Analysis: 5 Ways Personalized Learning Can Help Secure the Future of Rural America

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At the time of its development, the American education system made sense. Our country was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, experiencing a massive transition from farming to manufacturing and a historic migration from the countryside to cities. To meet the needs of the new, industrial workforce, states built public education systems that relied on top-down standardization in everything from class sizes and facilities to instruction and assessments.

Students were promoted uniformly from grade to grade at the end of each school year in assembly-line fashion, and after four years of high school, they were given a diploma certifying their readiness for college or the workforce. For at least the first half of the 20th century, a high school diploma promised a middle-class income.

But while our school system today still largely mirrors the system of old, the world around us has evolved, and the job market has evolved with it. An early example of this evolution can be found in the farming industry. Until the turn of the 20th century, roughly half of American jobs were in farming, whereas today, only about 3 percent of Americans are farmers. Innovations such as the self-propelled cotton picker led to one of the most significant episodes of job displacement in U.S. history. But despite the displacement, most workers did not remain unemployed; they found new jobs, often building and maintaining the very equipment that displaced them.

Today, America again finds itself on the cusp of a historic transition in the makeup of its job market — this time, largely the result of automation and globalization. According to recent research, roughly 20 percent of all current jobs will be automated within 10 years, and half could be automated within 40 years. Those jobs that do not fully automate will undoubtedly evolve in lockstep, requiring a progressively advanced skill set. In fact, of the jobs that currently exist, roughly 60 percent will become at least partially automated.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this transition is again forecast to disproportionately affect the rural job market. According to new research from Ball State University, automation poses a significantly greater threat to jobs in rural communities and those with lower educational attainment. Occupations with incomes of less than $40,000 face even greater risk.

More than half the population in rural areas attain no postsecondary education whatsoever, and fewer than 1 in 5 complete a college degree. Rural families also face far lower wages, higher unemployment, and more pervasive child poverty than their peers elsewhere. Simply put, the forecast screams peril for rural jobs. And among the jobs most at risk of being lost to automation are those for truck drivers and farmers — two of the most common occupations in rural America. Essentially, we are at the doorstep of the extinction of many rural jobs existing today.

Despite the apocalyptic sound of all these numbers, the forecast does not mean there will be no jobs whatsoever in rural America; it just means that employment opportunities are going to look very different for the coming generations. With that knowledge in hand, we must begin thinking today about how we will prepare this generation and the next to thrive in the changing world, especially in rural America.

So, where do we begin?

First, we should acknowledge that some change has, in fact, occurred since the Industrial Revolution. The charter school movement, the advancement of school autonomy, and the expansion of technology have fueled great variety in our public schools. Likewise, the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act has inspired new strategic plans for all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico — at least 39 of which include initiatives to modernize schools through personalized learning and competency-based education. But still, most American schools reflect the system of old.

Second, we must recognize the many particular challenges facing our rural schools. Perhaps most critically, rural schools suffer a disparate shortage of qualified teachers and resources and a greater likelihood for teaching vacancies in science, technology, engineering, and math. These are, of course, some of America’s most critical fields of expertise for employability, especially looking 10 years from now and beyond. Rural students also have less access to career counseling, college preparatory courses, career academies, and school-to-work programs. Handicapped by these and other challenges, such as outsize poverty and geographic isolation, rural students are put at a grave disadvantage after high school by the current education system. Something must change.

To prepare rural students for the challenges they face, we need to increase engagement in academics and make clearer the connection between high school and their futures. We need to expand horizons and lay bare postsecondary opportunities by forging stronger industry and higher-education partnerships within the community. And we need to cultivate the soft skills students need to adapt to an ever-changing world. Indeed, these are among the very challenges personalized learning systems are designed to address.

Here are the most salient strategies rural districts can adopt to pilot personalized learning:

1. Individual Academic Plans and One-on-One Mentorship: District leaders must capitalize on the smaller size of their schools — a built-in advantage — by empowering teachers, parents, and students to collaboratively develop individualized academic plans aligned to each student’s unique skills and interests. Many personalized learning systems feature online platforms that parents, students, teachers, and mentors can access at any time to check in on progress and ensure kids are on track to meet their goals.

For rural schools, this approach is especially important because there is a measurable dearth of college and career counseling services. Having built-in goal setting and monitoring would allow rural districts to assign each student a faculty member who serves as their mentor and provides regular one-on-one advisory sessions for students to seek counsel, strategize, and make adjustments as necessary. Not only does the one-to-one mentoring approaching solve for a shortage in counseling services, but it also ensures that each student has an adult who is intimately familiar with their goals and their progress. More important, perhaps, it creates an expectation that each student has a clear plan for success beyond high school.

2. Flexibility for Competency-Based Education: District leaders should seek relief from prohibitive state requirements such as seat time to eliminate artificial barriers and allow students to advance through their learning as they master content. Those who master content more quickly could move on or engage in enrichment activities, while those who need more time or remediation would have access to those opportunities.

Competency-based education is especially important in rural environments for two primary reasons: It allows students to move past content when they are ready, affording many the opportunity to use excess time to participate in dual credit opportunities with partnering postsecondary institutions and to participate in meaningful, credit-bearing internships; and it gives schools a better chance to ensure that each student is truly prepared with the knowledge, skills, and character strengths needed to succeed after high school. Building such opportunities and assurances is a critical step toward making clearer connections between high school and postsecondary life.

3. Blended Learning: Districts can also better prepare students by providing chances to learn via different modalities (direct instruction, small groups, peer-to-peer, blended, virtual). Blended learning and digital coursework allow rural schools to offer lessons, enrichment opportunities, even whole courses that they could otherwise not provide, which can expand the number of Advanced Placement classes students can take and broaden horizons by exposing students to concepts that might otherwise be unavailable in some of our more remote corners. Rural districts can also address teacher-shortage areas this way without compromising the number of course offerings. Finally, farm life often requires rural students to be home during daylight hours — especially in harvest season — so the anytime/anywhere nature of digital coursework accommodates their needs.

4. Multiple Pathways: In this context, this refers to an academies concept, providing a different course path for each student to opt into based on his or her career interests. This way, rural districts can elevate the relevance of education for their students by establishing more meaningful connections between high school and college/career.

The college and career pathways concept is especially pertinent to rural districts because it is more important than ever that we make clear the link between high school academics and postsecondary opportunities for rural students. Research shows that rural students struggle to see this connection more frequently than non-rural students, resulting in higher unemployment and lower attainment of postsecondary education. Pathways necessitate that students explore their particular interests and seize opportunities aligned to those interests, setting them up for a clearer route to success after high school, often by way of internships and apprenticeships.

5. Real-World Learning: Rural districts should likewise seek flexibility from any state requirements that may hinder a student’s ability to participate in credit-bearing internships or dual enrollment opportunities off-campus. Such experiences greatly enhance the academies approach by allowing students to not only gain college credit, industry experience, or even industry credentials, but also develop direct channels to valuable postsecondary opportunities.

Given the need for clearer connections between academic work and the labor market, it is perhaps more important than ever that we make these connections for our students. The alternative is the status quo, and clearly, the status quo is not working.

Can personalized learning alone solve the outcomes and opportunities gaps facing our rural communities? No. The issue is complex, involving not only students, families, and schools, but also peripheral forces such as the rise of technology, the evolution of the job market, and the continued rural-urban migration. However, one thing is certain in these times: The vitality of any community — especially rural communities — depends heavily on the employability of its people. If rural communities are to attract new opportunities or retain those that exist, we must rethink how we equip students for life after high school with the necessary knowledge, skills, and character strengths. Personalized learning would be one big, bold step in the right direction.

Tyler Barnett is director of state policy for KnowledgeWorks, advising state agencies on policy development as they transition to personalized learning.

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