The U.S. Census Bureau defines rural areas as communities with fewer than 2,500 inhabitants or fewer than 1,000 inhabitants per square mile. The government's term for a rural area is non-metropolitan. Furthermore, the common, historically entrenched idyllic images of rural areas exemplify a socially constructed understanding (Short, 2006; U.S. Department of Agriculture, ...
The U.S. Census Bureau defines rural areas as communities with fewer than 2,500 inhabitants or fewer than 1,000 inhabitants per square mile. The government's term for a rural area is non-metropolitan. Furthermore, the common, historically entrenched idyllic images of rural areas exemplify a socially constructed understanding (Short, 2006; U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2007). Thus, perceptions of rural are multiple and shifting.
One of the biggest problems facing rural education is the lack of consensus around this term. Its conceptual evasiveness may "yield different portrayals of rural students, which can affect educational policies and practices" (Arnold, Biscoe, Farmer, Robertston, & Shapley, 2007).
Another basic problem that students of rural education must face is the dominance of negative attitudes toward rural people and places. The term rural is built on rich images, although many of them are based on negative stereotypes. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary provides references from the 16th and 17th centuries for the unflattering characterization of a rural person as a bumpkin. Elementary social studies texts teach children that urban means "skyscrapers and people prancing around in fur coats," while rural means "barns and girls with pigtails." Thus rural schools have image problems because of this long-standing negative attitude, which persists despite the present heightened awareness of and sensitivity to cultural differences.
Demographic, economic and educational trends also pose challenges to rural education. Rural schools are disadvantaged by demographics. Movement to urban centers where opportunities for employment are more favorable leaves rural schools with a financial shortfall. A chronic fall in enrollment often results in school consolidation or closure, which has an impact on the lives of rural citizens. It has been found that the proportion of the Americans living in rural regions is decreasing. The proportion of the population that is of working age, between 18 and 64 years old, continues to be higher in metropolitan areas than in rural ones. Meanwhile, researchers report that the older generation is increasing in rural areas. The challenge facing education in rural areas is partly defined by the shifts of these age groups, who will have different perspectives on the importance of education.
Economic factors play a major role in defining the challenges for rural education. Various studies have shown that rural areas have a higher proportion of the "working poor" who are stuck in low-wage, low-benefit jobs. Poverty is more prevalent in both the general and the school-age segments of the rural population than in the metropolitan population. If these tendencies persist, in the future, rural education will occur within communities with higher unemployment, lower median family income and higher rates of poverty than metropolitan areas. Basically this means that more rural students will come from economically impoverished backgrounds, with fewer from homes with a professional background.
Rural schools are more likely than urban schools to be poorly equipped, under-staffed and under-funded (Frisby & Reynolds, 2005). As in many countries school funding is tied to student numbers, declining enrollment exacerbates the deficits in resources allocated to rural education. Another educational challenge for rural schools is the recruiting, retaining, and supporting of teachers. Teacher shortages are characterized by lack of teachers willing to work in rural schools, lack of highly qualified or certified teachers and a lack of teachers representing ethnic minority groups (Frisby & Reynolds, 2005).
According to a survey aimed at identifying the strengths of rural schools, which was carried out at Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, the great majority of the responses to the question about the term rural included images associated with a healthy society. The rural students - with 108 questioned in the survey - indicated that when they considered the concept, they thought of people, nature and the community. When they mentioned rural people in their comments, they emphasized the importance of relationships and how people were related to each other.
In general, in rural areas working populations are shrinking, economies are declining and students are not competing well in college attendance and completion of courses. Additional resources could alleviate many shortages and help support the system against problems that cannot be directly addressed, such as the "outmigration" of many well-educated adults of working age. If rural communities are to survive and successfully combat their problems, they must develop new economies, attract working-age people and redesign schools.