Rural Education: Addressing A Tension Point in the Great American Divide

Diversity and Equity

Rural Education: Addressing A Tension Point in the Great American Divide

By Dilara Sayeed     Jan 12, 2017

Rural Education: Addressing A Tension Point in the Great American Divide

November's election surfaced the angry divide between urban and rural America, and education is one of these tension points.

Ashmore, Illinois is a rural town of 800 residents in central Illinois, the heartland of the United States. Each spring, about three hundred or so pre-K through 12th grade students wrap up the school year, running out into the parks and fields across the community to play. They will watch television, play video games, or go out into the yards. Most of them won’t, however, attend neighborhood learning programs; Ashmore does not have summer school for its students, even the lowest performing ones. This means the potential for summer learning loss is great.

Ashmore is only one example of a rural town where the summer learning loss issue is very real. The Brookings Institute recently stated, “Rural schools are America’s forgotten educational institutions.” Over the last decade, America has focused resources and opportunities in education for urban areas, with little attention to rural poverty and the lack of learning opportunities for poor students in these areas across America. With about one-third of all public elementary and secondary schools in rural communities, there is a need to understand and support the needs of rural schools.

The Harvard Political Review points out that "Publications like Education Week spend much more time discussing urban schools than rural schools. This disparity in media coverage is understandable—the crumbling infrastructure of cities, the poverty and segregation faced by inner-city students, and the presence of a school-to-prison pipeline are all serious problems that demand reforms." Understandable, but not equitable when data shows that rural areas have slightly higher poverty rates than urban areas. The 2014 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey (ACS) states poverty rates are 18% in rural areas compared with 15% in urban areas.

Do city folk not know about rural America’s issues, or do city folk not care?

Why Do We Forget About Rural America?

In our insatiable consumption of media stories on inner-city violence and our fascination of all things culturally urban, such as hip hop and fusion cuisine, rural America’s cultural narrative and social plight is often out of sight, and out-of-mind. Power-holders and influencers live in the big city, and this is where the money and focus has shifted to in the last few decades. We have divested not only from industry and manufacturing in rural America, we have also stopped caring about rural social structures. And during this election, the wrath of rural America against the perceived urban elite has been ferocious.

To begin to heal the political divide, equitable resources will have to be provided to both areas of poverty, urban and rural. We must now face the challenges that rural America encounters every day, one issue at a time. The goals of student achievement, graduation, and college enrollment are universal, but there are differences among urban, rural, and suburban communities that require further exploration and better understanding. Research on issues of rural education has been sparse. Are 21st century skills for today’s students urban-centric or do they apply to rural communities as well? Have high school graduation rates increased in rural counties? Does a college degree lead to financial or professional success for rural young adults as well, and if so, is the rate of rural students attending college increasing?

The Need for Conversation and Technology

First, discussions on educational equity need to include the topic of teachers for the rural poor.

In the way AmeriCorps sends young men and women to serve across the nation, we will need Teach for America to promote and support rural schools-of-need with as much fervor as they do urban schools across the nation. In Illinois, programs such as Teach Plus have expanded to include teachers across the state. Golden Apple has a community-focused teacher pipeline; they recruit 18 to 20 year-old students from urban and rural communities and return them after college to those same communities as teachers. Golden Apple Scholars currently teach at hundreds of schools-of-need in urban and rural areas. Research clearly reveals that initiatives focused on recruitment, development, and retention of quality teachers greatly impact the outcomes of students – investing in rural educators means improving rural student outcomes, just as we know the same applies to urban areas.

Technology is a key to providing equity and access for students in rural America. In a 2015 report, Public Impact authors state, "Technology…offers [rural] school districts, teachers, and students resources and information they might otherwise find impossible to access."

Though there is great potential in technology, when a teacher in a rural community wants to access an empowering math website or livestream an unfolding news story, they often do not have Internet access for these valuable teachable moments. The report goes on to state that “across America, 26 million people do not have access to high-speed Internet. More than 70 percent of those are in rural areas.” State departments of education across the nation, especially in predominantly rural states, can take better advantage of E-Rate and other programs to provide rural schools effective access to technology and the Internet. There are emerging best practices in technology access in rural school districts that can be studied and promoted.

What is possible if we address the needs of rural students? While in Ashmore, IL last summer, I observed what is described as the only summer learning program in the town serving students in K through 5th grades. It is run at a local community center by Golden Apple aspiring teachers. A little boy with bright eyes stopped to chat during our visit and boldly challenged us to guess his favorite flavor of ice cream. Before we could answer, “It’s chocolate,” he proudly chortled, "the most popular flavor," and pointed to a pie graph the students had made showing ice cream flavors with the fraction of students who liked each flavor. We’re talking algebra, fractions, and percentages. At third grade. In low-income rural America.

Acknowledging and understanding the plight of rural families, such as those in Ashmore seeking a better education and stronger career outcomes for their children, is key to bridging the urban/rural American divide. It would mean rural communities become part of the conversation again–and that may be a key step in healing the post-election rift our country is facing.

Dilara Sayeed (@DilaraSayeed) is ‎Chief Education Officer of the Golden Apple Foundation in Chicago

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