Event Overview


Connect-Inform-Advance Panel

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The National Center for Research on Rural Education (R²Ed) generated discussion and disseminated findings about factors influencing the academic success of rural K-12 students when it hosted more than 150 researchers, practitioners and policymakers at a conference held April 3-4 in Omaha, Neb.

Titled Connect-Inform-Advance, the 2013 National Conference on Rural Education Research fostered evidence-based dialogue about the interrelated impacts of teaching, family engagement, school environment and contextual factors on rural student performance.

The conference, which drew participants from 19 states, opened with remarks from R2Ed director Susan Sheridan.

"All of us are here because of a personal and vested interest not only in rural education, but also in the connections among research, practice and policy. It is a shared interest in determining how these sectors inform, and are informed by, each other – and how they together can promote the academic experiences and achievement of students in rural communities," Sheridan said. "The primary goal of the rural center is to uncover methods for enhancing education experiences for the 9.6 million of our nation's children who attend rural schools. I'm honored and excited to have each of you here to share your collective experience and to share in our collective purpose."

Following comments from Prem Paul, vice chancellor for research and economic development at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Nebraska commissioner of education Roger Breed gave a keynote address on the challenges and opportunities inherent to rural schools in the Cornhusker State and nationwide.

Connect-Inform-Advance then transitioned into the first of its three sessions, which featured three research presentations related to teacher influences on rural student success. R2Ed researchers Todd Glover and Gwen Nugent kicked off the session by describing the implementation and results of Teachers Speak, a national survey of K-5 teachers that examined professional development experiences for teachers in both rural and non-rural settings. Education Northwest's Elizabeth Autio followed by illustrating the importance of understanding local context, establishing personal connections, and offering professional development in recruiting Idaho schools for a randomized controlled trial. R2Ed's Glover and Tanya Ihlo then reviewed preliminary results of Project READERS, a randomized trial examining how professional development with Web-based coaching might assist rural K-3 teachers in using student data to implement and adapt reading interventions.

The session continued with the conference's first small-group roundtable discussions, which featured representatives from the research, practice and policy communities. As they would throughout the conference, participants took the opportunity to provide and receive real-time reactions through Twitter, sharing their thoughts via the conference-specific hashtag #RuralCIA.

John White, deputy secretary for rural outreach at the U.S. Department of Education, concluded the session with a special address on increasing interest in teaching careers and attracting talented educators to rural schools. In tandem with Adam Bredencamp, a math teacher at Omaha's Westside High School Career Center, White also outlined the department's RESPECT Project. The project, which stands for "Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching," aims to transform the teaching profession by giving educators a voice in shaping the department's 21st-century vision of classroom leadership.

The conference's second session focused on how community and family factors shape the performance of rural students. R2Ed's Brandy Clarke opened the round of research presentations by outlining a study of how children's early literacy is molded by parental engagement and setting, specifically comparing families residing in rural areas, towns, suburbs and urban centers. Marsha Gebhardt detailed Parents as Teachers' evaluation of the Family and Child Education (FACE) and BabyFACE programs, addressing implementation fidelity and research methods used to measure factors that influence American Indian children's school readiness. R2Ed researchers Susan Sheridan and Gina Kunz then summarized preliminary results of the Conjoint Behavioral Consultation in Rural Communities project, a randomized controlled trial examining the influence of an indirect family-school partnership intervention in rural K-3 classrooms.

After another hour of roundtable dialogue, the day came to a close with a four-member panel moderated by Andrea Beesley of Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning. The panel, which touched on the full range of themes addressed throughout the conference's first day, featured Robert Mahaffey, president of Organizations Concerned about Rural Education; Brent McBride, director of the Child Development Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Jennifer Widner, principal of Nebraska's O'Neill Elementary School; and Matt Blomstedt, executive director of the Nebraska ESU Coordinating Council.

The second day of Connect-Inform-Advance commenced with another panel, this one comprising teachers who participated in three of R2Ed's most prominent studies: Conjoint Behavioral Consultation in Rural Communities, Coaching Science Inquiry in Rural Schools, and Project READERS. The educators shared their thoughts on how participating in these projects influenced their instruction, their students and their schools. In addition, they provided insights into the benefits and challenges of receiving professional development and coaching via distance technology. The teachers concluded by offering suggestions for researchers looking to establish mutually beneficial connections with rural schools, families and communities.

Following remarks from Marjorie Kostelnik, dean of the UNL's College of Education and Human Sciences, the conference shifted focus to the impacts of school environment and context. Mark Sorensen, director of an Arizona charter school that serves the Navajo Nation, discussed how the incorporation of Navajo values and adaptation of Montessori math materials have influenced student development. Western Kentucky University's Douglas Clayton Smith and Stephen Miller subsequently outlined the effectiveness of using Kentucky's Standards and Indicators for School Improvement as a tool to enhance the academic achievement of students in rural schools. R2Ed's James Bovaird closed by demonstrating how viable methodological strategies employed by other disciplines can be translated to rural education research, thereby helping overcome perceived barriers to random assignment and environmental control.

Participants engaged in a final round of small-group dialogue before settling in for a panel moderated by Ronnie Green, vice president of agriculture and natural resources at UNL. The panel included Robert Mahaffey and Andrea Beesley; Rick Edwards, director of UNL's Center for Great Plains Studies; and Dean Tickle, superintendent of Nebraska's Elm Creek Public School District.

Cindy McIntee, past president of the National Rural Education Association, ended the session with an address on closing achievement gaps among students who attend persistently low-performing schools.

R2Ed director Sheridan concluded the two-day conference by encapsulating a number of takeaway points gleaned from the conference's presentations, panels and roundtables. Sheridan noted that many participants emphasized the importance of developing supports for long-term success in rural schools, whether sustaining efforts to translate research into practice, making professional development a more consistent resource for rural teachers, or ensuring that rural education maintains a presence in the minds of policymakers.

Sheridan also underlined the conference's focus on fostering continuity across systems and contexts, highlighting how partnerships between families and schools in rural communities can profoundly shape students' academic, social and behavioral development. In a similar vein, she reiterated the oft-repeated assertion that scholars who invest in building relationships with teachers and schools can make the research process more practical, fruitful and enduring for all involved. Sheridan likewise expressed her enthusiasm for educators' increasing comfort with using research-backed data to inform their instruction. Finally, she urged conference participants to continue identifying shared goals for students who attend schools in rural communities – and thanked them for doing so at Connect-Inform-Advance.

Connect-Inform-Advance was sponsored by Metropolitan Community College and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Education and Human Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences, and Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The National Center for Research on Rural Education is funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences.

Qualitative Analysis Poster

Since the conclusion of Connect-Inform-Advance, the National Center for Research on Rural Education has conducted a qualitative analysis of the conference's roundtables that has identified several primary themes of discussion.

Click here to view a poster outlining the methods and results of this analysis.

Word Clouds

The Wordle graphics below represent how Connect-Inform-Advance participants responded to a series of questions / prompts. The larger the word, the more frequently our conference participants mentioned it in their replies. Graphic 1 was based on responses to the following question: "What sparked your interest in rural education"? Graphics 2-4 asked for one word participants associate with rural education's benefits, challenges and hopes, respectively.

Click the graphics below to view larger versions:

1 Wordle: Inspiration for Interest in Rural Education 2 Wordle: The benefits of rural education
3 Wordle: The challenges of rural education 4 Wordle: The hope for rural education


  • To engage national researchers, practitioners, policymakers, trainers and leaders in constructive dialogue about research on teacher, family, community, school and contextual factors influencing rural student achievement
  • To communicate current rural education research findings regarding the influences of teachers, families, communities, schools and context on the academic success of rural students
  • To explore methods by which research findings can be translated and disseminated to rural practice and policy
  • To promote linkages among rural education practitioners, researchers and policymakers across the country
  • To foster discussion about future rural education research


  • Education researchers
  • Education practitioners
  • Community practitioners
  • Policymakers

Central Themes

  • Teacher influences on rural students' academic success
  • Community and family influences on rural students' academic success
  • School and contextual influences on rural students' academic success