Conceptual foundations to define rural education are murky and eclectic. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, nation building was the one educational mission driving rural education. The structure of rural schooling depended heavily on decisions made during the Civil War (1861–1865) and on the Homestead Act (1862). The Act and the actions taken as a result of it had an adverse effect on rural America, specifically in the center of the nation, where it created artificial communities based solely on land speculation, established an agricultural economic framework dependent on national markets that lasted until the farm and economic crises of the 1980s, and ultimately diminished the indigenous customs and belief systems about the way of life in rural America. At the same time, programs like the Cooperative Extension’s 4-H youth program and the rapid growth of community colleges in the 1970s offered higher education and adult education opportunities to many rural communities. These programs have struggled to serve a broader constituency in rural areas beyond agriculture.
No single definition exists to define rural America and its schools; some believe poverty is the one common thread, whereas others believe that any area that is not metropolitan is rural. Rural communities were never homogeneous. The schools that served these regions had to work with issues of race in the South and the Great Plains, and with considerable economic diversity, including fishing (New England), mining and rural industry (Appalachia and the West), farming and sharecropping (Great Plains), and ranching (Great Plains and the West). Concurrently, schools dealt with each unique population inhabiting schools (by ethnicity, religion, and social class). Changes in rural education may be region-specific, and generalizations about education in one rural area may or may not be true for another. This entry attempts to define some common challenges and future prospects.
Problems And Realities
The United States, like the rest of the world, is steadily becoming more urban. Until the 1920 census, most people lived in small towns and rural areas. By 2000, most Americans lived in urban areas (and most lived in cities of 1 million or more). Currently, rural communities have higher poverty rates than their metropolitan counterparts. In the United States, one in four schoolchildren attends school in rural areas of fewer than 25,000, and 25 percent of all public schools in the United States are rural. Of the 250 poorest counties, 244 are rural. Poverty is a reality of rural living and for rural schools. The most recent U.S. Census confirms that school districts with fewer than 200 high school students are more than twice as likely to have high poverty rates as schools with 200 or more students. Nearly 10 million poor people live in rural America (one out of five residents). Rural minorities are significantly more impoverished as a percentage of the population. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of poor people living in rural America are White. Addressing rural education will require solutions to both the poverty gap of minorities and the impoverished conditions of all rural poor.
Rural schools have faith that technology will be the driving force of the rural economy and its schools in the twenty-first century. Improvements in communication and transportation have reduced rural isolation and differences in culture, information, and lifestyles. However, rural schools lack the necessary infrastructure to help overcome historical barriers associated with isolation. Rural America continues to provide the nation’s food while also providing cheap labor, land for urban and suburban expansion, sites for hazardous waste storage, and natural settings for recreation. Although rural schools are located in some of the most beautiful areas, about half of rural students attend schools in inadequate buildings without proper laboratory facilities and classrooms; faulty foundations, roofs, and plumbing; environmental pollution; and inadequate library/media/technology access. In the past fifteen years, many successful lawsuits against states—for example, Kentucky, New York, and Ohio— have attempted to correct this by charging negligence in school finance.
Consolidation of rural schools continues to be the controversial topic for policy makers, school administrators, and rural communities. Consolidation is driven by concerns of efficiency, economics, student achievement, school size, and community identity. Rural schools are also defined by a de facto national curriculum and institutional structure. The James B. Conant Report (1959) was influential in restructuring the small high school, calling for consolidation of small schools and the teaching of subject-based lessons. Conant advocated for consolidation and graduating classes of 100 or more in order to “have diversified curricula.” In the 1980s, the Committee on Educational Excellence emphasized that good education was based on excellence in math, science, and reading. The effect of the report led to a second phase of rural educational restructuring that saw more consolidation than ever before. Currently, the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act’s large-scale standardized assessments, declining enrollments and financial cutbacks, country school finance based on property taxes, lack of qualified teachers, and antiquated curriculum are driving school reorganization and consolidation.
Beyond these political forces, demographers believe that some rural areas adjacent to cities are becoming more metropolitan or are growing fast enough to become a metro area in their own right. Smaller rural schools also suffer from out-migration of both young and highly skilled workers, leaving an aging population and strained public services. Most areas have difficulty providing the human capital and infrastructure to attract new rural entrepreneurs. As a result, many rural areas and their schools rely on two fountains of growth: scenic amenities, environmental virtues, or unique products that reflect the cultural heritage (eastern West Virginia and western Maryland); and expanding agricultural and manufacturing opportunities alongside low-cost housing and new immigrant labor (Greenville, SC; Nebraska; Iowa; and Minnesota for food production at ConAgra, IBP, and Cargill). The two fountains of growth listed above allow for development and sustainability but also produce distinct types of schools divided along class lines. Rural schools now must deal with urban and suburban persons who telecommute to their work, diverse groups of white and blue-collar labor, and immigrants and poor workers with social welfare issues never faced before.
Possibilities And Paradigms
There are some possible solutions that can help rural schools deal with the changing nature of rural America. The most plausible one is the use of regional educational service agencies in their states for school improvement. Second, incentive programs (similar to those in urban areas, such as loan repayment, low-cost housing, medical and retirement benefit packages for service, etc.) can help attract and retain quality teachers because rural teacher shortage affects all subjects, particularly math, science, and special education. A third possibility is changes in leadership and policy action from local-based politics to a more cosmopolitan notion of governance involving the community and its leaders; finances, regional economic conditions, state regulations, salaries, and an adequate variety of classes in running small schools are paramount for rural districts. The above are affected by the turnover of superintendents who are trusted in rural districts to assume those responsibilities, which mainly occurs among the smallest districts (fewer than 300 students) and the lack of focused efforts by school boards in disseminating their problems to local and state politicians.
Finally, rural schools must incorporate some common elements of rural curriculum and education that can form a long-term sustainable solution: (a) place-based education; (b) family and community involvement; (c) partnership building between culture, business, and social services; (d) student leadership; and (e) entrepreneurial education (from 4-H, extension education, and vocational programs). These unique aspects of rural education are often eliminated as districts attempt to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.
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