Commentary

Rural Problems Jeopardize Reform

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This decade's numerous proposals for school improvement, while in many instances meritorious, are likely to fall short of their goal. None of the recent approaches have adequately addressed a basic prerequisite for sustained, long-term improvement: the need to strengthen the infrastructure of most state systems of elementary and secondary education. Though all segments of the structure deserve renewed attention, it is the rural small-school component that will prove the Achilles' heel of the school-excellence movement unless this sector receives immediate attention.

Depending on one's definition of small rural schools, their number represents anywhere from two-thirds to three-fourths of the nation's school districts, and they enroll from 20 percent to 25 percent of the elementary- and secondary-school population. Districts of this type are to be found in large numbers in virtually all states, even the most urbanized.

I do not accept the contention of many that small rural schools are by definition inferior. Many such schools, in fact, exhibit features that the past decade of research has established are characteristic of effective schools: small classes, individual attention, low dropout rates, a safe, orderly environment, strong faculty identity and commitment, active parental interest, and strong community support. Indeed, the promotion of such characteristics is one of the driving rationales behind many proposals in the current school-excellence movement.

Not all rural schools, however, display these features. Even the most ardent rural-school supporters concede that many rural systems have historically lacked breadth and depth in their instructional offerings; have with at best mixed success attracted and retained quality staff; have lacked adequate financial support; and have provided inadequate libraries and other instructional support services.

Both the solid and the marginal rural schools, however, today face pressures not heretofore experienced. Likely to become major impediments to education reform in all districts of the nation, these pressures could have a devastating impact on many small schools in rural districts.

Four developments are especially significant for rural schools: changes in enrollment patterns, changes in fiscal-support bases, new staffing problems, and changes in the traditional school-support interest groups. Any one of these factors by itself would portend difficulty for small rural schools; occurring together, they pose serious problems for local and state policymakers.

Two features of the enrollment patterns of the elementary-secondary school-age6population will affect rural districts especially: the long-term decline in the number of students in this age cohort, and changes in the demographic characteristics of these groups. The general decline in elementary-secondary enrollment in the nation's public schools over the past decade or so is well documented. In only six states did enrollments increase from 1973 to 1983.

The most serious declines occurred in the Northeastern and Middle Western states, both regions with large numbers of small rural schools. The loss of as few as 20 or 30 students in a rural secondary school can seriously complicate both the staffing-utilization practices of a district and its ability to offer needed breadth and depth in its courses.

In tracking the demographic challenges facing education, Harold Hodgkinson, a senior fellow at the American Council on Education, has discovered, among other findings, that the minority portion of the youth population is growing; that children have become the poorest segment of the soiety; and that the family structure is undergoing radical change.

While no one at this point can define with certainty the implications of Mr. Hodgkinson's conclusions for small rural schools, even a modest change in the demographic makeup of the student population attending rural schools will hinder their ability to respond effectively to the new challenges. As one example, many rural schools already experience great difficulty in complying with current state and federal requirements for the education of handicapped children. Projected increases in the eligibility pool of handicapped students will further aggravate programming, staffing, and financial difficulties. Mr. Hodgkinson's work also suggests the need for more and better bilingual education--historically a costly program and staffing issue for many rural districts.

Beyond enrollment declines and demographic changes, many rural communities must face long-term fiscal changes that are eroding their economic support bases. For no group is this problem more serious than for schools that serve predominantly agricultural communities. Districts serving communities with energy-driven economies face similar difficulties, although most observers do not think the downturn in these cases will last as long as that confronting agriculture.

A recent report on eight Middle Western states for the Senate Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations concluded that, as a result of a rapid decline in net farm income, rural businesses and employment have declined, and the value of farm land has decreased substantially. This latter development hurts many rural schools because of their reliance on property taxes for a substantial portion of their revenues.

As with the changes in enrollment patterns and in the fiscal-support bases of rural schools, new pressures will intensify old problems in a third area: the staffing of rural schools. The perennial problem of the recruitment and retention of well-qualified teachers, especially at the secondary level in the fields of science, mathematics, and foreign languages, is already at a crisis stage for many districts. The new certification requirements being enacted across the country, with perhaps even more stringent standards to follow, will alter the pool of teacher candidates available to rural schools and further restrict staffing flexibility.

The fourth factor affecting rural schools, the decline in the number of parents with children in school, is the most pervasive and, in the long run, perhaps the most threatening concern of all. Losses in the number of parents, the traditional source of the most effective school-support groups, will have severe consequences for rural districts; the creation of a meaningful critical mass of parent advocates will become difficult. With fewer parents and relatives of rural school-age children present to aid in the determination of options, solutions to the pressures facing rural districts will be harder to find.

Local and state policymakers seeking ways to strengthen rural schools face an awesome challenge. Forced district reorganization, one major traditional policy response, has not generally proven to be a satisfactory solution. The exposition of the flaws in the principal arguments used by advocates of this option in earlier times (e.g., greater economy) has precipitated caution in the policy communities. Moreover, rural-school interests in many states are today well organized and probably can successfully resist massive, mandated reorganization, as the recent experiences in Nebraska and Illinois would seem to attest.

A host of other policy options available to strengthen small rural schools, however, should and will be given widespread serious6consideration, once local and state policymakers accept what Paul Nachtigal of the Mid-Continent Regional Laboratory calls "the reality of rural." The interdistrict sharing arrangements found in a number of states, for instance, are daily demonstrating that they can effectively provide a wide range of instructional programming, staffing, staff-development services, management-support services, and other technical assistance to small rural schools.

The chronic problem of an inadequate financial base could also be partially alleviated if more state aid formulas were better to reflect the fact that some educational expenditures of rural schools are more susceptible to enrollment influences than others.

With great potential as a policy option, the use of technology as a means of enriching the instructional programs of rural schools is already being demonstrated at sites in a few states. For example, a program supported by the Oklahoma education department and Oklahoma State University utilizes interactive satellite instruction. This system has allowed many rural districts to enhance their course offerings with high-quality staff. Enriched staff-development programs are also available through this technology.

Policy options such as these hold the potential to strengthen the rural small-school component of state education systems. Failure to adequately address the increasingly difficult situations faced by rural districts will limit the impact on these schools of movements to improve the quality of precollegiate education.

Vol. 7, Issue 5, Page 25

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