Rural schools—that is, schools that are geographically located out in the countryside and away from major cities or suburbs—are often confronted with issues that are unique to their situation. The essay will begin with a general overview of rural schools within America. After this, it will consider the demographic data regarding rural schools. Then, the essay will turn to problems with academic achievement that surround rural schools. Finally, the essay will reflect on what can be done in order to improve the general quality of education that is provided by rural schools.
To start with, then, the concept of the rural school is generally defined in contrast to the concept of the urban school. The rural school is essentially a school that is not located in a major urban complex or its outlying suburban areas. Such rural schools serve a large number of students. As Hill has written: "Most readers would be surprised to learn, as I was, that more children—nearly 6.5 million—attend schools in remote rural areas and small towns than in the 20 largest urban school districts combined. But while some rural students score a little better on tests than their counterparts in big-city schools, they are less likely than urban students to enroll in college" (paragraph 2). So, as soon as one becomes aware of the fact that rural schools serve a very large number of American students, the next thing that one becomes aware of is the fact that there are disparities inherent in the experience of rural students versus the experience of urban students.
In general, there would seem to be a kind of inherent bias against rural schools built into most discussion regarding rural schools, due to the simple fact that most people in this day and age live in urban centers or suburbs, with the result that schools in such areas are taken as the default or normative school when discussing education, often at the expense of the unique status and experience of rural schools. For example, when one formulates a social policy for education at the political level, most legislators and stakeholders are probably keeping urban and suburban schools in mind, since this would likely be reflective of their own experience as well as the experience of most people engaged with society at that sort of level. However, this neglects the basic fact that the issues facing rural schools may be considerably different from the issues facing other schools, as well as the fact that what may well be very good for other schools may not be good at all for rural schools.
These are a few of the facts that the National Center for Education Statistics has delineated regarding the demographics of rural schools: "In 2003-04, over half of all operating school districts and one-third of all public schools were in rural areas; yet only one-fifth of all public school students were enrolled in rural schools;" and "the percentage of White public school students in rural areas was larger than that in any other locale" (points 1 and 3). This suggests a picture in which White families who have lived in their rural areas for generations send their children to the public schools in the areas, and the schools themselves are very small (which would explain the first point regarding the relatively small number of students compared to the relatively large number of operating schools). Moreover, one could expect that these rural students may be somewhat unlikely to leave their communities, thereby perpetuating the generational cycle.
Considering the demographics of students in rural schools, one of the most important points that emerges consists of the unlikelihood of the students from these schools going to college, relative to students from urban or suburban schools. As Martin has written: "Compared to students in urban or suburban schools, students in rural areas and small towns are less likely to attend college. Part of this is because of financial concerns. In Fentress County [rural Tennessee], close to 40 percent of children live in poverty" (paragraph 4). This can make it difficult for students from rural schools to even consider going to college, both because of the unavailability of resources as well as because of the demands for work that their families may make on them in order to get on with the business of survival. This matter may also be compounded by the issue of academic achievement in rural schools, which will be discussed below.
Academic achievement at rural schools is very problematic relative to the same at urban and suburban schools. One of the key issues has to do with staffing. As Smarick has written, a key issue here has to do with "recruiting and retaining teachers" (paragraph 7). Essentially, talented and committed teachers may not with to live in what they perceive to be the middle of nowhere; rather, they may naturally prefer to live in wealthier and/more interesting areas of the nation. Moreover, even if teachers do make it to rural schools, they may find that the culture of rural areas is not conducive to the kind of excellence that they may wish to achieve. For example, Smarck has also reported that low levels of parental involvement is also a problem facing rural schools. In this context, it could be suggested that many rural schools are in areas that lack a general culture of valuing formal education, which can make it difficult to sustain a culture of academic achievement within the schools themselves.
Moreover, there is something important to be said here regarding the issue of self-concept or self-esteem among the students of rural schools themselves. As Bacon has indicated, many students at rural schools do not expect high academic achievement from themselves; and this partly because of the expectations that others have of them, as well as their own expectations formed on the basis of their own family histories. If a student, for example, comes from a family in which no one from a previous generation has ever gone to college and the parents do not expect the student's educational fate to be any different, it would be downright unreasonable to expect that student to somehow become intrinsically motivated to become the first member of his family to go to college. Of course, an inspiring teacher could make all the difference; but the evidence indicates that such students often prefer to avoid rural schools, for the precise reason that they may not be adequately valued at such places.
This perhaps helps explain what is meant by the statement that the issues surrounding rural schools are different from the issues surrounding other schools: this statement is essentially a sociological one in nature. For a student from a suburban school whose family has gone to college for generations, the natural expectation will be that he will go to college as well; and moreover, he will consistently encounter teachers who expect this from him. The kind of uphill struggle facing a typical student from a rural school may thus not even occur to the student of a suburban school or his parents. And if public policy is developed using the urban or suburban school as a kind of default model, then those policies may almost entirely neglect the specific struggles facing the students of rural schools, including the struggles of low staffing and low expectations—issues that may not even occur to students who go to other schools. In this context, it would become necessary to wonder about how to create a culture of academic achievement for rural schools.
From the discussion conducted above, a key point that must be understood here is that the plight of rural schools is reflective of the plight of rural life more generally; that is, the issue cannot be understood without taking a broader sociological perspective on the matter. As Ayers has written: "Many rural areas of the country contain concentrated poverty . . . Rural schools face particular difficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers and principals. Rural schools continue to lag behind others in Internet access, and rural high schools are not able to provide more advanced coursework such as AP and IB classes in the way more urban and suburban areas do" (paragraph 4). In short, there are serious difficulties regarding economics, infrastructure, and resources that make it difficult for students from rural schools to attain high levels of academic achievement. It would be absurd to suggest that the whole issue consists of the students themselves. Rather, the problem is clearly a structural one in its basic nature.
On the other hand, however, it also cannot be forgotten that the students' expectations of themselves is in fact a crucial factor informing their academic achievement as well. But when making this point, one must simultaneously remember that for children and adolescents, most self-expectation is informed by the expectations that respected others have of them—and that within an environment and culture in which parents, teachers, and other respected adults do not exhibit high expectations for students, it would be problematic to expect the students to internalize such expectations for themselves. In short, although people must be held responsible for the self-concepts that they have of themselves, it is also the case that the vast majority of children and adolescents need strong role models, and that they cannot be personally faulted for the absence of such role models. In short, the situation of students in rural schools emerges as a somewhat tragic one.
In this context, it is worth quoting the following true story that Wang has narrated regarding a student named Raymond: "On stifling-hot days, he had a 10-minute walk down a rutted dirt path to the main road, where he caught the school bus. On days when the rain poured down, the ruts in the dirt path converged into an insurmountable river. Even if Raymond could have forded the river, odds were good that the bus wouldn't make it down the main road anyway" (paragraph 1). This quote clearly has a sad and pathetic cadence to it, and this perfectly reflects the plight of students in rural schools. Essentially, the question is: what could these students possibly do for themselves, when the odds of the culture and environment are so obviously stacked against them? It would seem that in order to address the problems of rural school particular, it would be necessary to address the problems of rural life in general, especially when it comes to issues of culture and infrastructure. This is clearly a tall order, and exploring exactly how the issues can be solved would fall beyond the scope of the present essay.
In summary, the present essay has consisted of a discussion of the issues surrounding rural schools. The essay began with an overview of rural schools, proceeded to a consideration of the demographics of rural schools, turned to a discussion of academic achievement in such schools, and finally reflected on the sociological factors that make it very difficult for students in rural schools to achieve a high level of success. From this discussion, the perspective that emerges is essentially a tragic one, according to which no matter how much a given student in a rural school may want to succeed at a high level, the odds are stacked against him by cultural and environmental factors that students at other schools will never have to experience. The only suggestion that can be made here is that efforts must be taken in order to remedy these disparities at both the objective and subjective levels.
Ayers, Jeremy. "Make Rural Schools a Priority." Center for American Progress, 4 Aug. 2011. Web. 26 Aug. 2016. < https://www.americanprogress.org/ issues/education/report/2011/08/04/10216/make-rural-schools-a-priority/>.
Bacon, La Shawn Catrice. "Academic Self-Concept and Academic Achievement of African American students transitioning from Urban to Rural Schools." University of Iowa, 2011. Web. 26 Aug. 2016. <http://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2582&context=etd>.
Hill, Paul T. "Taking a Closer Look at Rural Schools." Education Week. 5 Feb. 2014. Web. 26 Aug. 2016. <http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/02/05/20hill.h33.html>.
Martin, Rachel. "Salvaging Education in Rural America." The Atlantic. 5 Jan. 2016. Web. 26 Aug. 2016. <http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/01/americas-rural- schools/422586/>.
National Center for Education Statistics. "Status of Education in Rural America." Author, n.d. Web. 26 Aug. 2016. <https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2007/ruraled/hl_demographics.asp>.
Smarick, Andy. "The Challenges Facing Struggling Rural Schools." Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 8 Apr. 2014. Web. 26 Aug. 2016. <https://edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-daily/flypaper/the-challenges-facing-struggling-rural-schools>.
Wang, April Bo. "The Forgotten Struggle of Rural Schools." Education Week. 12 Nov. 2014. Web. 26 Aug. 2016. <http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/11/12/12wang.h34.html>.