Thursday, November 5, 2009

Rural Schools—Not So Much—In the Middle

Status of Education in Rural America, a new report from the National Center on Education Statistics (NCES) has some pretty interesting information about rural schools.

For example, rural students face more challenges related to college access and participation than students in any other locale. High-poverty rural schools spend LESS per pupil than high-poverty urban schools and less than most other rural schools.

And, "remote" rural schools -- those that are more than 35 miles from a city and more than 10 miles from a town -- have higher rates of poverty than many urban schools. In fact, African American and American Indian/Native Alaskan students who attend remote rural schools are more likely to attend a high poverty school than are their peers in cities.
Despite these challenges, remote rural schools have higher averaged freshman graduation rates than all other locales except suburbs, which they equal.

But you wouldn’t learn this information from most news reports. Those tend to focus on how rural is "in the middle," doing better on most indicators than cities and not as well as suburbs.

That's because news coverage has focused mainly on the rural "averages" highlighted in the report's own summary.

The reality, however, is that “rural” is highly variable. Rural places differ from one another more dramatically and on more dimensions than most suburbs or cities.

Some rural schools in affluent communities have plenty of resources, long histories of public support, and lots of opportunity. In short, they skew up the rural averages.

On the other hand, there are hundreds of struggling rural districts that face poverty rates as high or higher than most of the nation’s poorest urban districts (see "The 'Rural 800' Districts"), and many have long-standing histories of political and social struggle. Yet these poor rural districts have even fewer financial and municipal resources than districts in most large cities, and they get less attention.

When indicators for the best-resourced rural schools are averaged with those for the most challenged schools, the result reveals little about either school setting. And the averages divert attention from real needs. And from real possibilities in rural schools, including struggling ones.

So what does the report have to say about rural schools that is revealing and important?

Although much of the data in Status of Education in Rural America is averaged across rural schools, the report breaks down data for some indicators within the “rural” category. That is, it not only compares indicators across rural, town, suburb, and city schools. It also compares indicators across rural schools based on how close they are to an urbanized area--fringe, distant, or remote.

These "remoteness" breakdowns along with a few indicators that are separated within locales by the percentage of students in poverty hold useful and compelling data.

Here are some of the important pieces of information that you can dig up if you read the report closely:

High poverty rural schools spend less, per pupil, on average, than low poverty rural schools and less than high poverty urban schools, even after adjustments are made "to reflect geographic cost differences." By contrast high poverty city schools, on average, spend more per pupil than other city schools. This funding circumstance of poor rural districts is important to note because the averaged expenditures of rural districts -- the ones that got most attention in the report -- are higher than other districts.

Remote rural schools have much higher poverty rates than other rural schools and higher than many urban schools. Forty-five percent (45%) of students in remote rural schools attend a schools where 50% or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch; only large and midsize cities have larger percentages of students in schools where more than half of students qualify.

For African American and American Indian/Native Alaskan students in remote rural schools, the percentages are even higher. Eighty-seven percent (87%) of African American and 79% of American Indian/Native Alaskan students attend a moderate to high poverty remote rural school, compared to 78% and 62%, respectively, in cities. In fact, more than three-quarters of African American students and nearly half of American Indian/Native Alaskan students attend remote rural schools where more than 75% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Students in remote rural schools earn, on average, lower scores on the NAEP than students in almost all other locales, except cities.

These statistics make it clear that there are needs in these remote rural schools that are getting very little national response, or even attention.
But the NCES report also makes clear that there are important strengths in these schools as well:

The averaged freshman graduation rate for students in remote rural schools is equivalent to the suburban rate and higher than all other locales.

Despite high rates of poverty, students in remote rural schools scored higher than students in cities on most of the tests in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Rural students scored relatively well on the NAEP science tests, generally outpacing towns and cities and equaling suburbs, with remote rural students scoring at levels similar to other rural students in the 8th and 12th grades.

Remote rural schools are smaller, on average, than all other schools. This structure offers more possibilities for individual attention and for student and parent participation.
Within the averaged rural data, there is some interesting and important information. For example:

Rural teachers report fewer discipline problems of all kinds and express more satisfaction with teaching conditions than teachers in other locales.

Rural schools, on average, have lower student to teacher ratios and lower ratios of students to instructional computers with internet access than other locales.Rural teachers earn less than teachers in other locales, a circumstance that has been well-documented in a number of sources, including "The Competitive Disadvantage: Teacher Pay in Rural America."

One of the more troubling aspects of the report is what it shows about college participation and access for rural students. Here again, the data is averaged across all rural schools, so students in remote rural schools are likely to face even greater challenges:
College enrollment is lower in rural areas than in all other locales for both 18-24 year olds and for 25-29 year olds. Rural adults are also less likely than adults in other locales to take work-related courses or university credential programs.
The percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree is lower in rural areas than nationally.
Rural parents are less likely than parents in all other locales to indicate that they expect their children to attain a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Rural high schools are less likely to offer students access to college-level/college credit classes. Rural schools offer dual enrollment courses (courses than carry both high school and college credit and are usually offered in conjunction with community colleges) at about the same rate as cities, but at lower rates than towns and suburbs.
Further, rural schools are less likely than schools in all other locales to offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes, which provide students who take the course and pass an exam the opportunity to earn college credit for the course. What’s also worth noting is that cities and suburbs are more likely to offer AP classes than dual enrollment classes, compounding the gap for rural students.
This gap across rural areas in students’ access to and participation in college suggests something of the challenge that distance poses. Even in “fringe” rural areas, students live further from colleges and often have little or no direct access to and experience with them.
These colleges, in turn, are often less likely to seek or form partnerships with rural schools to offer college level classes or to provide professional development for teachers that is targeted to the needs of smaller and more distant schools.

As the overall economy continues to drain resources out of most rural communities, particularly those that are not adjacent to metropolitan areas, rural people who earn college degrees are likely to migrate to urban areas for employment, leaving rural communities with fewer people who can help young adults make the transition to college.

The information in Status of Education in Rural America helps expose a real need for national policies and resources targeted to the poorest and most remote rural schools. It also helps to point up the need for policies and programs that provide rural young people and their families with better access and connections to colleges and the opportunities offered through them.

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