Rural Education’s Rubicon

It’s been about 16 months since the release of the report of the independent review into rural, regional and remote education (IRRRRE). The review provided a much-needed focus on the unique challenges and opportunities rural, regional and remote communities encounter.  However, the report, and the federal government’s response, was a missed opportunity to address the longstanding challenges facing rural schools. More significantly though, it raises serious questions about the impact of rural education research in Australia, and the effectiveness of rural education researchers in impacting education policy. 

At this moment we need to ask ‘what went wrong?’ and ‘where do we go from here?’ as a research field.  While we may welcome the review’s call for further research into rural, regional and remote education, such a call implies that there is an absence of research.  Furthermore, the review largely ignored much of the rural education research produced in Australia.  Instead the review relied upon non-rural studies, grey literature, older research, international studies and submissions from communities. Why was so much recent Australian research overlooked? What does this mean? And what do we do as a result? In this article I outline the research used in the review’s reports in order to highlight the dilemma we face as a field. 

In the literature review and final report for the review there is very little research cited from people who are usually associated with the rural education field in Australian.  While names one would expect to see such as Halsey, Guenther, Corbett, Vichie, Plunkett & Dyson, and Roberts do appear across the literature review and report they are not drawn on significantly.  Furthermore, references to Guenther, Corbett or Roberts are not to research one might anticipate would be cited.   Most notably however significant researchers’ names from the last period are not cited at all – such as Green, Reid, White, Cuervo, Graham, Cooper, Kilpatrick, Sharplin, Trinidad or Ledger.

As illustrated in table 1, most of the ‘research’ drawn upon by the review was published in the grey literature online.  While not represented in table 1, this was all overwhelmingly non-rural – instead it was reports on international testing, standardised tests and so forth where the difference between rural and non-rural achievement was referred to in the text of the review.  In table 1 I’ve separated out references that are essentially literature reviews themselves, and references that are really to opinion pieces. Finally, the ‘library’ reference refers to research that is primarily available through libraries, i.e. in books and academic journals etc. 

That such a significant proportion of the cited research was available online also raises questions about where ‘we’ need to publish in order to achieve ‘impact’. Clearly in this context peer reviewed research, that university metrics on academics’ performance, and government rating exercises of universities, value, is not impactful. Furthermore, the overwhelming preference for referencing ‘research’ using quantitative data speaks to the preference in public policy for a certain type of research – something (rural) education researchers in Australia don’t produce a significant amount of. 

Given most of ‘our’ research is in academic publications, and often qualitative, we seem to be feeding into an ‘evidence’ bias?, with ‘our’ resultant absence raising serious questions about the impact of rural education research in Australia, and the effectiveness of rural education researchers in impacting education policy.

It seems that in order to have policy impact, rural education research needs to be quantitative and freely available online

To be fair, the dilemma regarding the nature of the research that has ‘impact’ is not only a rural education. The issue must also be considered in the context of the productivity commission report on the national evidence base, which questioned the quality and impact of Australian educational research more broadly. Then there is the proposed education research clearinghouse recommended under Gonski 2.0.  Should this come to fruition, and drawing on the international experience, how do we ensure our research is impactful? and, of course, how do we advocate for the value of qualitative research?

In the end the federal government’s response to the review has been somewhat mute, focussing essentially on rural university centres. While I have not analysed the National Regional, Rural and Remote Education Strategy briefing papers that has been developed following the review here, I will comment that it focuses near solely on tertiary education, and yes, the lack of rural research informing the review remains! 

Indeed, it seems that the only game in town for rural research funding is in relation to rural students’ participation in university.  The National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) runs the only real research grants in this space, and nationally the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) – both schemes focus on low SES and rural student participation in University.  There’s really no other rural focussed research grant scheme, with researchers having to compete generally in Australian Research Council general grants. One positive element however, both have strong themes towards quantitative data, and as such start to fill an important gap in Australian rural education research. 

Do we need champions?

I’ve been around this space for a surprising 16 years, including the last 10 in the academy.  My engagement begun when I started to look into the staffing of rural, regional and remote schools.   Looking back, I’ve started to wonder if we need champions for our cause.  The problem with champions, though, is that the field gets re-shaped in their image. 

Most of the major (funded) projects in our field since I’ve been involved have been led by a few researchers.  These key leaders have been successful in obtaining large grants, for instance Sue Trinidad in securing the federal contract for NCSEHE and Jo-Anne Reid, Simone White and Bill Green in various Australian Research Council Grants, and when they existed Office of Learning and Teaching grants.  These have resulted in some of the most significant research projects including RT(E)P, TerraNOVA, RRRTEC.  Reflecting the interests of the leaders, these have had a pre-service preparation focus, with some conducted with the support of the Australian Teacher Education Association (ATEA) – that a couple of these key leaders were heavily involved in. Perhaps the only other significant inclusion here is Tom Lowrie’s attention to Mathematics education that includes a rural element.

There was of course SiMERR, led by John Pegg, that still has a role in supporting the ISFIRE conferences, and produced a number of quantitative reports and publications in the early 2000’s.  Nationally there is the Society for the Provision of Education in Rural Australia (SPERA), though it seems to also need champions such as SiMERR and NCSEHE to sustain conferences. 

Overall, it seems to me that the number of people association with ‘rural education’ has been declining since I’ve been involved. There has been way more retirements than new members.  Furthermore, the field has been shaped in the interests of its champions – primarily teacher education and now increasingly university participation. In the interests of broadening the Teacher education focus and evolving practice orientation of SPERA, the Australian Association for Rural Education (AARE) Rural Education Special Interest Group (SIG) was formed. The aim here was to begin to engage more generally with educational research and ensure ‘rural’ was at the table at the Annual Australian education research conference – though, again, this was initially developed by champions mentioned above. I should note I was co-convenor and then convenor of this group for 5 years. 

Pleasingly, a few new ‘young’ researchers have entered the field. Though the next generation I see are primarily, not exclusively, in Educational Leadership or Hernan’s work with Youth.  There is also now the University of New South Wales ‘Gonski Institute for Education’, led by former NSW Education Minister Professor Adrian Piccoli, which has a rural focus in its equity remit, and Piccoli a committed advocate for rural schools and communities. 

This may read as though there is a vibrant field. However, it needs to be remembered that most of these are ‘past’ initiatives, and that the focus remains narrow – on teacher education and now university participation. Opportunities do abound for research. There is more money for research in the rural than there has been for quite a while, it’s just some things have been deemed researchable (university participation) and others foreclosed or positioned as solved – we seem to have accepted a national curriculum as read, and resourcing as solved.  The way in which the ‘researchable’ issues are framed is the challenge for us to respond to. The determined topics of lower university participation, and the ongoing challenge of staffing schools, are highly visible, and as such demand attention. However, research is about uncovering what we don’t know – not tilling over what we already have exposed. 

Why critique?

I want to step aside here for a moment and make a comment on critique.  To critique is not to criticise, to raise critique is not to be a pointless critic.  Indeed, critique is not to dismantle or attack, it’s to improve.  My reflections in this, and previous, posts and in forthcoming research is not to be contrarian, but to urge discussion of what we can do better. of what I can do better. As noted, I’ve been around this space for quite a while, and been centrally involved for a good part of that. 

That ‘we’ didn’t have much impact on the IRRRRE was for me a wakeup call. This critique is part of my reassessment, and is driven by the thoughts of the children I used to teach and communities I worked with, for whom what we have done seems to have not worked. 

Sure, I’ve been thinking about the field for a while. When we started the 2015 special edition of the ‘Australian and International Journal of Rural Education’ on ‘what next for rural education research?’ it was with a conviction that we needed to more and do it differently to how we had been in the past.  This is a view I still hold.  As it turned out this edition was to be the beginning of my 3 years as a chief editor of this journal, and my time convening the rural education SIG, so I can reflect on the work in the field in this time. 

This perspective has led to two other recent critiques that I will refer to here. The first, with my colleague Natalie Downes, reflect on research pertaining to the staffing rural, remote and isolated schools in Australia 2004-2016.  In this analysis we noted that the same themes emerge as they did in research prior to 2004 (when I did my initial staffing research), those being the attraction, retention, preparation of teachers as well as a focus upon school leadership. With the exception of leadership, most ‘approaches’ to enhancing rural school staffing have been pre-service based. I’d suggest this is attributable to the situation that most researchers are teacher educators. An obvious difficulty here is that prepare teacher’s is the main game, and thus the reason for most academic employment.  but the outcome is we cede other initiatives to non-rural folk, and reduce teacher education to practice based approaches linked to practicum. 

To quote ourselves we observed that ‘The continuity upon a theme within the staffing studies over the past twelve years, we suggest, presents the rural education field with an interesting challenge: if we have such a well-developed understanding of the issues, challenges, and successful approaches, why then are rural schools still hard to staff and why are the approaches proven to work not universally adopted by education jurisdictions?’ (p.45) and that ‘it suggests a need to develop new ways to address the intractable dilemma of rural school staffing on a broader scale’ (p.46)

My second reference point is work we have undertaken in response to Biddle & Azano from the USA Context to both look at how rural has been engaged with and to examine the context of that engagement. The first analysis of this was presented at AARE in 2016 (The final version is taking a while as we want to ensure we get it right). Drawing upon the main journals used in Australian education we arrived at a finding that less than 5% of articles the purported to have a rural link actually engaged with rurality in a meaningful way. Furthermore, for the Australian journal ‘Education in Rural Australia’ (1991-2011) 26% of papers that referred to rural engaged meaningfully with rurality while in its successor, the Australian and International Journal of Rural Education (2011 – present) this fell to 18%.  Indeed, we also discerned that an overwhelming majority of research is qualitative, with scant quantitative studies published by researchers, with the main exceptions being research related to SiMERR – though in the last couple of years we are seeing slightly more in this space thanks, I suggest, to NCSEHE’s focus on data. We’ve been working on a more thorough analysis of this work that will be available shortly, and as such the figures will likely change somewhat. 

What is the point of this critique? Ultimately, to do ‘research’ we need to be advancing the field in new directions: otherwise we’re just revisiting old ground.  

New directions for rural education research.

The IRRRRE suggests some directions regarding methods that make a policy impact, as well as outlining what it regarded as key areas for consideration in rural education.  As I outlined in my previous piece, the rural education field seems to have done what fields do – reify themselves in an idiosyncratic ways that become bounded. Historically I’ve suggested we have become teacher education focussed, and now focussed on university participation. 

However, the issues facing rural communities, and that form the context of education, are broad based, multi-faceted and interlinked. However, we are a bit limited in Australia as there is no well-developed rural studies field here compared to those in the USA and Europe to engage these issues.  In Australia the most well-developed fields with a rural focus seem to me to be health, followed by economists regarding economic development.

We need to prepare now for the next review in about 12 years (…Schools Com 1988; HREOC 2000; IRRRRE 2018…). As part of this we both need to ensure we have ‘impact’, which inevitably seems to mean more quantitative research. However, we can’t only do that. We need to equally problematize the data & statistics used in government, think tank and non-government organisations regarding rural places.  There is an ongoing problem in that such data is invariably put to work in a not so subtle deficit discourse to illustrate poor rural performance and justify some sort of intervention – that is invariably build on metro-normative notions. We can’t discount the big data critiques that are developing, but we can help make them sensitive to issues of rurality. 

As I suggested previously, there is potentially generative theoretical insights to be learnt from the other international rural fields that can then be engaged in our research. The IRRRRE also raises the issue that, just maybe, rural education is a practice field (as the review responded primarily to practice submissions). As such do we need to engage further with practice theory rather than empirical research?  

In what follows I present some thoughts regarding how we might start to think about engaging with the other fields of education studies. I also outline a longitudinal program of research that, in my view, might just start to achieve something useful. One thing that strikes me is the need to get away from short term research programs (that align with a governments term, and/or provide initiatives to announce. A child is at school for 13 years – change in education takes time, and, as we’ve said elsewhere, is often more related to communities than the school per se.

Below I draw on the work of Furlong & Lawn (2011) ‘Disciplines of Education: Their role in the future of Education Research’ (below)

Some other fields (below)

The areas identified in IRRRRE (below)

A possible rural education research program

Outcomes after 7 years:  

  1. To have raised the performance of all schools in Regional Rural and Remote Australia,
  2. Narrowed performance gaps (academic, wellbeing, attendance),
  3. Expanded the professional development of the RRR workforce,
  4. Created an environment of sustainable improvement in RRR schools, 
  5. To have contributed substantially the research and evidence base in RRR education.

I thought I’d finish with what this review cost, as that’s on the public record – expensive perhaps, but if we learn from it and make an impact, money well spent. 

Post Script – I’m certainly not advocating quantitative only work with my comments re impact being quantitative. I think me publication record speaks to that, especially my approach to researching rural places.

Featured picture is Angledool Station,NSW, by John Murray. I have a version of this signed by teachers, students and community members from my teaching days above my computer as a reminder of where this all began, for me…