Can rural K-12 achieve the promise of NGSS?

Rural education leaders outline STEM successes, challenges

IOWA CITY — Two days of meetings this week highlighted the latest national standards that will change rural K-12 education in Iowa.

The Next Generation Science Standards, rolled out in 2013 and adopted by Iowa leaders this past August, are the first broad recommendations for science instruction in 20 years. Developed by a consortium of 26 states (including Iowa) and several scientist and teaching groups, they primarily switch the focus from rote memorization to hands-on learning and critical thinking. Instruction will emphasize the scientific process — analyzing data, developing models and constructing logical arguments.

Advocates have touted the standards as being able to accomplish what current science instruction cannot: make students care by connecting them and lessons to their communities in very practical ways. With a greater focus on process and discovery, these advocates say, students and teachers will have more flexibility through NGSS to adopt curriculum that better reflects their own region, and increased opportunities to partner with other districts or the private sector.

6th grade science teacher Reagan Boeset uses dry ice in her science class at Clear Creek-Amana middle school in Tiffin on Wednesday, May 20, 2015.
6th grade science teacher Reagan Boeset uses dry ice in her science class at Clear Creek-Amana middle school in Tiffin on Wednesday, May 20, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

But the new standards have had critics as well. This past legislative session a GOP bill was filed in the Iowa House that would have prevented NGSS adoption, in part because they “present evolution as scientific fact and shine a negative light on human impacts on climate change.” The bill died in committee, but the concerns it raised haven’t completely evaporated.

Because NGSS sets learning expectations by grade level and does not dictate specific curriculum, most believe implementation will be a thoughtful and lengthy process. Those speaking at a Monday symposium focused on rural NGSS adoption and STEM equity hosted by the University of Iowa Public Policy Center indicated the switch could take four years or more.

That’s a difficult challenge for Iowa’s most rural school districts, where time sometimes feels like it is running out.


The promises of NGSS in relation to STEM are very appealing to rural school districts, a panel that included three Iowa superintendents told attendees. Investing young people in their communities in the hope they will find reasons to stay is a very big draw. But the reality, they said, is that each year more students leave, taking resources with them.

Enrollment in the Charles City Community School District, led by Superintendent Dan Cox, has dropped by 360 students in the past 20 years. John Carver, superintendent for Howard-Winneshiek Community School District, says enrollment declines roughly 20 students each year. They’ve lost 365 students in 20 years.

Gregg Cruickshank, who serves as a shared superintendent for the South Page Community and Sidney Community school districts in southwestern Iowa, has watched the population of both his rural K-12 districts decline, although South Page has been the most drastic. Sidney serves 378 students this year, down 69 students from 20 years ago. South Page is now home to 147 students, down 247 in two decades. In the past 50 years, South Page has lost about 80 percent of its enrollment, he says.

Collaboration between districts and with the private sector isn’t a new concept for these school leaders, and they continue to welcome and seek new opportunities for their students.

In Charles City, for instance, high school students have partnered with an international company with a local plant to develop a potential new product line. Company officials brought the idea to the school, Cox said, because although they liked the idea, they couldn’t devote the manpower to research and development.

South Page students share teachers with other districts, including one across the Missouri state line. Programs from athletics to academics to operations have some type of sharing program in place to make the most of limited resources.

Dana Millard, marketing and communications manager for Lee County Economic Development, says local businesses and industries are “highly interested” in connecting and partnering with local and rural K-12 school districts, but many weren’t sure when or how to begin the relationship. Part of her job is to help establish those networks, to help schools and business see how they can work together to revitalize their communities.

“There are a lot of great things happening,” said Cruickshank, “but we need to have a conversation of what we want for our kids in rural Iowa. Rural schools do not have to close, but we do need to get smarter and innovative in how we do things.”

Part of that process was the launch of a statewide organization two years ago. Rural School Advocates of Iowa has become a way for rural districts to amplify and unify their message to the public and lawmakers. As rural districts expand through mergers, for instance, transportation costs skyrocket and student travel-time increases. When local school buildings close, the local economy and morale suffers. Technology can help bridge some of these issues, but only if it is present and reliable.

Recent legislative squabbles and gubernatorial funding vetoes haven’t helped. Inconsistent, dwindling funding — now often tied to specific priorities established in Des Moines — has tied the hands of rural K-12 districts seeking innovative solutions. There’s obvious frustration, some of which boiled over at the symposium.

“Do we want to support rural K-12 schools?” asked Cruickshank. “Or, do we want them to go away?”

This column by Lynda Waddington originally appeared in The Gazette on October 25, 2015. Photo credit: Adam Wesley/The Gazette