Children in rural America are 60 percent more likely than their nonrural peers to be placed in special education programs in kindergarten, according to an analysis of 22,000 pupils that was sponsored by a research center at Mississippi State University.
There are also wide disparities in school readiness when rural children are evaluated by race, according to the report from the university’s National Center for Rural Early Childhood Learning Initiatives. About 8 percent of rural black children were proficient at identifying the beginning sounds of words, compared with 22 percent of nonrural black children. About 26 percent of rural white children had the letter-sound skill, compared with 40 percent of nonrural white children.
The study, “Preliminary Rural Analysis of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort,” is available from the National Center for Rural Early Childhood Learning Initiatives at Mississippi State University.
Early-education programs based in centers also appeared to be less available to rural children, compared with children in more densely populated areas. According to the analysis, 35 percent of rural white children and 14 percent of rural black children attended an early-education program in the year before kindergarten, compared with 37 percent of nonrural black children and 54 percent of nonrural whites.
The findings are just part of a series of reports to be released by the Mississippi State research program, said Cathy Grace, the director of the national center. The reports are intended to address a dearth of research into the lives of rural children, she said.
“Our hope is that we can get people to start to talk first and then move into action,” Ms. Grace said. The findings are scheduled to be presented this week at the annual meeting of the Fairfax, Va.-based Society of Prevention Research. Future analyses will focus on such topics as professional development of early-childhood teachers, parental mental health, and mental-health services for families.
The analysis, which examines children who entered kindergarten in the 1998-99 school year, draws on the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics under the U.S. Department of Education. The longitudinal study has compiled details on those children for a wide range of family, school, community, and individual characteristics.
The National Center for Rural Early Childhood Learning Initiatives asked Child Trends, a Washington-based research organization, to compile the data for the analysis. For the analysis, the category “rural” was based on the U.S. Census Bureau definition, which includes places of fewer than 2,500 people outside urban areas, as well the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study’s definition that includes small towns of 25,000 or fewer residents.
Several positive aspects of rural life for young students appear in the analysis. Rural children are more likely than nonrural pupils to be in kindergarten classes of 15 or fewer children. They also are more likely to live in safe neighborhoods, and those with noncustodial or nonresident parents are more likely to stay in contact with them.
The analysis does not discuss causes for the disparities between rural and nonrural children. Ms. Grace suggested that rural children, who are more likely than nonrural children to be poor, may have parents who are working minimum-wage jobs and more than one job.
“They may have different people coming in and being the care providers,” she said. “The stability is not there.”
Such factors may play a part in rural children’s academic disadvantage when they start school, compared with their nonrural peers.
Bob Mooneyham, the executive director of the National Rural Education Association, an organization of teachers, administrators, and researchers that is based in Norman, Okla., said the report’s findings are not surprising.
“I wouldn’t take issue with that number at all,” Mr. Mooneyham said last week, referring to the figure that rural children are 60 percent more likely to be placed in special education when they start school. “It’s a poverty issue,” he said, “and it points to the need for the states and the federal government to start paying attention to the needs of rural children.”