the secondary level. Analyses drew on data from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 using descriptive statistics, chi-squared tests of association, and multinomial regression models with students nested in schools. The baseline model included only school locale, an indicator for region, and their interaction as predictors; subsequent models added student predictors, family characteristics, teacher expectations, and school contextual variables. Analyses reveal that rural students in the Midwest had lower educational expectations than their nonrural peers, yet similar levels of educational attainment after taking into account student, family, teacher, and school characteristics. For two-thirds of rural and nonrural students, educational attainment fell short of expectations. Importantly, participation in rigorous coursework, parent aspirations, and teacher expectations were more predictive of educational expectations and attainment than whether students grew up in rural areas in grade 10 in 2002. For grade 10 students who did not expect to go to college, both rural and nonrural students perceived financial barriers as the primary reason. Policymakers and other stakeholders in Midwestern states and the rest of the nation can use the results of this study to inform efforts to improve the educational attainment of rural students.”

O’Malley, M., Wendt, S. J., & Pate, C. (2018, June 17). A view from the top: Superintendents’ perceptions of mental health supports in rural school districts. Educational Administration Quarterly Online. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “Purpose: A chasm exists between the expanding mental health needs of school-aged youth and the school resources available to address them. Education agencies must efficiently allocate their limited resources by adopting innovative public health models. The need for these effective approaches is acute in rural regions, where resources tend to be scarce. This mixed-methods study of school superintendents illuminates key opportunities to optimize access to care for students struggling with mental health needs in rural communities. Method: Superintendents serving rural California school districts were targeted for a web-based, mixed response–type, 53-item survey designed to examine their perceptions across three school mental health–related categories: (a) strengths and gaps in community ethos and district infrastructure, (b) school personnel groups’ knowledge and skills, and (c) predominant barriers. Of the targeted respondents, 16.7% completed the survey (N = 62). Quantitative data were analyzed using a series of descriptive analyses and paired-sample t tests. Qualitative data were analyzed using a constant comparative method with an open-coding approach. Findings and Implications: Budget constraints and access to trained school-based and community-based mental health personnel are the most frequently cited barriers to addressing mental health in schools. Knowledge and skills related to mental health are perceived to be more pronounced in district and school leadership than in other personnel groups, including staff typically responsible for providing mental health services, such as school psychologists. Our findings suggest a need to improve superintendent knowledge of innovative public health models for delivering mental health services within the constraints of rural school district settings.”

Parsley, D. (2018). Remote but not removed: Professional networks that support rural educators. American Educator, 41(4), 34–44. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The Northwest Rural Innovation and Student Engagement (NW RISE) Network connects rural educators in the Pacific Northwest to help them succeed in the profession and overcome the challenges caused by teacher isolation. In this article, the author takes stock of what was learned in the four years since the network was established. She also shares key takeaways to help other groups interested in creating education networks with similar goals.”

Peltola, P., Haynes, E., Clymer, L., McMillan, A., & Williams, H. (2017). Opportunities for teacher professional development in Oklahoma rural and nonrural schools (REL 2017–273). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, Nation­al Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The purpose of this study was to fill the gap in statewide information about teacher professional development opportunities in Oklahoma and compare the opportunities in rural and nonrural schools. The Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest, along with members of the Oklahoma Rural Schools Research Alliance, developed a survey that measured how professional development is structured, how it is planned, and what supports and barriers teachers may face in accessing professional development. The sampling frame was obtained from the website of the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Principals from 1,609 public elementary and secondary schools in Oklahoma were invited to participate in the online universe survey. The Office of Educational Quality and Accountability administered the survey in spring 2016, and 51.3 percent of the principals completed the survey. A nonresponse bias analysis was conducted, and nonresponse weights were created. All the results were adjusted by the nonresponse weights. In the descriptive results, Oklahoma schools are divided into rural versus nonrural schools using the urban-centric locale classification in the 2013/14 Common Core Data. The results report differences between rural and nonrural schools if they are significant at the p < .05 level based on a t-test and if the difference is at least 5 percentage points. Results indicate that the majority of rural schools in Oklahoma offer multiple types of professional development structures for teachers, such as conferences and workshops. However, rural schools offer fewer types than do nonrural schools. The biggest barrier that keeps both rural and nonrural teachers from attending any type of professional development is scheduling conflicts with other school or professional activities, and the barrier is more prevalent for rural teachers. The findings of this study show that rural schools provide a substantial amount of support for their teachers’ professional development, but the support is less likely in rural schools than in nonrural schools to be provided by peers (e.g., common planning and collaboration time, teacher-led coaching and mentoring, and collaborative learning). Rural schools could look for ways to increase collaborative learning between teachers so that teachers can support and mentor each other. Taking greater advantage of online resources could help rural schools supplement local, in-person professional development.”

Pendola, A., & Fuller, E. J. (2018). Principal stability and the rural divide. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 34(1), 1–20. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article examines the unique features of the rural school context and how these features are associated with the stability of principals in these schools. Given the small but growing literature on the characteristics of rural principals, this study presents an exploratory analysis of principal stability across schools located in different geographic locales. We use longitudinal data covering all certified education positions in Texas over an eight-year period and employ logistic regression models to examine the ways in which individual and school characteristics influence five-year retention rates for all principals as well as for rural principals. Broadly, our data show that rural principals, on average, leave their positions earlier than non-rural principals and have lower levels of stability. Our results further suggest that while rural principals exhibit less gender and racial diversity, they do not exhibit shorter spells of employment as a principal after controlling for personal and school characteristics. Rural female principals are more stable than rural male principals. In addition, we find that principals with more teaching experience are more stable while those with more assistant principal experience are less stable.”

Piontek, M. E., Kannapel, P. J., Flory, M., & Stewart, M. S. (2016). The implementation of dual credit programs in six nonurban Kentucky school districts (REL 2016–136). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “A key strategy of the Kentucky Department of Education’s and Council on Postsecondary Education’s College and Career Readiness Delivery plan is to provide opportunities for high school students to earn college credit. Districts across Kentucky are implementing dual credit programs, but there is little sharing of information about the implementation of these programs. REL Appalachia researchers identified six districts in consultation with Kentucky College and Career Readiness Alliance representatives. Profiles describing each district’s dual credit programming were created using data from 45 individual interviews conducted with seven distinct stakeholder groups. Each of the six districts offered dual credit programs, with variations in configuration, course offerings, costs, and student supports. Each of the six districts partners with at least one two-year and one four-year postsecondary institution to offer dual enrollment courses. The most prevalent configuration of courses is where courses are offered at a high school and taught by credentialed high school teachers. In cases where high schools are located near postsecondary institutions, this geographic proximity enhances the ability of school districts to offer a variety of courses and program configurations. Assurance of program quality was limited and varied across postsecondary institutions. Dual credit programs offer students the opportunity to earn college credit at reduced costs, but costs and funding support vary by district, postsecondary institution, and program design. Dual credit programs were viewed favorably and heavily promoted in each district, but their expansion is limited by key challenges. These challenges include needing to (1) increase the number of instructors credentialed to teach dual credit courses; (2) increase access to dual credit opportunities, especially in remote, rural locations; (3) ensure student readiness for college coursework; (4) make dual credit programs affordable for all eligible students across the state; (5) ensure course quality; and (6) provide adequate staffing to effectively manage dual credit programs.”

Puryear, J. S., & Kettler, T. (2017). Rural gifted education and the effect of proximity. Gifted Child Quarterly, 61(2), 143–152. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “Gifted education services in rural districts typically lag behind those in nonrural areas. Using district classifications assigned by the National Center for Education Statistics and Texas school district data (n = 1,029) from the Academic Excellence Indicator System, the role of school district classification on gifted education outcomes was investigated. Contextual variables such as school demographics and school size were also examined. The study focused on rural and town school districts which are further classified as fringe, distant, or remote (level of proximity) within those two broad categories. Results of one-way multivariate analysis of variance indicated an effect of proximity for both rural and town districts on both contextual variables and gifted education outcomes. Additionally, rural fringe districts were found to be more similar to districts not classified as rural (i.e., urban, suburban, town) than to rural distant and rural remote districts. Findings offer important implications for both the support for gifted education in rural settings and the usefulness of the census codes as an indicator in educational research.”

Rude, H., & Miller, K. J. (2018). Policy challenges and opportunities for rural special education. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 37(1), 21–29. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article reviews current developments in state and national policies that affect rural special education. A brief overview of the federal role in rural education is provided, with emphasis on the implications for the provision of special education services in rural communities. A variety of challenges are identified, including (a) the variable contexts of rural communities and the associated problems with the identity of rural education, (b) influences of rural poverty and accompanying decline in economic development in many rural communities, (c) ongoing personnel shortages in rural schools that pose unique dynamics for recruitment and retention of rural educators, (d) the disparities in available resources targeted for education in rural communities in comparison with urban counterparts, and (e) the influences of increased learner diversity on schools in rural America. A number of promising practices that address the challenges are identified, including attention to comprehensive statewide systems of educator identification, preparation, and ongoing support for educators and schools located in rural communities across America. A set of recommendations for policymakers and policy implementers is offered for consideration to advance the improvement of special education programs and services for learners in rural communities.”

Schmitt-Wilson, S., Downey, J. A., & Beck, A. E. (2018). Rural educational attainment: The importance of context. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 33(1), 1–14. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Understanding patterns of educational attainment among rural youth is a critical concern for our nation as we seek to make postsecondary access and attainment more equitable across our increasingly diverse student population. The current study examines data collected in the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 to identify contemporary patterns of educational attainment among rural youth, with a focus on associate degree attainment and bachelor’s degree attainment. Findings reveal that education expected for occupation is a significant predictor for bachelor’s degree attainment, with regional differences found among individuals earning a bachelor’s degree. The results support a link between rural students’ expectations for occupation and educational attainment and highlight differences in educational attainment by region of residence.”

Test, D. W., & Fowler, C. H. (2018). Look at the past, present, and future of rural secondary transition. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 37(2), 68–78. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “Depending on which date is attributed to the birth of secondary transition, it can be considered anywhere from 27 to 57 years old. No matter which date is used, it has been a while since the field ‘took stock’ of itself. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to (a) briefly summarize where the field of secondary transition has been; (b) briefly summarize where we think the field of secondary transition now stands in terms of student postschool outcomes and barriers to successful outcomes in rural communities; and (c) conclude with some thoughts on what is next, how we might get there, and what this means for secondary transition in rural areas.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2017). Rural education at a glance, 2017 edition. Economic Information Bulletin 171. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Education is closely linked with economic outcomes. This report highlights key trends in educational attainment among rural Americans and the relationship between educational attainment and economic prosperity for rural people and places. Rural Americans are increasingly educated, but gains in educational attainment vary across demographic groups. Rural women are increasingly more highly educated than rural men, and educational attainment among rural Whites is higher than that of racial and ethnic minorities in rural areas. Compared with urban areas, rural areas are lagging in the share of adults with college degrees. Urban areas continue to offer employment and earnings advantages (relative to rural areas) for workers with college degrees. For rural counties, low educational attainment is closely related to higher poverty and child poverty rates as well as higher unemployment rates.”

Wiezorek, D., & Manard, C. (2018). Instructional leadership challenges and practices of novice principals in rural schools. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 34(2), 1–21. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “We report on a phenomenological study of the leadership experiences of six novice, rural public school principals in a midwestern U.S. state. We situated our analysis within existing research on leadership for learning, particularly how novice principals interpreted instructional leadership challenges in the context of rural school leadership. Our findings indicated that principals worked to balance their professional and private lives and were challenged to meet their community’s expectations to be visible and engaged. To meet districts’ constrained budgetary circumstances, the principals also maintained overlapping district- and building-level responsibilities. The principals focused heavily on developing relationships and trust among their teachers, students, and parents. The implications of this study demonstrate a need to develop new leaders’ understanding of rural school community expectations; develop skills to fulfill expanding job responsibilities; and supplement leadership preparation, mentoring, and professional development programs regarding the specialized needs of rural school leaders.”

Zuckerman, S. J., Wicox, K. C., Schiller, K. S., & Durand, F. T. (2018). Absorptive capacity in rural schools: Bending not breaking during disruptive innovation implementation. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 34(3), 1–27. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Rural schools have repeatedly been subjected to standardizing state and federal education policies that seek to minimize variance in instructional systems and increase the number of college- and career-ready graduates. The Race to the Top policy agenda combined standards-based and accountability-based reforms to meet these objectives and once again subjected rural schools to innovations from outside experts. This qualitative study uses four instrumental cases of rural schools to understand: 1) leadership strategies, and 2) mechanisms and processes of alignment, which allowed schools to maintain high levels of student performance in the face of disruptive policy innovations. The findings of the cross-case analysis identify rural school and district leaders’ contingent use of adaptive strategies of buffering, bridging, and brokering. Mechanisms and processes of shared goal setting, ongoing curriculum revision, and teacher collaboration that contribute to the development of coherence supported these strategies. Together, leadership strategies and coherence allow leaders and educators to assimilate, transform, and create new knowledge in ways that provide absorptive capacity and allow for selective implementation of disruptive innovations.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

The Council of State Governments (CSG) –

From the website: “Founded in 1933, The Council of State Governments is our nation’s only organization serving all three branches of state government. CSG is a region-based forum that fosters the exchange of insights and ideas to help state officials shape public policy. This offers unparalleled regional, national, and international opportunities to network, develop leaders, collaborate and create problem-solving partnerships.”

REL West note: CSG has a publication relevant to this request:

Bartlett, M., & Hauge, K. (2017). Ensuring equity for work-based learning: Supporting rural communities. Lexington, KY: The Council of State Governments. Retrieved from

National Rural Education Association (NREA) –

From the website: “The NREA was originally founded as the Department of Rural Education in 1907. It is the oldest established national organization of its kind in the United States. Through the years it has evolved as a strong and respected organization of rural school administrators, teachers, board members, regional service agency personnel, researchers, business and industry representatives, and others interested in maintaining the vitality of rural school systems across the country.”

REL West note: The NREA has lists of relevant resources and blog posts at


Keywords and Search Strings

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

“Rural education”

Databases and Resources

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

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2003 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 and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. 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.