A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

To Assure the Free Appropriate Public Education of all Children with Disabilities - 1995

Factors Associated with the Provision of Special Education to Students with Disabilities in Rural Districts

Rural school districts face many challenges in meeting the needs of all their students, including students with disabilities. Research indicates that very small districts, those with 200-300 students, spend more per pupil than larger districts. This occurs because a school board, superintendent, principal, faculty, and equipment are needed no matter how small the district, and because low enrollment districts are likely to occur in sparsely populated areas that require more costly transportation (Walberg and Fowler in Hobbs, 1988). These costly administrative expenditures increase the per pupil cost while simultaneously reducing the funds available for education and education services, such as an expanded curriculum or specialized teachers.

A 1990 survey of superintendents and business managers of small rural school districts identified rural location and small size as negative effects on education because of:

A recent communication panel convened by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) consisting of special education directors from eight rural States agreed that these are the most prevalent issues in providing programs and services for students with disabilities living in rural areas. Other issues were rural district's inability to compete in the teacher job market; limited opportunities for in-service training or preservice training specifically designed for special educators in rural areas; crime, violence, and drug abuse; and limited curricular offerings due to small district size. However, of the eight panel members, five identified personnel recruitment and retention as the most critical issue facing their States. They recommended various financial solutions for improving special education for students with disabilities in rural areas. These include increased teacher salaries, funding for technology and materials in rural areas, and federally funded grants to rural areas (Hicks, 1994).

The geographic isolation common to rural districts can impede every aspect of the special education process -- identification and assessment, service delivery, and availability of adequate personnel.

Factors Affecting Identification and Assessment in Rural Areas

A 1986 survey of school psychologists in rural areas of California, Georgia, Indiana, and Iowa examined challenges to effective assessment in rural settings. Among the major challenges school psychologists identified were difficulty finding psychometrically adequate measures of adaptive behavior, heavy caseloads, and travel demands. The psychologists felt that heavy caseloads and travel demands reduced the time available to perform the comprehensive evaluations required by IDEA (Huebner et al., 1986).

IDEA requires that States must assure that testing and evaluation materials and procedures used to determine placement of students in special education programs are non-discriminatory. However, many standardized tests have limited capacity to assess the abilities of children from minority backgrounds, including students from rural areas. Hilton (1991) indicates that the culturally biased nature of many standardized tests may lead to low test performance among students with primarily rural life experiences and students from rural cultures.

In a study of 214 rural children from middle-class farm homes and 214 matched children from middle-class suburban metropolitan homes, Hilton (1991) found rural and suburban cultures led to significantly different performance profiles on the Preschool Language Survey. A significantly higher proportion of rural children failed a wide age range of verbal ability and auditory comprehension items. Anecdotal data from the study indicated that more of the rural students were ill at ease in the strange surroundings, were quieter, would not venture a guess as often, and were less willing to interact with the unfamiliar adult examiners.

In order to address cultural bias in assessment materials and procedures, the following are some of Hilton's (1991) suggestions.

Factors Affecting Special Education Service Delivery in Rural Areas

The geographic isolation common to rural areas may affect delivery of special education and related services through factors such as placement, personnel, and parental involvement. For example, service delivery may be difficult in rural communities in which the population fluctuates in response to a local industry such as mining. Some administrators, faced with seemingly "overnight" doubling of their client population because of temporary influxes of community workers, find that by the time they locate resources to provide services, those populations have significantly decreased, as the workers move on (Helge, 1991). In remote areas of Nevada, for example, the population fluctuates dramatically in relation to the prices of gold and other metals mined in the area. Within a 30-day period, a district can lose a substantial proportion of its average daily attendance (and student turnover in a single school can be 50 percent or more) because the price of gold has fallen below a certain point and the mines shut down (Scott, 1984).

Providing Services in the Least Restrictive Environment

Rural districts serve a greater percentage of students with disabilities in regular classroom placements than do non-rural districts. As shown in table 7.2, rural districts serve 14.6 percent of students with disabilities in full-time special education programs, compared to 25.3 percent for non-rural districts. These full-time programs remove students from regular classes for 60 percent or more of the school day. The data indicate that for each disability group, except for students with deaf-blindness, rural districts serve a smaller proportion of students in full-time special education programs, compared to non-rural districts.


TABLE 7.2 Estimated Percentage of Students with Disabilities in Full-Time and Part-Time Special Education Placements for Rural and Non-Rural Districts During the 1990-91 School Year
                               Rural                Non-Rural Disability              Part-Time  Full-Time  Part-Time   Full-Time
-------------------------------------------------------------------- Mental retardation       60.9         39.1       33.9        66.1 Hearing impairment       81.8         18.2       60.5        39.5 Speech/language     impairment            95.2          4.8       92.3         7.7 Visual impairment        84.1         15.9       68.2        31.8  Serious emotional disturbance              73.3         26.7       56.8        43.2 Orthopedic impairment    77.6         22.4       53.8        46.2 Other health impairment  79.6         20.4       67.5        32.5 Specific learning    disability            88.2         11.8       80.2        19.8 Deaf-blindness           29.6         70.4       39.2        60.8 Multiple impairments     45.2         54.8       22.8        77.2 -------------------------------------------------------------------- All disabilities         85.4         14.6       74.7        25.3 
Source: The 1990 Office for Civil Rights Elementary and Secondary School Survey and the 1990 Common Core of Data Public School Universe File. Data is for children pre-kindergarten through grade 12.

Data from the 1990 Office for Civil Rights Elementary and Secondary School Survey also provide information on the number of students with disabilities served outside of their home districts. While one might assume that, because of a lack of resources, rural districts would have a greater percentage of out-of-district placements, the data do not support this assumption. The data indicate that both rural and non-rural districts serve 5.5 percent of students outside of their home districts.

Rural school districts have utilized a variety of approaches to providing services for students in the least restrictive environment. In some cases, students requiring specialized instructional or related services are served in residential facilities far from their home district. In other cases, students are served in regional programs, cooperatives, or intermediate education units that offer specialized services for students from a group of districts located in the same general area. These placements may require long hours of travel each day. In some cases, rural States and districts have developed means of serving students with significant impairments in local schools and classes.

Recruiting and Retaining Qualified Personnel

Recruiting and retaining staff qualified to serve students with disabilities is particularly difficult in rural areas. Factors impeding successful recruitment and retention include salaries that are not competitive with those offered in more urban areas, distances from urban cultural centers and universities, the frequency with which staff must travel to serve students, and professional isolation. Recruiting related services personnel may be particularly difficult.

In rural areas, there are rarely enough students to have separate programs for students with different disabilities. Staff must often be qualified to serve students with a variety of disabilities. However, certification requirements in many States mandate that teachers specialize in one or more disability areas and be certified to serve students with particular disabilities. If efforts to recruit fully certified staff are unsuccessful, rural districts may be forced to apply for emergency certificates in order to fill vacant positions.

Teacher retention is also a problem for rural districts, and among special education teachers in rural districts, attrition can be as high as 20 percent nationally. Personnel turnover has been estimated at 30 to 60 percent annually in specialized areas such as speech and physical therapy. Turnover is also especially acute among professionals who must travel long distances from site to site to serve, on an itinerant basis, students with disabilities (McIntosh, 1986).

A study of rural teacher turnover in Kansas indicated that 20.9 percent of teachers in the study sample did not return the next year. Of those who did not return, 70.7 percent accepted positions in larger school districts. Many teachers reportedly resigned because of the isolation of their social and cultural lives. Furthermore, the teachers' level of community satisfaction, which was the largest determinant of whether a teacher remained in the rural community, was affected to the greatest extent by marital status. Married teachers were not affected by the social and cultural isolation of rural areas to the same degree as were single teachers. Two other effective predictors of community satisfaction were similarity of the community where a teacher worked to their home community and community size preference (Anshutz, 1988).

In addition to social and cultural isolation, many rural educators feel professionally isolated. Capper (1993) indicates that the small numbers of teachers at rural schools and school districts' inability to send teachers to training and development programs restrict professional development opportunities. Rural educators may be unable to participate in professional development opportunities because of the travel times involved (Capper and Larkin, 1992). Without this professional contact, educators may feel "left behind" and unable to learn new teaching strategies.

In an attempt to combat professional isolation and diminish the high turnover among its rural special educators, Maine administers the Support Network for Rural Special Educators. The Network offers regional support groups that meet three times a year, two teacher academies that run for four days in the summer, and a yearly statewide winter retreat. In 1990, 90 percent of all school districts and 75 percent of special education teachers and support service personnel in the State were involved in some aspect of Maine's Network (National Clearinghouse for Professions in Special Education, 1990).

Other efforts to increase recruitment and retention rates include OSEP-funded programs to train and retrain special education personnel to work in rural areas. Some of these programs are described below:

Maintaining Active Parent Involvement

Parents of students with disabilities in rural areas may also feel isolated from their peers. Many rural areas do not have parent-oriented organization chapters, such as the Arc (formerly the Association for Retarded Citizens) or the Learning Disabilities Association. Rural parents are scattered widely, making participation in such organizations difficult. As a result, parents of students with disabilities in rural areas may not have as many opportunities as parents in more urban settings to become involved in their children's education.

In an effort to increase parental involvement, the University of Washington Early Childhood Home Instruction Program provides home-based services to birth to three-year-old children with hearing impairments and their families. A trained "parent facilitator" provides year-round services to families in rural western Washington. A family service plan, outlining family goals and objectives, is developed, based on child and family assessments and parent input. In weekly home visits, parent facilitators work to educate parents about hearing impairments and the child's special needs, and suggest activities parents can use to stimulate the child's learning. For families that live close to the University or can provide their own transportation, parent support groups, sign language classes, and play group activities for children with hearing impairments and their siblings are offered several times a week. Approximately 65 children with hearing impairments and their families participate in the program each year (Thompson, 1994).
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