If America Neglects Its Rural Schools, Nobody Wins
Nobody wins as a result of America’s neglect of its rural schools.
Moderate investments of time, money, and thought could unlock the potential of millions of students growing up, but it's essentially going nowhere in rural areas.
Rural K-12 schools face unique challenges brought on by isolation, limited access to qualified faculty, declining economic bases, and community conflict over taxation and funding. Many face sudden changes in student population – declines in some places and rapid increases in others, the latter often due to influxes of children from former migrant worker families.
State and federal policies on school funding and operation also pose challenges, as they often require bureaucratic capacities that small rural districts can’t and shouldn’t have. Categorical funding programs often force schools to spend money in ways that don’t fit rural needs. Rigid state teacher salary schedules make it difficult for rural schools to compete for talent.
Faced with these challenges, rural education leaders need to be nimble, imaginative and resourceful. Some display great imagination but others can be overwhelmed.
These are just a few of the conclusions from two years’ work by The Rural Opportunities Consortium Idaho, a task force of scholars and policy experts. Sponsored by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation of Boise, ROCI studied the challenges faced by rural K-12 schools and the difficulties rural students face in entering and completing college. Rural students nationally are more likely to complete high school, but far less likely to enter college than demographically similar urban students; those rural students who entered enter college are also much less likely to finish.
In its first year, ROCI focused on K-12 schools; its second year emphasized the factors affecting college success. It ended with definite ideas and practical steps on how Idaho (and other states with large rural populations) can strengthen rural schools and how to improve rural kids’ access to college degrees.
We identified some rural schools that are producing extraordinary student results with limited funds, and others that have served new Hispanic students very well despite limited resources. Unfortunately, there are also communities in which schools were not improving; of particular concern were districts that were adopting a four-day week – a measure that saves little or no money and is unlikely to improve student learning or college readiness.
Rural K-12 leaders are bullish on high standards and on preparing kids for college. The national fight over Common Core standards has scarcely touched rural schools, which often embrace them as setting useful targets and motivation for teacher learning. Similarly, K-12 professionals embrace the goal of universal college preparation, even if some rural communities are divided about it.
In higher education, college access problems have three roots: generally less rigorous course content in many rural schools; students’ lack of access to advanced courses, especially in math and sciences; and the great distances between rural communities and centers of higher education. Many rural students find college academically frightening, unfamiliar, and discouraging.
Rural area salary scales are often low, so parents and working students have trouble paying college bills. College-eligible rural students face a financial dilemma: pay for long commutes to college, or pay rent in cities distant from their homes. Many find they can’t handle these costs long enough to graduate, and become discouraged, especially if they fail courses or must do remedial work that doesn’t bring college credit.
Despite these challenges, many rural schools are finding ways of improving students’ readiness for college. Rural schools are sharing teachers who have rare skills with nearby districts, and using online learning resources. Others are forming close partnerships with community and 4-year colleges and enrolling seniors in both high school and college classes. Such measures force K-12 educators out of their comfort zones but they have real promise for children who might otherwise be afraid to pursue college entry or enroll but are unready for college work.
These hopeful trends can’t offset the fact that state and local policy creates needless obstacles. Or that for every rural district that overcomes its disadvantage there are many that can’t.
Americans must also not be complacent about rural economic development. We found that Idaho -- and other states that allow major geographic areas to be dominated by low-skill low wage jobs -- risk more decline in the economy and in the welfare of state residents, including in urban areas. Low wage scales in rural places force skilled and educated people to seek jobs elsewhere, and discourage residents from seeking advanced education and training.
For rural communities to revive their economies and create opportunities that will attract and keep skilled people, education is the core of economic development. The place to start is by raising the quality of K-12 education, encouraging local young people to complete college, recruiting businesses that pay competitive salaries and need skilled employees, improving on-line access and encouraging development of “amenity” businesses like coffee shops and community theatres. These actions might be impossible for some tiny remote communities, but can make a difference for many now-struggling rural localities.
In two years, the ROCI Task Force put dozens of promising new solutions to rural education problems on the agenda. But there is much more work to be done, both in improving rural students readiness – and motivation – for college and in clearing away obstacles formed by state and federal policy.