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E.D. Report Hails Rural Schools as 'a Model of Strength'

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In overcoming rugged conditions to boost their students' academic performance, rural schools have become a model for national education reform, a new federal report concludes.

Rural schools have seen their students' test scores climb in the past decade, to the point where they generally match or top national averages, the report notes.

The gains came despite the geographic isolation and dwindling financial resources of rural areas and schools.

The schools "have achieved so much with so little,'' the report says. It suggests they can provide "a model of strength'' for other schools.

Rural students have recorded gains on several nationwide assessments. Between 1984 and 1990, for example, rural 4th graders raised their writing-proficiency scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 25 points below the national mean to three points above it.

Similarly, rural 9-year-olds lifted their scores on the NAEP mathematics assessment by nine points, to one point above the national mean, in 1990.

But the report also makes clear that the improvements had little to do with the national education-reform movement of the 1980's.

"The focus on reform has not really found its way into rural communities,'' said David P. Mack, who headed the report project for the U.S. Education Department's office of educational research and improvement.

The report suggests that more study is needed to determine what did spark the improvement.

Particularly helpful, the report says, would be examinations of how rural schools compensate for their fiscal woes with creativity and a "supportive ethos.''

"Many so-called 'innovations' being championed today were born of necessity long ago in the rural schoolhouse,'' the report says, pointing to such ideas as cooperative learning, multigrade classrooms, peer tutoring, and close community ties.

"This is the question that I'm interested in,'' said Theodore Coladarci, the editor of The Journal of Research in Rural Education at the University of Maine and a peer reviewer of the report. "How is it that rural schools are able to do what they do?''

'New Sensitivity' Seen

Experts on rural development and education praised the report for avoiding the scornful tone that they said had characterized previous federal rural-education surveys.

"Every Department of Education report on rural education in the past was an indictment,'' said Thomas W. Bonnett, the author of Strategies for Rural Competitiveness. "They would just beat up on rural schools, rural teachers, and rural administrators.''

Mr. Bonnett noted "a new sensitivity'' in the report to the role of the school in the community.

But some analysts said the report should have put more emphasis on the need for schools to become a force in rural renewal.

"We've decided that in rural areas, schools have to look just like urban schools,'' said Paul G. Theobald, a rural historian and the head of teacher education at South Dakota State University. "There's no reason why you can't use the community as a curriculum source.''

Consolidation Gains Slight

The report, which took more than four years to prepare, pulls together dozens of published studies.

While breaking little new ground, it does present for the first time a state-by-state breakdown of the nation's 6.9 million rural students.

The report bases its count of rural students on the U.S. Census Bureau standard, which defines rural communities as those with fewer than 2,500 residents.

Ohio has the most rural students--379,764. But Kansas has the highest concentration, with more than half of its enrollment attending rural schools.

Rural students make up more than 30 percent of the enrollment in a total of 12 states, and less than 10 percent in seven states.

While the notion of the one-room schoolhouse is fading, rural schools remain predominantly small. More than 40 percent of rural schools serve fewer than 200 children, while less than 5 percent serve 800 or more.

Rural schools are also financially strapped, according to the report. School consolidation--the chief policy tool used by many states to drive down costs and improve education in rural areas--has not paid off as expected.

Transportation costs have eaten into the predicted savings, the report notes, and research now suggests that children learn better in small schools.

Copies of "The Condition of Education in Rural Schools'' (065-000-00653-7) are available for $10 each from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Superintendent of Documents, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15250-7954; (202) 783-3238.

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