Education Funding Opinion

The Forgotten Struggles of Rural Schools

By April Bo Wang — November 10, 2014 6 min read
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A few years ago, I knew a 17-year-old boy I’ll call Raymond. Raymond lived in the sparsely populated Arkansas Delta and went to high school in a town some miles from his home. On stifling-hot days, he had a 10-minute walk down a rutted dirt path to the main road, where he caught the school bus. On days when the rain poured down, the ruts in the dirt path converged into an insurmountable river. Even if Raymond could have forded the river, odds were good the bus wouldn’t make it down the main road anyway. Raymond couldn’t ask his grandparents for a ride; they didn’t have a car.

Raymond’s struggle for access to schooling was physical—sometimes he actually could not get to school—but across rural America, students struggle for access to high-quality, well-resourced public education. Sadly, their challenges are often absent from the public conversation on education, which is informed by television shows like “The Wire,” mainstream journalists, and the rhetoric of politicians who reference schools in big cities like Chicago and Washington.


Good teaching is good teaching, point blank. But context matters. In communities where access to resources goes beyond monetary solutions, and school culture is dominated by a social context remarkably unique to the community, the national discussions and policies around improving public education often seem irrelevant.

Consider, for one, debates about online education. I am a traditionalist who believes that a good teacher in the flesh is better than a good digital-learning program. But for Raymond, when it rained, the choice wasn’t between a teacher and a digital program. It was between a digital program and a missed day of learning. Of course, the assumption is also that Raymond had access to a computer and the Internet at home. Unfortunately, he didn’t.

Now, take school discipline. Last year, the Los Angeles school district ended suspensions for “willful defiance,” a practice that had allowed for potentially arbitrary suspensions. In rural districts where students are allowed to choose between an old-fashioned paddling and suspension, the discussion of ethics takes on a different tenor.

Or, take the recurring debates over teacher evaluation and teacher tenure. In this year’s much-talked-about Vergara v. California decision, a state court judge ruled that California’s teacher-tenure and -dismissal laws placed an unconstitutional burden on poor students, often saddling them with bad teachers who should have been fired. In urban districts, the logical outcome is straightforward. If kids in a class are not learning, then replace that teacher with one who helps them learn. But rural districts often face a lack of teachers, period. That means employing an effective teacher workforce is a whole different ballgame.

For example, almost one-third of districts in Mississippi suffer “critical shortages” of teachers. At least 10 percent to 15 percent of those districts’ teachers are not licensed in the subjects they teach—subjects that include math, science, and foreign languages, as well as special education. In addition, under Mississippi law, teachers have job protections after two years regardless of how they are doing in the classroom. But who wants to fire a bad certified teacher when there is nobody to replace him?

So how does one create a rural teacher pipeline, overcoming the disincentives of a two-hour drive to Starbucks and a low salary?

First, funnel more resources into rural districts so that they can offer higher teacher salaries. For example, in Alaska, where 65 percent of districts are rural, teachers receive higher salaries if they teach in remote schools. Alaska Pacific University created a program specifically aimed at preparing teachers for rural placements; the program also prepares teachers to navigate cultural differences.

Second, offer higher-education loan forgiveness for teachers who take positions at rural schools. Or, provide access to certification to those already living in rural communities. East Carolina University offers a distance learning program in which aspiring teachers already living in rural communities can earn scholarships to attain a teaching degree without leaving home.

Third, offer housing as part of the compensation package, a tactic that a few districts have already adopted—with good reason. Upon my move to the Delta, my first real-estate tour included a curious dichotomy of semi-renovated historical buildings: a former parish house and a one-time bordello.

As for problems of access, leverage the opportunities of a digital age. Equip rural schools with technology so that students can connect to resources beyond the school walls, such as Khan Academy. Train teachers and students to use those resources. Lend iPads to students to take home.

Now, let’s talk about Teach For America and its role in rural schools. The typical objections to this program surround hiring unprepared teachers who are less effective than traditional-route teachers and who stay in schools for only two years before moving to greener pastures. In the Delta, which has seen TFA teachers come and go for two decades, some folks have accepted this ebb and flow of new blood as critical to the community.

I taught through TFA in the Arkansas Delta. During my first year, I was the first English teacher my 11th grade students had had since 8th grade. They sat through 9th and 10th grades dabbling in textbook assignments while a permanent substitute maintained discipline. I was a 22-year-old with more energy than skill, but I was not taking anybody’s job.

And finally, consider charter schools. In cities with hundreds of thousands of students, the discussion turns to whether charters are “stealing” resources from public education and whether they actually select the “best” students through a weeding-out process of suspension and expulsion. In a town of a couple thousand students, the discussion becomes about whether charters divide a close-knit town and whether folks can still rally around one high school football team.

I recently asked some former students, now seniors in college, what they thought about education in their community and what they felt would improve it.

Adria, who graduated from the traditional public school in the area where I taught and whose siblings attended the KIPP charter across town, said she didn’t like the town’s seeming division along lines of where folks went to school. But she appreciated that her siblings got a good education.

Jackie didn’t like that the TFA teachers often left after two years. Yet, she felt that there was no other immediate solution to the teacher deficit.

People have to attend college and come back to become teachers, Adria said, “because nobody’s going to know this town like we know it, and nobody’s going to love it like we love it.” Essentially, Adria wants a local teacher pipeline. She acknowledges that building one will be tough. As much as she sees local talent as the solution to her community’s education problem, she also admits her own hesitation to return when other places offer more opportunity.

Americans constantly talk about urban poverty and inner-city schools, but there is little awareness that there are failing schools and children in need spread across miles of farmland, mountains, and deserts. We must address the specific concerns of rural communities so that some students don’t miss school when it rains, and all students learn from teachers who are the best by virtue of qualifications rather than lack of an alternative.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as What About Helping Rural Schools?


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