3 articles worth reading and debating

These three articles captured in my RSS feed reader caught my eye today. Perhaps they’ll interest you as well.

1. Is the Internet Changing Kids’ Minds?

In this excerpt from his book The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads, Daniel T. Willingham argues that the brain is always changing; there’s no reason to assume the Internet is damaging kids’ brains so they can’t concentrate.

What is problematic, Willingham says, is that using digital technologies of all types change users’ expectations: Users are impatient with boredom. They expect instant success with minimal effort.

That sounds like an education problem to me. What do you think?

2. In a Changing Rural America, What Can Charter Schools Offer?

I’ve seen many articles about how school choice championed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos won’t help — and may hurt — rural areas. This article by Terry Ryan and Paul Hill at Education Next suggests that charters, properly done, could be an alternative to school consolidations in sparsely populated areas.

If you live in a rural area, you ought to read their short piece.

3. Why do college students have 6th-grade writing skills?

That question was the headline over an e-Campus News report on a research study by peer-to-peer learning markeplace StudySoup. StudySoup’s own headline was “At Which U.S. Colleges do Students Write at a Middle School Level?”

Educators need to take a look at the StudySoup data: It’s the sort of “research” that will grab media attention and get discussed over coffee at the local diner.

A team from the business used the Hemingway app to analyze hundreds of written documents submitted to the StudySoup . The app evaluated the samples for clarity, readability, and calculated the reading level of the writing. The average reading level score was 12th-grade level. Student work was also given a second score based on how difficult individual sentences were to read. Of the 20 schools from which writing samples were analyzed, 12 were graded “poor.”

The app doesn’t look to see whether writers have anything to say; it looks just at their individual sentences.

Notice that StudySoup assumes that the higher the reading level score the better the writing is. Actually, the higher the reading level, the smaller the audience that will be able to understand it: Here’s StudySoup’s own explanation of Hemingway which supports that interpretation:

Hemingway provides two “readability” scores for each document. The first is the “grade level” of the content, which is determined using a readability algorithm. According to Hemingway, this score determines “the lowest education needed to understand your prose”.

Rural triangle: School, community, economy

Curved arrows labeled Education, Economy, and Community chase one another in front of a green triangle.In November, 2015 I began posting a list of resources for folks who want to improve the relationship between rural schools and their communities for their mutual benefit.

It’s time to revisit the topic.

It’s still true that, as I wrote in 2015:

In rural communities, schools cannot be considered separate from economic development and community development. The vitality and policies of any one of the three impacts the other two.

And the 2015 description of rural brain drain still is largely accurate.

But rural America’s problems are getting more attention these days, most notably from rural Americans themselves who are stepping up try to reverse the decline of the rural American economy and prevent the loss of their communities and community schools.

I’ve shortened descriptions of resources I posted in 2015 and added dates for the resources so readers can quickly get a feel for the changes.

What’s happening in rural America?

(2009) The brightest students are leaving rural communities; job options for those who remain are diminishing.

(2012) The rural student population is getting larger, more diverse, and poorer.

(2013) Net migration isn’t offsetting the effects of brain drain.

Who is to blame for rural brain drain?

(2009) Schools and their communities each contribute to rural brain drain, setting the course for both to die. “Teachers, parents, and other influential adults cherry-pick the young people destined to leave and ignore the ones most likely to stay or return.”

(2017) Rural schools are failing their communities. A college degree in rural America is now synonymous with leaving and having no way to sustainably come back. Rural schools must work with their communities, rather than seeing themselves as separate from the cycle of economic decline.

How could rural schools aid in community development?

(2011) Schools could address community problems around medical care, food access, etc. by acting as self-sustaining revenue facilities.

How could rural schools aid in economic development?

(2011) A class of high school students in the poorest county in North Carolina designed and built a much-needed farmer’s market pavilion for the area.

(2012) Add skill applications to high school courses.

(2012) Greenville, NY, High School created what was, in effect, a small business incubator within its facility, offering a business rent in exchange for hands-on work experience for its high school students.

(2012) Encourage entrepreneurship by showing students online training resources they can access, and (2014) teach students to look for problems that require solutions.

(2013) Place-based, scholarly research by rural students can have direct, positive impact on local economic development.

(2013) Students in Cody NE, population 154, built a a 3,300-sq. ft. straw-bale building to use as grocery store and run it themselves. Inside, lettering on the wall above the produce cooler reads “It’s more than a store. It’s our future.”

(2014)  Capture the imagination of students who don’t see college as a path for themselves by school programs that target local economic problems.

(2015) Pell Grant experiment needs needs rural  scrutiny to make sure its rules won’t keep some rural students out of courses that fit their needs and interests.

(2017) Offer students a combination of coursework, internships, and job shadowing experiences to enable them to make informed choices about higher education, work, and place of residence. Preparing students for a continuously changing mainstream economy can give them the opportunity to return home as entrepreneurs or participants in the online space.

(2017) Schools can support project-based learning on authentic local problems that challenge students. For example, in Ness City, KS, an industrial arts class elected to design and build a tiny house. Other classes helped with interior design and marketing, and a special education class is documenting the project in a book. The classes plan to market the home across the country.

(2017) A SCORE chapter in Massachusetts collaborated with PTOs to deliver a six week, after-school program to train students in grades 4 through 8 to run their own businesses. The 72 participants in the initial program launched 52 new businesses, some of which were partnerships complete with partnership agreements.

How can rural schools and communities collaborate?

(2017) Public charters may offer rural communities a way to retain local schools.

(2011) Help teens get ready for the world of work with good attitudes and good skills.

(2012) Let teens work alongside adults to contribute to their communities and to develop and apply real skills.

(2012) Require students to apply classroom knowledge to real world writing situations and offer hands-on learning of salable skills.

(2012) Schools can grow their future teachers who will also be their communities’ future leaders.

(2014) Offer teens after-school programs that do more than distract.

(2014) Integrate non-academic services to students, their families, and even the wider community into the academic program.

(2016) Communities and schools need to work collaboratively to generate educational opportunities and economic prosperity in places where the number of voters without a child in school is a majority. Downloadable PDF from Battelle for Kids.

(2016)  School personnel and community members need to change the mindset that every kid needs to go to college. Today’s career and technical education, or CTE, can lead to a decent-paying job, particularly in those fields where employers say they are trying to cope with a serious “skills gap.”

(2017) Rural schools and their communities need to work together to turn around neighborhoods and schools long before those schools—and all the significance and services they bring with them—disappear.

What about the “no college for me” kids?

(2013) Give Career and Technical Education (CTE) students the same degree of academic support given their college-bound counterparts so they can take advantage of educational opportunities they need for their careers.

(2012) Six ideas for businesses serving the business market that require no post-high school training.

(2015) The internet allows someone with determination to learn skills for a good-paying job without the expenses of a college degree.

(2016) For years, there’s been almost no assistance for CTE students seeking post-secondary training. Three recent developments suggest the tide may be turning: An experimental program to give  in financial aid to those in nontraditional programs (such as coding boot camps), a MOOC with a graded-paper option, and the introduction of a federal law to expand concurrent enrollment opportunities for CTE students.

Who is working on the three-pronged rural problem?

SaveYour.Town Two small-town Iowans offer webinars, toolkits, and online communities to help people learn, grow and take action to revitalize their communities.

The Rural School and Community Trust (ruraledu.org) has many resources, including Tools to fight rural school consolidation.

The Center for Rural Affairs (cfra.org) developed a series of articles on why rural schools need to be kept alive. The articles are available as a 6-page pdf document.

The Orton Family Foundation empowers people to shape the future of their communities by collective, collaborative activities focusing on their unique strengths.

Have I missed items that should be here? Give me a shout in the comments or @LindaAragoni on Twitter

Updated June 23, 2017; March 27, 2017.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

Tools to fight rural school closure, consolidation

The Rural School and Community Trust has compiled a toolkit of 22 documents to help citizen activists facing the threat of school closure or consolidation fight back with facts.  Although the focus is on rural American schools, the underlying problems are not just American nor are solutions just for rural America.

Titles in the toolkit include:

Besides documents like these available for online reading, the toolkit also includes PDFs.

[links updated 04-02-2014]

Rural schools as community centers

A grassroots movement  in Canada is attempting to get the government to rethink the role of rural schools within their communities rather than to close schools and bus students to bigger schools.

An article in Nova Scotia’s Chronicle Herald today reports that a group called the Small Schools Delegation has asked the province to make schools the economic engines for their rural communities. The group says that in a rural landscape, education cannot be regarded as separate from health, economic development, or tourism.

They point out, for example, that doctors are not likely to want to settle in a community without a school at its center, nor are young adults likely to want to buy homes in a community without a local school.

Other posts on this blog about the relationship of schools and  local economic development are include one asking could schools grow a local economy  and another on communities as school revenue streams.

I’ve also written several posts about the importance of encouraging entrepreneurship as both an educational and an economic tool.

Entrepreneurship rural economic key

I guest-blogged  this week for Education and Tech about six businesses serving the business market that a youngster with some computer and art skills could start while in high school.

I see entrepreneurship as the most likely way for a rural area to retain of its young people after high school. Students who go off to college with an eye to getting a good job are unlike to return to rural communities where there are few good jobs to be had. That loss of young people is a significant concern in the rural areas, as this 2011 survey in the Guilford, NY, community shows.

If students need more training than their high school provided—as they almost certainly will—the Internet makes it possible for them to get advanced training, often for little or no cost.  And those who want more than just vocational training can get that in a rural area, too, if they have access to the Internet. Massachusetts Institute of Technology alone has 2000 free college-level courses available.

{Broken link removed 04-02-2014]

Visionary educator anticipated 2012

Twenty-five years ago, the late Freeman VanWickler anticipated today’s harsh educational climate and began to prepare for it.

VanWickler saw distance learning as the only way small rural school districts could overcome the challenges of demographics and geography and provide quality education at affordable prices. Under his leadership,  the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) in New York’s Delaware, Chenango, Madison, and Otsego counties had an nationally recognized distance learning program.

In that pre-Internet era, classes were created by dial-up connections between computers, which delivered graphic content, while audio was provided by speakerphone. The program’s best teachers, such as  Michael Foor-Pessin of Otselic Valley Central School District, former Colgate University and Norwich High School teacher Raymond T. Howes, and College of Saint Rose special education professor Edward Pieper, understood how to overcome the audiographic technology’s limitations by focusing on its assets: It was an almost ideal medium for small group instruction.

Unfortunately, the policy makers of the DCMO BOCES could not see understand how students could possibly learn when they could not see a teacher lecture. And today’s drivers of online education—declining funding, teacher reductions, emphasis on post-secondary education—were years away.

Distance learning seemed a silly waste of money to school boards and administrators.

VanWickler relentlessly sought publicity and funding for the program, but it was a battle he lost.

When VanWickler retired,  under his successor the distance learning program was dismantled.

Today VanWickler’s successor has retired, and distance learning is the fastest growing segment of education.

In Memoriam
Freeman A. VanWickler
June 18, 1927 – April 13, 2010

[fixed broken link 2016-01-31]

Communities as school revenue streams

It’s school budget season in New York. On my news job most days I see a half dozen stories saying the school revenue picture is bad and likely to get much worse in the next couple years.

In the midst of the gloom, a few schools looking at different ways of operating that are less dependent on state and federal money and more responsible to identified local needs. The project at Greenville High School I discussed in an earlier post is a case in point.

In “The self-sustaining school system,” which ran on the GateHouse News Service this week, Barry Greenfield offers some other options.  Greenfield is editor and publisher of EfficientGov.com and a selectman in Swampscott MA.

Greenfield says in communities of under 50,000 (which describes the home communities of most upstate school districts) rethinking a school as “a self-sustaining revenue facility” presents a way to address school budgetary problems as well as wider community problems.

He suggests several specific areas ripe for development by entrepreneurial-minded school districts.

Community programming

Schools could become places where new and existing programs, non-profit or for-profit, could find a home. If day-care, sports programs for children and adults, and instruction in arts and music were moved into school settings, they could generate revenue for the schools.  The Canajoharie NY  Central School District does this in a modest way with its  Fitness Center.

Greenfield also suggests the educational component include “serious computer training” that would enable students to graduate high school with saleable skills even if they don’t go on to college: CAD/CAM, computer programming, graphic design.  He says:

All children should leave high school with the ability to NOT have to afford college and still play a role in the information economy, which is now global.

I’d add web business skills such as search engine optimization and social media marketing to his list.

Surely if schools can sell ad space on school buses to subsidize their programs, they could rent space for a karate instructor or piano teacher to give lessons, possibly requiring some donated lessons for district students.


Greenfield suggests schools create opportunities for children to grow food—from gardens to fish farms—both as a learning tool and as a step toward school self-sufficiency. He thinks students ought to have opportunities to learn to cook as a life-skill and a way of opening students to job opportunities for those who don’t go to college.

Especially in rural districts, when students don’t know where milk comes from before it gets to the grocery store there’s a serious educational problem.  And studies show when students are involved in growing their own produce, they are more likely to eat foods outside the three main food groups (by which they mean pizza, burgers, and fries).

Medical clinic

Greenfield suggests schools outsource medical care, so they don’t have the expense of hiring an RN but parents get the benefit of a “doctor’s office” at the school. Inexpensive rent might lure a doctor to a rural, medically underserved area when combined with a ready-made market on the doorstep.


Most school facilities are used only part of the day, but must be heated, cooled and maintained 24/7, 52-weeks a year.  In many communities, the school sports programs have the expertise and infrastructure to operate year-round sports programs that could provide a significant revenue stream for the school. When municipal budgets are squeezed, schools could pick up the slack and do it profitably, Greenfield suggests.


Most communities of any size have a public library and a school library. By having a community-school library instead, tax dollars could be saved. And if the library has ample computer equipment, serious computer training of both students and adults could take place at the library.

Clearly some folks are getting serious about providing education at the community level. The rest of us have not yet begun to think.

It’s time we did.

[2017-01-26 updated link to “The self-sustaining school system.”]

White space may bridge digital divide

A one-two punch from geography and economic conditions all too frequently put rural students on the wrong site of the digital divide. I’ve written before about the difficulties students in my rural corner of New York State would have getting on the Internet if they don’t have an ISP at home.

A broadband technology is emerging that may offer some hope.

In December the Federal Communications Commission approved technology that allows Internet signals to be carried wirelessly in what is called white space, the  spectrum between television stations. The FCC approval takes effect Jan. 26.

Signals in this band travel better than WiFi because the signal isn’t impeded by physical structures such as buildings, trees, or mountains.

Thanks to the FCC decision, the medium will be accessible to small networking firms as well as to unlicensed and experimental users.

The white space signal must originate from fiber optic lines serving cell towers. Providers would have to reach agreement with the local cell carrier for use of the fiber optic cables to bring the signal into an area before the providers could deliver the signal to the customer’s location. (See the diagram at Mashable.com)

The FCC says unleasing the white spaces spectrum will provide a massive economic boost to businesses and result in new jobs being created.

One of the first locations to carry signals in white space is to be Thurman in the Adirondack Park, where Chestertown-based Rainmaker Network Service, LLC plans to test the technology later this year.

Interest in the new technology is high. Officials from other rural municipalities turned up in Thurman Jan. 25 to learn about the prospects and costs of the program..

Having Internet service available wouldn’t necessarily make it affordable for students in economically depressed rural areas, but it would at least remove one of the multiple barriers to rural student ‘net access.

Photo credit: House at the Hill uploaded by  iprole

Could schools grow a local economy?

Nearly every week I see a news story about a  school somewhere in New York State being closed. Usually the reason is a combination of declining enrollment and the high cost of state-mandated administrative supervision.

A one-of-a-kind program at Greenville High School in the Catskills south of Albany suggests an option that is worth exploring in other districts.

Two years ago, the high school created what is, in effect, a small business incubator within its facility, offering a business rent in exchange for hands-on work experience for its high school students.

Greenville allowed a small start-up company, C2 Biotechnologies, to use space in one of the high school’s agriculture classrooms. In exchange, the company provides after school work experiences and summer internships to Greenville students.

The school hopes to expand the educational partnership with the biotech company to include students in fields other than science in the once-a-week after school program.

C2 Biotechnologies is presently dependent on federal funding to finance the paid internships for students in 2012. But the school spent only $13,000 to get the company on board, so it hasn’t a lot to lose if the company cannot hang on.

On the positive side, the school’s students are getting valuable training now. If the company succeeds, it will bring more good jobs to the area, which increases the tax base for the school.

The business incubator model in Greenville appears to be one that almost any district of any size with declining and enrollment could explore if it had the vision. The businesses need not be in high tech fields or manufacturing. In a rural area, roofers and veterinarians, day care services and graphic artists might be the best candidates for a business incubator.

Naturally, the model wouldn’t work in every situation. A district’s available space might be in the wrong places. There might be no interest from business people who would work well with students. And the cost of staffing a small-enrollment school with certified administrators might still be too expensive regardless of benefits of business partners.

Still, when you consider the social costs to a community of losing a school, the idea is certainly worth a look.

Photo credit:  Biotechnology uploaded by SW Yang shows tissue culture of orchids in Taiwan

[replaced degraded link 2017-01-26]

Free Rural Schools Innovations Webinar

The efforts of  innovative network of rural schools in New England  to improve student success through use of inquiry learning will be the topic of a free webinar on Wednesday, March 11 at 2 pm EST.

The webinar will be hosted by Doris Terry Williams, executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust. Participants will be from three New Hampshire schools that particpate  in the network:

  • Teacher Chris Geraghty from Kearsarge High School.
  • Principal Steve Beals from Laconia High School.
  • Superintendent John Freeman, from Pittsfield.

Use the Add to Cart button to register in advance. Sign in information and a PDF will be emailed to registrants the day prior to the webinar.

My thanks to Nancy Blair (twitter name: @blairteach), school improvement consultant in Atlanta, Ga., for sharing information about this webinar.

[Broken links removed 2/26/14]