SOE News

Researchers work with rural educators across the nation

School of Education researchers involved in federally funded collaborations with rural schools have learned that teachers there are the projects’ best friends.

The teachers’ understanding of their students’ families and communities has proven indispensable, say School of Education professors involved with the projects – all conducted by the National Research Center on Rural Education Support in the school.

“Many of our teachers are extremely experienced,” said Dr. Lynne Vernon-Feagans, William C. Friday distinguished professor of education and a center co-director. “They live in these areas. They know the families. You often don’t have that in an urban area.”

The U.S. Department of Education established the center in 2004 with a $10 million, five-year grant to the school. Researchers from UNC’s Center for Developmental Science, School of Social Work, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and psychology and sociology departments also are involved.

The grant funded three projects, on children’s transitions into kindergarten and first grade; use of distance learning in rural schools; and students’ transitions into early adolescence.

Since then, researchers have worked with rural educators nationwide to add more studies, said Dr. Tom Farmer, center director and a former UNC School of Education faculty member, who left recently for Pennsylvania State University.

The additional research looks at the following topics in rural schools: teacher retention and administrative turnover; special education needs and services; and the preparation of rural adolescents for transition from high school to adulthood. 

Center partners in these projects include the Rural Schools and Community Trust, the University of Oklahoma, Stephen F. Austin University, the Southwest Regional Educational Laboratory and Penn State.  

The researchers recognize that many rural school districts lack the resources of wealthy urban and suburban districts. The national research center aims to level the achievement playing field nationwide – starting from when students enter kindergarten.

“That’s an opportune time for making a positive impact on children’s lives,” said Vernon-Feagans, who directs the project on transition to school. “If they don’t learn how to read by the end of first grade, they’re in real trouble,” because reading is essential to learning other subjects later in school.

Vernon-Feagans and her researchers began by asking teachers about the challenges they face. “They all have kids at the bottom of the class who don’t seem to be learning,” she said.

Research shows that such children benefit most from individual attention, but how could teachers find the time? They all brainstormed. “We problem-solve with the teachers,” said Vernon-Feagans. “We don’t tell them what to do.”

Creating learning stations where the other children could work independently for a time and briefly turning classes over to teaching assistants were among the answers.

“If a teacher works one-on-one with a child for 15 minutes a day, four times a week, for two months or so, that child can make enormous progress,” Vernon-Feagans said. “Teachers come to like these children better through this process, and the children come to like them.”

Her group and the teachers develop simple strategies and inexpensive materials for this tutoring, including free resources teachers can download from the Internet.

So far, the project is at work in just a few school districts, but the work is always hardest at first. Vernon-Feagans expects lessons learned in these districts will make for easier start-ups later, so that the project could be in as many as 20 states by 2009.

Dr. Wallace Hannum, UNC associate professor of educational psychology, directs the center’s project on distance learning for secondary education and professional development for teachers in rural schools.

Often, the schools cannot offer comprehensive curricula because of problems finding and retaining teachers for all subjects – especially advanced math and science, he said.
The School of Education’s LEARN North Carolina program offers more than 50 advanced placement and other courses online to all schools statewide. Now, LEARN collaborates with Hannum by offering courses to the schools he is studying.

Last year, Hannum finished a national survey on distance learning in rural schools, with responses from 394 of a random sample of 415 districts. Among the findings: 68 percent use distance learning to offer courses they can’t offer otherwise. Next, Hannum will look at how to improve the effectiveness of such courses.

Dr. Kim Dadisman, co-director of intervention research at the UNC Center for Developmental Science, directs the national center’s project on transition to early adolescence. The project now operates in two areas of the country, with school districts nationwide to be added in the years to come, Dadisman said.

Before working with a district, researchers gather data on the community and its schools. Then, they work with teachers in grades five through seven, where most students are 11 to 13 years old.

The researchers ask teachers to describe the most important issues in their classes and communities. Then, researchers and teachers collaborate to develop training for teachers in managing these issues, using four focuses:

  • academic engagement, or ways to get students actively involved in learning;
  • school social dynamics, or peer networks, how teachers can recognize them and use that awareness to develop positive behavior;
  • helping parents understand their children’s changing needs as they grow into adolescence; and
  • competence enhancement/behavior management.

New research findings also figure in the training, conducted before school starts in the fall; some districts offer continuing education credits for participation. Researchers then consult throughout the school year with the teachers, in face-to-face meetings, videoconferences and online.

“This is a time developmentally when students are acquiring new skills, new peers and new social roles,” Dadisman said. “It is a prime time for teachers to guide these students as they are coming into new social roles.”