Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

The Challenge Ahead for Rural Schools

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

The Challenge Ahead for Rural Schools

Article excerpt

America rural schools are performing as well as their urban counterparts, but much remains to be done if we hope to make our rural education system one of the best in the world.

Arural renaissance in the 1990s has refocused attention on schools and other institutions that shape economic and social outcomes. Perceptions of rural schools and the quality of rural education have moved away from the condescension of an earlier era. Where rural schools were once viewed as out of touch with modern society, suffering from geographic isolation and the inefficiencies of small enrollments and lack of specialization, they are often now praised for some of those same attributes. Mounting statistical and anecdotal evidence of the benefits of small school size and close ties with the local community have led to favorable comparisons of rural schools with their often oversized urban counterparts.

Until recently, the lack of data limited our ability to assess the performance of rural schools and their long-term impacts on students and communities. That has changed. We are now better able to describe general trends in the quality of rural education and identify specific strengths and weaknesses in the entire range of educational institutions and processes that make up the rural education system.

The picture that emerges from the most recent research is that rural schools are generally performing as well as urban schools. A key measure of performance--standardized test scores--demonstrates that rural students in the 1990s can easily hold their own.

But weaknesses remain--partly the inevitable downside of small size and lack of specialization and partly a manifestation of the socioeconomic milieus that distinguish many rural areas from urban areas. For example, compared with urban youth, rural youth are less likely to be academically prepared for and attend college. Thus, rural schools are competitive at grooming workers for jobs in the lower and middle ranges of the skill distribution but have still not caught up with urban, and particularly suburban, school districts in preparing students for advanced education.

The past decade has emerged as a critical moment for many rural labor markets. Computer use in the workplace has accelerated, and rural firms appear to be adopting high-tech production and management methods at about the same rate as urban firms. Rural labor markets are also becoming more like urban ones in the education requirements for local jobs. A key challenge for the rural education system, then, is to preserve its competitive advantages--small scale and close community ties--while it better prepares its students for the higher skill jobs that are coming to rural America.

Rural Readiness

A recent assessment of the rural education and training system conducted by federal and university researchers examined rural workforce preparation and readiness, comparing it against urban conditions and the changing needs of rural employers. The following discussion is based on the findings of that report. [1]

According to the report, rural schools overall score nearly as well as urban schools in a variety of areas, though rural schools occasionally have fewer financial resources. Convergence in standardized test scores--based on a comparison of the performances of rural and urban 17-year-olds in reading, mathematics, and science using the National Assessment of Educational Progress--is an excellent indicator that rural schools have caught up. [2] Since the 1970s, the NAEP has been administered to students at various age levels. It is a rich source of information for education research because it links test scores with information on students and schools, including location.

In 1994, the latest year analyzed in the report, there was no statistical difference nationwide in the test scores of rural and urban students in math or reading, while rural students led slightly in the science component. …

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