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Fall 2008

Boon, Not Boondock

With enrollment in rural schools on the rise, will education in small-town America finally get the attention it deserves?

rural illustrationDoctoral candidate Sky Marietta, Ed.M.'08, was born and raised deep in the mountains of Kentucky and North Carolina -- "in the holler," as they say in Appalachia. She attended rural public schools all her life, including one so far from her home that, when she was in third through fifth grades, she endured a two-hour bus ride each way. Her high school offered more home economics classes than math and science courses combined. When she matriculated at Yale University a decade ago, she was the first person from her county to go to an Ivy League university; indeed, only 20 percent of her high school class went on to college at all.

When she graduated Yale in 2003, Marietta joined Teach For America and was assigned to a tiny school in the Navajo Nation in New Mexico in an area so remote that "we used to joke the nearest Starbucks was 190 miles away," she recalls. Among her class of 21 students, only three lived in homes with indoor plumbing; many lived in dirt-floored, one-room houses. Marietta quickly recognized that many of the issues she was facing as a teacher in rural New Mexico were the same ones she had experienced as a girl growing up in the backwoods of Appalachia. The positives were abundant: great pride among families in their children; a close-knit, supportive community; respect for teachers; a veneration of the school itself as a cultural and social center. But the challenges were similar, too. Poverty. Scant access to services. Long commutes and other transportation problems. These are the pressing and longstanding problems for rural education, along with others: the controversial trend toward consolidating schools, low pay for teachers, and, recently, the enormous influx of minority and immigrant students into previously homogenous student populations.

The overarching issue, Marietta realized, was that peculiar concerns of rural schools have been largely ignored by educators, overshadowed almost entirely by attention to urban and suburban concerns. Interest in rural education, let alone research dollars to understand and address its challenges, has been nearly nonexistent but for a few visionaries who often felt like lone and neglected voices. As a teacher in New Mexico, Marietta couldn't locate much guidance to help her address the needs of her students, and so, after earning a master's degree, she enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to try to close that gap.

Rachel Tompkins, Ed.D.'75, president of the Rural School and Community Trust and one of the nation's experts on rural education, understands Marietta's frustration. Tompkins, too, is a daughter of Appalachia and learned to read on cereal boxes in her family's kitchen in West Virginia before she began formal schooling in the second grade in a one-classroom schoolhouse. She has dedicated her career to the concerns of low income students and the effects of poverty on children. Today, as president of the trust, based in Arlington, Va., Tompkins usually finds herself the token rural education representative among her professional colleagues.

"I'm often the only person who knows a thing about rural America in a room with 40 people," says Tompkins. At a recent series of meetings in Washington, D.C., to address pay systems for teachers, fellow educators discussed urban pay scales. "Each one is passionate about something they're doing in Denver or Minnesota or San Francisco or New York," she says. But when it came her turn to talk, her colleagues appeared puzzled. Tompkins noted that the concerns of rural teachers are even more pressing, since they make 86 cents on the dollar compared to city teachers. "When I raised the fundamental issues about rural teachers' salaries, it's like, 'Oh, okay, she's said her piece, now let's move on,'" she says.

Attention to rural education is long overdue, but it's not simply a matter of giving a long-ignored population a nod of recognition. Contrary to widespread perception, rural education today is no longer on the decline. Due in large part to the influx of immigrant families from a wide variety of nations, rural education is a rapid-growth industry, even as student numbers in urban and suburban schools are declining. Between the years 2002-03 and 2004-05, enrollment in schools in suburban and urban communities of more than 2,500 people decreased by more than 738,000 students, or 2 percent. In the same period, rural school enrollment increased by more than 1.3 million students, or 15 percent, according to Why Rural Matters 2007: The Realities of Rural Education Growth, the latest in a series of biennial reports from Tompkins' Rural School and Community Trust. With this enormous shift in demographics, the cutting-edge work of rural educators is coming not a moment too soon.

Importantly, the growth of immigrant populations in small-town America is presenting rural communities and institutions with challenges they couldn't have imagined even 10 years ago. In that three-year period, there was a 55 percent increase in minority students in rural schools, with some states experiencing an astonishing 100 percent increase. For rural schools, many of which for generations had virtually no ethnic, religious, or racial diversity, there is no framework for absorbing these newcomers.

And the overall numbers aren't insignificant. Nearly 10 million children attend schools in rural places, and there are more than 7,600 school districts in the United States where more than half of students attend rural schools. More than 56 percent of these students are minority students. "That's not the rural America most people know or think about," says Tompkins. "To them, rural is about a big ol' farm on a thousand-acre plot out there in the Midwest somewhere. That's rural America too."

And so what is the accurate portrait of rural education today? Where is rural education headed? What responses are needed to create the best learning environments possible?

To start, it's important to note what rural schools are not -- namely, urban or suburban schools, only set in remote locations. Yet the vast majority of resources in the U.S. educational system address urban or suburban schools and ignore the unique concerns of rural institutions. While rural and urban schools share certain challenges, including the devastating effects of poverty on school children, there are myriad other problems specific to rural schools, which is why applying an urban model and urban solutions to rural schools simply doesn't work.

"Teaching in rural areas, you find a lot of the same challenges that you see in a lot of urban areas, but also some very, very different aspects," says Mara Tieken, Ed.M.'06, a current doctoral student working on research in U.S. rural areas, particularly the rural South, and an editor of the Harvard Education Review. "I found a lot of frustration among teachers and administrators about the lack of attention to rural education."


rural_illustration2.jpgTake the common misconception that rural schools, no matter where they are located, are basically the same. To the contrary, they can vary greatly, and many of their concerns and challenges are extremely place-specific. "Rural education is so context-dependent," says Tieken, who is researching schools in Arkansas and Mississippi, and has also taught in rural areas of Vermont and Tennessee. "A school in the Mississippi Delta is not going to look like a school in rural Montana." In the West, rural schools have been primarily white until the recent influx of immigrants. But in the Mississippi Delta, many rural schools are almost exclusively African American due to white flight to private schools in the wake of desegregation in the 1960s. Yet, she notes, the school boards in the Delta continue to be dominated by whites, so there is often a disconnect between the leadership and the populations they serve. "There often is still an all-white school board or a white superintendent," Tieken says. "What happens is that many times, the school system is not as accountable to the students and parents being served." In her field work in Mississippi, Tieken says she has heard "horrific stories about the kinds of discipline happening and policies not being enforced;" for example, parents not being allowed into the school when they should be, or administrators ignoring required procedures in referring children to special education. "Or the awful story I heard, where kids had to go to the office if they needed to use the bathroom and had to ask for a certain number of toilet paper squares, or where the hall pass was a toilet seat a kid has to wear around [his or her] neck."

Tieken is not suggesting that these kinds of abuses don't occur in urban schools. The difference, she says, is accessibility. "People can get [to] urban schools more easily, so if you hear about it you can investigate it more easily, where in rural areas you often can't."

Another distinction is that city schools have long experience in dealing with new immigrant populations and students for whom English is not their native language. By contrast, rural schools have been, until recently, quite homogenous, just as the communities in which they are located often rely on a single industry (which in itself causes enormous problems, such as when factories close and there are no alternative jobs).

"Rural schools have often been some of the most racially segregated in the country," says Donna San Antonio, C.A.S.'95, Ed.M.'96, Ed.D.'01, who founded and heads a group in New Hampshire called the Appalachian Mountain Teen Project, which provides academic, social, vocational, and emotional support to at-risk youth. "What's happening now, all over the country, is an increasing racial, linguistic, and religious diversity" as high numbers of immigrant families settle into small rural communities.

In the past few years, San Antonio says, Laconia, N.H., a town of 15,000, has suddenly absorbed immigrants from 16 countries, including Bosnia, Sudan, and, most recently, Iraq. Although New Hampshire is experiencing the highest rate of increasing diversity in the United States, a similar seismic shift is occurring throughout the northern rural states, including in Montana, North Dakota, and Washington, she says. Many rural schools simply don't have teachers who speak the native languages of these new arrivals, not even teachers who speak Spanish.

"Schools and healthcare providers are trying to figure out how to meet the needs of an increasing population of students who are learning English as a second language and trying to make their way in very different culture after often having experienced trauma because of living in refugee camps and witnessing war and losing family members," says San Antonio, whose program is working with schools to implement the Voice of Love and Freedom Curriculum. The curriculum is helping rural schools and students never before exposed to different cultures "sort of recalibrate their systems so they can be welcoming environments for students from diverse backgrounds."

Similarly, rural schools are struggling to provide other kinds of services to specialized populations, including students needing special education. "In urban areas, although they may not trickle down to individual students, special services are much more prevalent and common, at least at the district level. They're better equipped to provide a variety of services," says Elizabeth Marcell, Ed.M.'07, who just completed her third year as a doctoral student and is focusing on special education in rural schools, particularly as it affects low-income Latino and African American students. In rural districts, by contrast, "kids have to travel great distances to get services and that's just prohibitive for some kids," adds Marcell, who has worked for Teach For America in both the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and in New Orleans. "Local schools may be responsible for meeting the needs of a wide variety of disabilities without a lot of support."

Nor do rural communities have the same range of supplemental services available outside of schools, such as occupational or physical therapy, or support for children with disabilities on the autism spectrum. "Low-income urban schools may not have these services, but they exist in the community," San Antonio says. For rural kids, the only way to access such specialized services may be to travel far. That raises another issue specific to rural education: the problem of transportation, which in recent months has reached crisis levels given the soaring cost of gasoline. As a result, rural students, unlike urban kids, can't get exposure to broadening experiences including such important things as visiting college campuses or even interacting with adults with college degrees. Rural schools have the lowest rates of sending students to college and the highest dropout rates from college. "It's about exposure and opportunity," San Antonio says.

Other problems particular to rural schools include the pay differential for teachers, a gap that discourages many from heading to rural areas. The cost of living difference, touted as a justification, is misleading, Tompkins notes, because the index is based on the cost of housing, but many homes in rural areas are substandard. This financial disadvantage means that teacher turnover is "huge," she says.

Another dramatic problem facing rural education is the issue of consolidation of schools. From Arkansas to West Virginia to Maine, small rural schools are closing in order to merge into regional schools. The assumption is that closing small schools and busing students to regional schools not only presents efficiencies of scale and cost-savings, but also provides more opportunities, including a broader curriculum with more Advanced Placement classes, for example. But many rural educators see consolidation as a disaster: Since schools are often the heart of small communities, there are devastating social implications when they are closed, including that parents and town leaders lose control and interest. Transportation becomes an enormous hurdle, literally removing access to schools, and students are forced to travel great distances to get to school. They can't attend extracurricular activities and sports, nor can their parents easily support them.

While at the Ed School, Tompkins studied the issue of consolidation and started off as a proponent. But, in 1972, after evaluating the data, she published a critical paper, Economy, Efficiency, Equality: The Myths of Rural School Consolidation (later expanded into a book cowritten with colleagues). Since then, her opposition has only grown.

"My research still holds up," says Tompkins. "Bigger is not better, smaller is not cheaper, and rural people are not too dumb to run their schools. Those are the three myths that undergird school consolidation. It hasn't saved a lot of money; it just hasn't lived up to its billing." She adds, "I do think people believe there are there are efficiencies and economies, but nobody goes in to look afterward to figure out, were there any savings? There's almost no research on that." Perhaps the best data, she says, comes from a series of articles published in 2002 in the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, which found that despite the state spending $1 billion on consolidation and closing more than 300 schools since 1990, no hard savings were achieved, there were more administrators than before, and the promise of more and better courses was never met.

The push for rural consolidation is all the stranger given the movement in urban areas toward smaller schools, including charter schools, so that classroom sizes are smaller and there is more accountability among students, parents, and administrators. "Our general view is, the more adults you have in positions of influence like school boards and planning committees, the more adults engaged in learning about and understanding public education, the better off you are," says Tompkins. "And the centralizing kinds of strategies really undermine the community support for learning."

Adds Tieken, "Schools are very much a part of the identity, the meeting place, the heart and soul of a community. If you ask them, 'What if you lose your school?' they say, 'We lose our identity.'" Some of this concern is economically related, in that the loss of a school can cause people to move and businesses to shut down.

Will these issues in rural education begin to get the attention that the growing demographics demand? Tieken, Marietta, and Marcell say rural education is still a small subset of the education world although they feel supported in their work at Harvard. In 2004, Tieken notes, the University of North Carolina established the National Research Center on Rural Education Support, to assist teaching and learning in rural schools.

Still, Tieken says, "I think the rural education research community is pretty small nationwide. It's something you commonly hear in that community: There's not enough focus and attention given to rural education."

-- Elaine McArdle is a writer in Cambridge. Her book, The Migraine Brain: Your Breakthrough Guide to Fewer Headaches, Better Health, coauthored with Harvard neurologist Carolyn Bernstein, will be published in September.