Lessons learned from rural counties working to improve STEM instruction

Rural school districts in California have struggled more to effectively support the implementation of math and science standards than their urban and suburban counterparts, but a recent report from WestEd finds rural counties are overcoming many of the unique obstacles they face.

The report, “Rural STEM Education: Promising Strategies from Several California Counties,” examines the ways in which rural counties, as part of the California Partnership for Math and Science Education, deal with the challenges of delivering high-quality STEM instruction due to factors such as lack of technology, insufficient teacher training and geographic distance from resources.

While all the partnership regions include some rural districts and counties, a few of the regions are predominantly or entirely composed of rural counties — areas that include Humboldt, Lassen, Amador and Merced.

Study author Maria Salciccioli notes that many rural regions in the statewide partnership successfully leveraged technology to meet and collaborate without traveling the significant distances that would take teachers and administrators away from their school sites for days at a time.

“Engaging in cycles of planning, doing, studying and acting can be helpful for teachers and leaders alike as they work to understand whether and how techniques are improving student learning, or where processes designed to support teaching and learning are breaking down,” Salciccioli writes. “Teachers at all levels of expertise can benefit from engaging in local experiments. They can work remotely to help one another examine artifacts or lesson clips through virtual conversations via video or electronic messages.”

Many practices and interventions scalable and inexpensive to replicate

The WestEd report shows common difficulties that nearly every rural county faced while trying to implement modern math and science standards. Collaboration across large geographic distances often requires educators working across schools or districts to invest significant effort and travel time that takes away from classroom instruction. The geographic isolation also leads to a dearth of local math and science projects, nonprofits and other external organizations to partner with rural county offices of education to advance their teaching and learning goals.

Salciccioli also finds that because rural counties have fewer students — and often, correspondingly smaller budgets — it is difficult to fund full-time county-level personnel to provide professional development in math and science. Smaller budgets also mean fewer resources to ensure high-quality, consistent STEM teaching practices across a county.

Regional leaders throughout the state have, however, implemented promising strategies that the report concludes can be adapted and replicated at relatively low cost. The report features four vignettes highlighting some of the ways that regional leaders in rural areas worked to support math and science education.

One central region that includes Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties sought to help teacher leaders understand how math and science are interrelated and can be integrated, but the distance from large urban areas and external partners made professional development difficult. In response, region leaders implemented a joint math and science project to help teachers in grades 3–5 develop high-quality units for math and science, which those teachers were asked to pilot and then share locally. Going this route allowed knowledge to spread more widely than would have otherwise been possible had counties attempted the work alone.

A second example details how nine counties in northeast California convened K–12 teachers for an all-day symposium focused on increasing and improving discourse in the classroom. The ways in which regional partners moved to successfully implement STEM standards and improve professional development in science and math could be worth exploring further at the state level.

“The strategies detailed throughout the report represent ideas for counties, districts and schools to take up as they attempt to improve rural STEM education,” Salciccioli writes. “In addition, states and funders can support and fund these efforts, which can help coalesce them into state-level approaches.”

CSBA resources:

California Schools magazine feature: “The rural reality: A call for a focused effort on challenges and needs”

Governance brief: “Supporting STEM Access, Equity, and Effectiveness: Equitable Access to Rigorous STEAM Coursework”

Governance brief: “Supporting STEM Access, Equity, and Effectiveness: The Path to Full Implementation of the California Next Generation Science Standards”

Blog post: “Rural education report reveals both achievement and need”

Blog post: “Study finds California’s rural students falling behind in college readiness”