When considering the subject of rural education, there are often misconceptions by those in urban or suburban environments. They imagine students deprived of the latest in modern educational commodities, taught by teachers unable to gain positions in better schools, struggling to grasp basic concepts, unaware of the complexities of the larger world around them. In reality, rural schooling is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and underestimated gems of American education. Today's rural students often enjoy significant advantages over their urban and suburban counterparts.
Keywords Beale Codes; Class Size; Community support; Consolidation; English Language Learner (ELL); Golden Egg States; No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB); Rural Education; Rural Schools
When considering the subject of rural education, there are often misconceptions by those in urban or suburban environments. They imagine students deprived of the latest in modern educational commodities, taught by teachers unable to gain positions in better schools, struggling to grasp basic concepts, unaware of the complexities of the larger world around them. In reality, rural schooling is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and underestimated gems of American education. Today's rural students often enjoy significant advantages over their urban and suburban counterparts. From the educational benefits of smaller class sizes and individual teacher attention to the social benefits of widespread community support and a comforting sense of belonging, rural schools provide both tangible and intangible benefits to the students and families they serve (Todd & Agnello, 2006; Silverman, 2005).
This is not to say, however, that rural schools are without their challenges. Many rural schools lack the financial or other resources to offer the variety of specialized classes often found in suburban schools. Similarly, opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities are not as numerous for students in rural schools as they usually are for students in suburban schools. Yet, these negatives are often more than compensated for by the many positives of rural schooling. Still, despite studies supporting the benefits rural education offers, many school districts in small rural communities across the country are facing increased pressure to consolidate with surrounding schools or districts on the assumption that consolidation will lead to both lower costs to communities and enhanced performance among students (Silverman, 2005).
To understand fully the status of rural education in America today and the unique opportunities and dilemmas it faces, we must first explore the diversity of America's educational landscape and the unique challenges and opportunities faced by rural schools. Following this, we will uncover and examine several misconceptions regarding rural education, and explore the position rural schools occupy both in their communities and in the national educational landscape as a whole.
Based on a need to classify counties according to levels of urbanity, the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, in the early 1970s, established a scale of classification known as the ERS Rural-Urban Continuum Codes, or the Beale codes, so named for Dr. Calvin Beale, its developer (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003). In addition to filling agricultural purposes, today the Beale codes are used to classify public school districts. According to the Beale codes, districts are categorized as follows:
• Counties in metro areas of 1 million population or more
• Counties in metro areas of 250,000 to 1 million population
• Counties in metro areas of fewer than 250,000 population
• Urban population of 20,000 or more, adjacent to a metro area
• Urban population of 20,000 or more, not adjacent to a metro area
• Urban population of 2,500 to 19,999, adjacent to a metro area
• Urban population of 2,500 to 19,999, not adjacent to a metro area
• Completely rural or less than 2,500 urban population adjacent to a metro area
• Completely rural or less than 2,500 urban population, not adjacent to a metro area
The US Department of Education's Center for Rural Education has indicated that nearly 42% of America's public schools are in rural areas (New center helps rural schools, 2006). While any percentage would merit attention, this significant national investment in rural education calls for placing critical priority on ensuring the strength and success of our rural schools.
According to the Rural School and Community Trust, a non-profit organization which studies the relationships between successful rural schools and their communities, nearly one-fifth of American public school students attend a rural school; that is, a school located in a community with a population of fewer than 2,500. By the numbers, this adds up to 8,797,497 students for whom rural education is not a study topic but a reality. From the point of view of the educational system, 30.3% of America's public schools are located in areas classified as rural (Johnson & Strange, 2005).
By state, Texas leads the way with 532,378 students enrolled in rural schools, while Rhode Island comes in last with 15,680. Percentage-wise, however, Vermont takes the lead with a full 55.79% of its public school students attending a rural school. Contrast this with bottom-ranking Massachusetts, where only 4.70% populate schools classified as rural. As a ratio of rural public schools to total public schools per state, South Dakota takes the lead with a full 77.56% of its public schools located in rural areas, while Massachusetts again comes in last with its percentage standing at only 5.66 (Johnson & Strange, 2005).
While these numbers vary widely from state to state, what they show is that, from Rhode Island to Texas and South Dakota to Vermont, all states are impacted to some degree by rural education; therefore, no state can escape giving close consideration to these types of public schools.
By nature of geographical location and community resources, rural schools face unique challenges not experienced by their suburban counterparts. Among these are teacher shortages, demographic poverty, serving students with disabilities, increasing number of English Language Learner (ELL) students requiring teachers certified in ELL programs, consolidation, transportation difficulties, federally mandated requirements, and funding considerations. A brief look at each will provide more comprehensive insight into the obstacles faced by rural schools.
In Montana, nearly 75% of all public schools are considered rural, with two out of every five of the state's students attending these rural schools (Johnson & Strange, 2005). Yet, teachers in Montana rank 48th on the pay scale when compared with the rest of the United States. Even with the high need for teachers, an alarming 70% of students graduating with teaching degrees are opting to leave the state in search of greener pastures. Recognizing the critical ramifications of this departure on the state's ability to provide quality education, legislation has been introduced to provide new teachers with financial incentives to remain in the state and veteran teachers with incentive to continue teaching. However, these measures have been voted down in the state legislature (Silverman, 2005).
Furthermore, due to increased federal mandates implemented with the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2002, teachers are routinely required to assume additional responsibilities and, as a result, often find themselves stretched thin. For example, No Child Left Behind mandates that in order to teach a subject to more than one grade level, teachers must be certified in each grade level. The implications of this requirement for rural schools are particularly acute, as they are often unable to offer as extensive a variety of classes as larger suburban schools due to insufficient...
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