Published: 10-10-2011, 15:28

Rural education - American Education

An increasingly archaic term referring to the imagined disparities between educational quality in isolated rural communities and small towns and in larger suburbs and cities. Small student populations, low tax bases, high teacher turnover rates and lack of adequate technological facilities and equipment did indeed reduce educational quality of some rural schools for many decades. Until the 1980s, many rural communities in the United States continued to rely on one- or two-room schoolhouses, with one or two instructors teaching kindergarten through twelfth grade in a single room. In 1980, there were more than 1,000 such schools still in operation, but more than half disappeared over the ensuing decade, and they are expected to become extinct by the year 2000, as the rural population declines. In 1900, more than 40% of the American population lived on farms. By 1940, the percentage had dropped to 23%. By 1980 it was 3% and in 2000, under 2%— despite a vast expansion of lands under cultivation to 940 million acres.

Most rural states have now reorganized their educational systems to eliminate the need for one- and two-room schoolhouses. Buses drive students to and from centrally located schools, and even the most isolated schools have access to a wide array of electronic systems that permit use of videotapes and other forms of instruction in the classroom. Interactive television systems allow one teacher to instruct and react with students at a number of schools within the same region. Moreover, many states now provide fleets of portable classrooms for schools whose student populations are not large enough to justify investment in costly, specialized facilities for computer training, woodworking or foreign-language study. Specially equipped portable classrooms bring such facilities, along with special teachers, to a school for one term, then move on to another school. In some states, portable classrooms move computers from school to school in outlaying areas; in other states, they carry science labs, fine arts programs and specialized vocational training facilities to schools that would otherwise lack such programs.

Much of the statistical evidence for the poor quality of rural education can be traced to what is now recognized as a largely invalid, 20-year study of 440,000 high school students, started in 1960 and called PROJECT TALENT. It found that seniors in large high schools performed better in mathematics and science than seniors in small high schools and that student achievement tended to increase with teacher salaries. Recent studies, however, found that students in schools with fewer than 300 students registered higher mathematics, science and SAT scores than students in larger schools. The same studies found that students in several relatively rural states—Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming—obtained the highest average scores in the United States. Recent test results from the NATIONAL ASSESSMENT OF EDUCATIONAL PROGRESS (NAEP) found that 11 of the 12 states with the highest student proficiency in eighth grade mathematics depended almost entirely on rural education. Although Massachusetts students finished first in the nation (not just math, but in all categories), Minnesota finished second, followed by North Dakota, Vermont, South Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska. Students in rural states were only slightly less proficient in reading, and nine states, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Montana, Vermont, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming and Iowa, finished in the top dozen states. (Massachusetts again placed first.)

Although 20% of American school children— 8.8 million—are enrolled in rural schools, their rates of academic success or failure may have less to do with their geographic settings than their economic settings. Indeed, the Rural School and Community Trust, which publishes regular comprehensive reports on rural education, found rural students in southern states with high poverty rates—Mississippi, New Mexico, Kentucky, Louisiana, Alabama, Oklahoma, Arkansas and South Carolina (tied), West Virginia and Georgia, in that order—to be the most “educationally needy” in the nation. Mississippi students also scored lowest in NAEP testing, while Alabama, New Mexico and Louisiana scored almost as poorly. Rural is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as nonurban areas with fewer than 2,500 people and small towns with populations of 25,000 or less.