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Nebraska Goes Big

Unique rural-education research project to help teachers

By Kim Hachiya, University Communications

Rural schools are not just smaller versions of urban schools existing in sparsely populated areas. They have distinct differences and needs. Researchers in UNL's National Center for Research on Rural Education recognize those differences, and they are working to help improve education service delivery in rural settings.

group featuring Susan Swearer

"You cannot interject findings from studies conducted in urban or suburban schools and assume they mean the same things in rural schools," said educational psychologist Susan Sheridan. She directs this unique five-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Education. "The context and realities of rural schools presents an important set of questions. We are elucidating the context as we look at problems unique to rural settings."

Sheridan said it's important to identify and enhance the unique strengths of rural schools by looking at issues that cut across the landscape of research in education – like improving children's reading abilities or how to provide quality professional development opportunities for teachers. But rural schools do have distinct strengths, she said. Schools are integral and central to community identity and rural parents express deep commitment to education.

The support and professional development of isolated teachers is an area of focus for the center. For example, if there is just one high school science teacher or one high school math teacher for a district, the teachers lack the ability to network and learn from each other.

"We are working with teachers to ensure they have techniques of support for teaching reading and science," Sheridan said. "Professional development in rural schools is important. We cannot just assume traditional methods – like conferences and in-service workshops – are the best methods in these settings."

Research assistant professor Todd Glover and his colleagues are looking at ways to integrate technology into teachers' professional development and using technology to deliver information to rural teachers and support them as they adopt and implement new approaches.

"Ongoing support for teachers is important. While we are looking at the most effective ways to support teachers, the real question is 'what does this mean for students?' We believe that by supporting teachers, we can better reach students' individual needs." - Todd Glover

"No matter where they live, people want what's best for students, families and communities," Glover said. "Rural communities haven't always been invited to be engaged in research, but we are finding them to be very receptive. People really value the opportunity to be involved."

Susan Sheridan, Willa Cather Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, discusses the challenges and benefits of rural education.