When Americans fret about the performance of public education, we typically focus on big-city schools. This makes sense — millions of children are at risk there — but we habitually overlook the problems of schools in rural areas.
Most readers would be surprised to learn, as I was, that more children — nearly 6.5 million — attend schools in remote rural areas and small towns than in the 20 largest urban school districts combined. But while some rural students score a little better on tests than their counterparts in big-city schools, they are less likely than urban students to enroll in college or stay long enough to get any sort of degree.
Once upon a time, students from America’s rural communities and small towns were often the ones who became inventors, captains of industry, and national leaders. That’s much less often the case now. Too often, we don’t make the most of the talents of rural kids, and that can hurt us in a competitive world economy.
Why have we neglected these areas? Well, we don’t really know. Rural education has been a back-burner issue for presidents and Congress, most state governments, and foundations that sponsor research and policy innovation.
A group of solid minds has set out to change this. The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation in Idaho is sponsoring a serious examination of rural education, the challenges facing rural schools, and the reasons so many rural students don’t reach their full potential. Thanks to this charge, the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho, or ROCI — an interdisciplinary task force of educators, policy experts, economists, and experts in technology, which I lead — is taking a fresh look at rural schools, the overall well-being of rural communities, and the ways elected officials and philanthropies can make a difference. Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit organization with experience in disadvantaged communities, is supporting the work and producing analyses and recommendations for policymakers.
Though our efforts have just begun, some things are already clear. Many rural communities have stable or growing populations. Decades from now, just like today, millions of bright students will rely on rural schools. Some, though not all, rural economies are evolving, so young people who want to return home after college — especially in engineering, health, and analytical disciplines — may find good jobs waiting. But, as always, there will be even more opportunities for well-prepared rural students in dynamic big-city economies.
Elementary and secondary education in rural areas needs to innovate to broaden children’s horizons and options. This innovation will strengthen rural communities and expand the nation’s talent pool.
Imaginative rural educators face many challenges, including declining funding because of local taxpayer resistance, sentimentality about the old ways of doing things, reluctance to meet the needs of language-minority students, difficulty attracting able new educators as older ones retire, and problematic state and local policies. For example, rural superintendents often also serve as school principals and bus drivers, while at the same time managing as many state and federal programs and filling out the required reports as do the thousand-person staffs of urban districts. This added load wastes valuable energy and causes many qualified leaders to avoid or leave rural leadership jobs.
Americans can do much better for rural students and educators. The state and federal governments need to recognize the difference between megadistricts and tiny, remote ones. Technical innovators need to develop more options for rural schools, and philanthropies need to pay attention. Universities need to prepare educators for the challenges of rural leadership and teaching.
Our goal is for ROCI to put these issues on the national agenda. But resolving them will require a great deal of work by elected officials, scholars, private funders, and educational innovators. We can get the ball rolling, but others will have to keep it moving.