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'Urban Bias' Said To Undermine Programs in Rural Areas

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Because rural school communities vary widely, "generic" improvement plans designed for large urban districts usually do not work as well in rural settings, according to the authors of a new book on rural education programs.

Their analysis of 13 federal, state, and local improvement efforts in rural schools suggests that a longstanding "urban bias" in education policymaking has resulted in programs that do not take the variety and special characteristics of rural communities into account--and thus are less effective than they could be.

The scope of the projects examined in the book ranges from centrally designed, heavily funded federal programs to small, locally initiated projects, all developed within the past 15 years.

Rural Education: In Search of a Better Way, a study commissioned by the National Institute of Education (nie), contains contributions from eight rural-education researchers and writers.

School-improvement plans in rural settings, they argue, should be tailored to local needs, concerned not just with education problems that exist in the school but with the social environment of the surrounding community. The researchers call for the development of a new "theme'' in rural education that is based on "accepting rural reality," and they present a set of guidelines for analyzing different types of rural communities.

Seventy-five percent of the nation's 16,000 school districts are outside of America's designated urban areas, states the book's editor, Paul M. Nachtigal, and these districts educate approximately one-third of all students attending public schools.

Mr. Nachtigal is director of the Rural Ed-ucation Project of the Mid-Continent Regional Education Laboratory. He argues that by the mid-1960's, most attempts to differentiate rural schools' problems from those found in urban schools were lost in the massive federal interventions of the Great Society programs.

"Public policy," states Mr. Nachtigal, "both state and federal, has set about defining rural education's problems from a position far removed from the local community, using a set of standards much more applicable to large school systems than to small."

"The public school system as [currently] conceived is more in tune with urban characteristics," Mr. Nachtigal writes. "Quality and quantity tend to be equated: More courses offered, more volumes in the library, more lab equipment, and more teachers with specialized degrees mean a better school. If schools are of necessity small, they are then by definition second best."

"The present study," he writes, "has concluded that rural communities differ from urban communities in a number of significant ways and that there exists a rich diversity among rural communities that adds to the complexity of developing public policy for rural America."

Least Successful Projects

Among the least successful projects examined in the case studies were a Teacher Corps project in the Holmes County, Miss., school district, an Experimental Schools Program in the South Umpqua school district in Oregon, and an Urban/Rural Program project in Fort Gay, W.Va.

All three were federal categorical programs that are now defunct, and all, according to the study, displayed some of the common pitfalls of federal education-improvement plans: "one-size, one-style" designs that do not take into account the wide differences among rural school districts; a lack of "follow-up support" with the result that programs sometimes end when the last federal dollar is spent; and a failure to develop community involvement or to consider existing community problems, values, and power structures.

One example used is the Urban/Rural program--a federally funded experiment in teacher training in poor rural and urban areas--that over a five-year period provided $750,000 to three schools in Wayne County, W.Va.

"Throughout our study of [Urban/Rural], we were constantly surprised at the extent to which education planners believe that money from Washington can buy change in rural (or, for that matter, urban) areas, especially over a short period of time," writes James Branscome, a rural-education writer who evaluated the program's effects in Wayne County.

The study does not contend that all federal involvement in rural schools was a failure.

It documents, for example, the successful participation of many Maine districts in the National Diffusion Network.

"We are not saying that central agencies have no role in defining rural education problems," Mr. Nachtigal writes, "we are saying that the locus of control for making those decisions must be returned to the community."

Generally, the study concludes, the most successful organizations and programs "met educational needs clearly recognized and articulated by the local communities." (See related story on this page.)

The book says that the "uniqueness" of rural districts should be considered to some degree in all state and federal policy-making.

"A major task ... involves re-examination of the plethora of legal statutes, school finance formulas, and credentialing and accreditation procedures--along with the

growing array of equity mandates for women, minorities, and the handicapped--to see how appropriate and necessary they are for the various categories of rural communities," says Mr. Nachtigal.

He admits that it is impractical for policy to be tailored to "each unique rural situation," but suggests three broad categories that could "lead to a finer tuning of policy":

The Rural Poor: Found in communities characterized by a lower median income, a lower level of educational attainment, a higher mortality rate, and a lower level of statewide political influence.

Traditional Middle America: Includes the Midwest farm communities found in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, and the Dakotas; characterized by affluence, solid family life, well-kept homes, and a "puritan work ethic" that helps assure a high level of achievement in school.

Communities in Transition: Ones in which factors such as energy developments or proximity to urban areas have resulted in an influx of "outsiders" who bring different ideas and values, and where the conflict between old and new often is focused on the schools.

A future model for successful rural schools, Mr. Nachtigal states, will be found somewhere between country schools of the past and the modern urban school that has replaced them.

And the ideal should emphasize the inherent advantages of "smallness," including smaller classes, more individualized instruction, and a smaller bureaucratic structure that allows more resources for instruction.

New educational technologies could also be used to expand the curricula of small rural schools, Mr. Nachtigal says.

The book also contains case studies of projects in North Dakota, Vermont, Texas, Maine, Utah, Iowa, Idaho, and Minnesota. It is available, at $30 in hardcover and $12 in paperback, from the Westview Press, 5500 Central Avenue, Boulder, Colo. 80301.

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