No Child Left Behind Act:

Additional Assistance and Research on Effective Strategies Would Help Small Rural Districts

GAO-04-909: Published: Sep 23, 2004. Publicly Released: Sep 23, 2004.

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To improve the academic achievement of the nation's 48 million school-aged children, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) introduced significant changes to state, district, and school accountability for student performance and teacher qualifications. Congress has raised concerns about difficulties rural districts face implementing NCLBA. GAO is providing NCLBA implementation information on (1) key challenges rural states and districts face, (2) strategies rural districts have developed, (3) expenditures and resources related to rural districts' compliance, and (4) guidance and assistance the Department of Education (Education) is providing. To address these objectives, GAO conducted a nationally representative survey of rural and nonrural school districts. Also GAO interviewed officials in rural states and districts and Education officials.

Rural districts faced some challenges in meeting NCLBA provisions to a greater extent than nonrural districts. For example, rural district officials were more likely than nonrural district officials to report challenges presented by a large enrollment of economically disadvantaged students who may live in communities lacking resources such as libraries. Rural districts also identified small school size and geographic isolation as greatly affecting their ability to implement NCLBA. Rural officials we interviewed said that limited access to teacher training facilities and Internet line maintenance difficulties impeded NCLBA implementation efforts. Rural district officials reported using some strategies, such as training for teachers, to the same extent as nonrural respondents, to help meet student proficiency provisions and implement teacher qualification requirements of NCLBA. Rural districts were more likely to increase computer capacity than nonrural districts. However, small rural districts were less likely than other rural districts to report using certain strategies, such as teacher mentoring. Rural state and district officials we interviewed identified some specific expenditures related to NCLBA, such as those related to analyzing assessment results and providing tutoring services to students. However, district officials were unable to determine total expenditures made to implement NCLBA, in part because their accounting records were not maintained in a way that tracked expenditures by NCLBA categories; states we contacted did not require districts to report separately on NCLBA expenditures. Besides state and local funds, officials reported using multiple federal programs to implement NCLBA, such as the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP). Since 2002, Education has provided NCLBA guidance and assistance to all states and districts, and since April 2003, it has focused on rural education issues by issuing new guidance, establishing a task force on rural issues, and awarded a grant in September 2004 for a rural education research center. However, rural officials indicated that further assistance would be helpful for small rural districts that are experiencing difficulties in providing teacher development opportunities and identifying effective remedial services to improve student achievement. Currently, research on the effectiveness of different strategies to improve student performance is limited.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2005, Education established a Center for Rural Education in the Office of Vocational and Adult Education to serve as the "voice" on education issues affecting rural populations. The Center is coordinating programs that support rural education both within and outside of Education. In addition, Education's Rural Education Task Force identified ways to better disseminate information about funding opportunities and the flexibilities available to rural districts.

    Recommendation: Because of the challenges small rural districts face, the Secretary of Education should provide additional assistance to states on approaches small rural districts can use to implement student proficiency provisions and teacher qualification requirements, including the application of new flexibilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education's Center for Rural Education consulted with the Institute of Education Sciences to determine the most appropriate studies and methods to improve student performance. As a result, the Center is conducting evidenced-based studies to assess teacher training programs that help students who have difficulty meeting NCLB's proficiency provisions. Reflecting GAO's recommendation, the studies include research sites that are in remote or small school districts so that the Center can develop strategies that are most effective in small rural districts.

    Recommendation: To assist rural states in meeting student proficiency provisions of NCLBA, the Department of Education--through its recently established National Research and Development Center on Rural Education--should focus on effective, scientifically based methods to improve student performance, and that it conduct studies on the services that can help small rural districts meet students proficiency provisions in light of the unique challenges that these districts face.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education


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