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Caveats on Rural School Reform

The accountability movement is so tightly associated with large urban schools that their counterparts in the hinterlands have been almost totally forgotten. That's a grave mistake because it puts the more than 8.8 million rural students, constituting some 31 percent of K-12 public schools nationwide, at great risk. But before steps are undertaken to give these schools their just due, it's important to clarify some common misconceptions.

To begin with, the definition of rural is notoriously inconsistent. The No Child Left Behind Act, for example, says a district is rural if the number of students in average daily attendance at all its schools is fewer than 600. But the National Center for Education Statistics says the term applies to a town having fewer than 2,500 residents. The different definitions set the stage for confusion when researchers attempt to compare seemingly equal districts in the same state. No such problem arises with studies involving inner-city schools, which are clearly defined.

Then there is the matter of geography, which plays a special role in student achievement in rural districts. In the West, schools are often located so far from the homes of students that they are forced to endure long, arduous bus trips, leaving them with little energy for anything else. Moreover, some rural states such as Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota still have single-student schools, and in other states one teacher is frequently responsible for teaching multiple subjects and grades.

Geography also affects efforts to recruit and retain teachers. Despite the lower cost of living in remote parts of the country, particularly for housing, teachers are reluctant to cut themselves off from the cultural and intellectual attractions that teachers elsewhere take for granted. Isolation extracts a price that few young teachers are willing to pay. Those who are willing to try don't stay long, creating a high churn rate.

Rural communities are also undergoing dramatic changes in the racial and ethnic composition of schools. Once overwhelmingly composed of native-born children whose grandparents likely attended the same schools, rural schools now find themselves faced with an increasing number of newly-arrived, multicultural, and impoverished students. Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee have witnessed an unexpected surge in their immigrant population. This change has brought unprecedented problems to the classroom. Urban schools, by contrast, have a long history of educating non-native students.

Finally, contrary to popular belief, poverty in rural schools often exceeds poverty even in inner-city schools. New Mexico, for example, has the nation's highest percentage of families with school-age children living below the federal poverty line. In Mississippi, nearly half of the state's students are rural and poor. Persistent poverty affects the dropout rate ("Rural 'Dropout Factories' Often Overshadowed," Education Week, Mar. 31).

Until we discard our preconceived notions about rural schools and develop strategies to meet their unique needs, students there will continue to be shortchanged. It's a policy we can ill afford to follow in the new global economy.

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