Common Characteristics of Rural Education Superstars

Statue of Joe and Kathryn Albertson A Rural Education Convening, hosted earlier this month by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, made clear that there is no patented best-practice approach for ensuring positive rural student outcomes. The one-day meeting of rural funders from across the country did, however, provide insights on how to maximize investments in rural areas and help connect leading practices among rural school districts.

As one of the participants at the convening, we were particularly impacted by a conversation centered on the recently published report, Highly Productive Rural Districts: Is There a Secret Sauce?. Our discussion of this research revealed several common behaviors and attitudes that successful rural districts employ to help promote high productivity amidst limited resources.

Productivity, as defined in the report, is the level of student outcomes based on given inputs (namely, school funding and student characteristics). High-productivity districts achieve higher-than-expected outcomes given their funding levels and student characteristics.

On average, data suggest that remote rural districts[1] are less productive than other district types; BUT –

  • Remote rural districts are more likely than other types of districts (e.g. metro, urban, suburban) to be outliers – productivity superstars – that achieve student outcomes that are much higher than what would be expected given their funding and student demographics.
  • 15% of all types of districts are productivity superstars, while 25% of remote rural districts are productivity superstars.

While there is no single ingredient responsible for this exceptional productivity, the research (published by the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho) identifies several common characteristics of these schools:

  1. They motivate and engage students. Productivity superstars take advantage of their small size to ensure that every student gets additional support or enrichment, based on their needs.
  2. They ensure every number is a person. Productivity superstars use data to track and follow individual students, rather than assessing trends across broad categories.
  3. They view the community as a partner. People are not segmented by profession, neighborhood or religion; everyone has some membership that puts them in contact with almost everyone else.
  4. They focus on getting and keeping the right people. Districts hire locally, where possible, create buy-in and opportunities for leadership, and provide teachers with latitude and resources. Most of all, they allow teachers to leave if they are not willing or able to meet high expectations.
  5. They are flexible, creative, and self-reliant. Success results from the hard work of staff and shared pride in the schools. Superstar districts foster ingenuity and resourcefulness, and do not rely on outside programs or strategies for success.
  6. They make conscious tradeoffs. Productivity superstars understand that funds are limited, and they work with their communities to make tough, smart choices.
  7. They are determined to get the most out of every dollar. These districts are very intentional in their fundraising efforts and target community members strategically. They are also willing to abandon an activity if it is not paying off.

These core characteristics, or “lessons learned” from superstar rural districts, could be translated to any school district across the county, rural or urban. But rural districts are given decidedly less attention than their non-rural counterparts, and their practices are not as easily shared across peer educational institutions.

A major takeaway from this report, and the convening as a whole, was the need to shine a light on rural philanthropy. It is an area where funders can potentially make a big difference – in schools and districts that have admirable values, dedicated personnel, and communities invested in their schools’ success.

As The Miles Foundation continues its tradition of investing in those rural areas where Mr. Miles was involved during his lifetime, we will endeavor to support the types of practices that can elevate a good school to great – regardless of its location.


[1] Defined as more than 25 miles from an urbanized area of 50,000 or more people and more than 10 miles from an urban cluster of 2,500 to 50,000 people by National Center for Education Statistics

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