Updated June 15, 2011
The plight of inner-city schools has long garnered attention among education reformers. But rural schools, and the large chunk of the nation’s students who attend them, face challenges every bit as daunting as their urban counterparts.
More schools were in rural locations than in either cities or suburbs in 2009-2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Based on data from the "Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey,” slightly more than 33 percent of regular elementary and secondary public schools nationwide were in locations classified as rural by NCES (2009b). In all, over 24 percent of public school students attended rural schools that year. In about half of the states, students in rural areas make up a majority of the public elementary and secondary school population.
Those high numbers, combined with the potential advantages of small schools and the challenges that rural schools face in meeting certain mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, have prompted experts to realize that rural education merits increased attention and policy consideration.
It is important to keep in mind that rural schools differ greatly from one another. But as a group, students in these schools have generally scored as well as or better than non-rural students on standardized tests (Loveless, 2003; Williams, 2003; Fan & Chen, 1999). Average test scores on the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed that 4th and 8th grade students in rural schools perform at similar levels in reading, science, and mathematics to their suburban peers and better than their urban peers (National Center for Education Statistics, 2007).
However, the nationwide picture obscures achievement levels that, in fact, vary greatly from state to state. Rural students perform significantly better than non-rural students in some states, but significantly poorer in others. Such differences seem to be linked to variances in a wide range of school factors, such as instructional resources and advanced course offerings (Lee & McIntire, 2000). The spread of high-speed Internet access and development of online learning programs in several states and districts has helped expand opportunities and access to resources for rural students in recent years.
The makeup of student populations in rural schools differs considerably across the country as well. As a whole, rural students are predominantly white (75 percent); approximately 10 percent are black, and about 11 percent are Hispanic, according to 2007-08 data from NCES (2010).
While the typical rural school has a smaller proportion of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches compared to the typical urban school (Loveless, 2003), some rural areas struggle with extreme poverty. According to 2009 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, 24.2 percent of rural children across the nation live below the federal poverty level, up from 19 percent in 2000 (Mattingly & Stransky, 2010).
Studies in several states have shown that small schools and districts can overcome the adverse effects of poverty on student achievement and narrow the achievement gap between poor students and their more affluent peers (Johnson, 2004; Johnson, Howley, & Howley, 2002; Bickel & Howley, 2000). Such findings are particularly relevant in rural education, where the average school serves approximately 338 students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2009c).
Despite research that points to advantages of small schools, however, many rural schools and districts have been forced to consolidate with other schools and districts to cut costs. Between 1930 and 2000, consolidation reduced the number of U.S. school districts by 91 percent and the number of schools by 67 percent, while the number of students increased by 83 percent in that time (Howley & Howley, 2001).
States and districts have resorted to contentious consolidation policies to combat declining enrollments, save money, and improve struggling schools. However, some research claims that district consolidation can hurt test scores overall, and in particular hurt children from low-income communities (Johnson, 2004; Johnson, Howley, & Howley, 2002). In addition, long bus rides for rural students whose schools have been consolidated can swell transportation budgets and have a negative effect on academic attentiveness and participation in extracurricular activities (Howley & Howley, 2001).
Rural schools have long struggled with attracting and retaining teachers. A nationwide survey of rural school superintendents conducted by the American Association of School Administrators and the Appalachia Educational Laboratory found the superintendents identified low salaries and social and geographic isolation as the main factors responsible for their difficulties in recruiting and retaining teachers (Schwartzbeck et al., 2003).
According to the NCES report “Status of Education in Rural America, 2007,” the average base salary for teachers in rural areas was $44,000, well below the national average of $49,600, and trailing the average salaries for teachers in towns, $45,200; suburbs, $54,200; and cities at $51,200 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2009a). Small rural schools also heavily rely on teachers to teach more than one subject area (Schwartzbeck et al., 2003).
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires states to raise all student performance up to the "proficient" level on state tests by the 2013-14 school year. Individual schools must meet state "adequate yearly progress,” or AYP, targets toward this goal for their overall student populations and certain subgroups such as low-income students, black students, English-language learners, etc.
The law poses particular problems for small rural schools that have tiny numbers of students who take state tests each year. In such schools, a relatively small amount of test data determines whether the school meets AYP targets. Some experts feel that because of this, small schools and districts face the potential of being misidentified as failing or in need of improvement. They suggest that states raise the minimum number of tests-takers for AYP purposes. But the same experts also caution that such a solution could mean that small schools that need help would not be included in the accountability system, and could slip through the cracks (Jimerson, 2004a; Jimerson, 2004b).
Rural schools also wrestle with state funding formulas that often favor larger and wealthier districts. In many states, the dependence on local property tax revenues to finance education fuels funding disparities between urban, suburban, and rural districts (Reeves, 2003; Haas, 2000). In addition, numerous policies and programs include funding formulas that set a minimum number of students as a prerequisite for funding, or tie such funding to growth in the student population (Lawrence, 2001). Also, formulas often allocate funds on a per-pupil basis, which means that small districts and schools receive relatively small amounts of money (Reeves, 2003).
The federal government has tried to combat such funding disparities by establishing the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP) to target federal funding directly to rural schools. Still, in early 2011, eight active constitutional challenges to state school funding systems involved rural plaintiffs (Strange, 2011).