Rural Education: Resources Can Make the Difference

Rural Education: Resources Can Make the Difference

The mention of rural America may conjure up nostalgic images of wide-open land, quiet farms, and charming—or desolate—small towns that time has forgotten. Among the millions of children who grow up in non-metro areas, many face a variety of challenges that include high rates of poverty and decreased access to preschool and other enrichment activities.


Crunching the numbers

First, some statistics:

  • Approximately one-quarter of all public-school students in the United States live in rural areas, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)

  • Close to 1 in 4 kids in rural areas live in poverty, per a 2018 report from the nonprofit group Save the Children.

  • Another startling insight from the Save the Children report: “Growing up in poverty is one of the greatest threats to healthy child development.”

The issues facing children and families living in poverty in rural America can seem overwhelming. From higher rates of teen pregnancy and infant mortality to ongoing concerns about access to jobs, medical care, and housing, there are many obstacles for children growing up in rural communities to overcome. Unsurprisingly, this state of affairs carries over into the realm of education.

That said, living in the country does not in any way guarantee that a child will not succeed in school. In fact, data from the NCES—which administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—shows that students in rural communities often do as well as, or better than, their urban peers. In its “Status of Rural Education” report, the NCES shared the following findings:

  • Thirty-five percent of fourth-graders in rural areas achieved a score of "proficient" on the 2011 NAEP reading test—a bit lower than the percentage of students who achieved the same score in suburban districts, but higher than the comparable percentage of those attending school in cities.

  • Similarly, eighth-grade students living in rural areas scored higher on reading than their urban peers and lower than those in suburban schools, a pattern that also held true for math.

  • Students in rural communities graduate high school at a rate higher than that of their counterparts in cities and nearly on par with suburban graduates' rate of 80%.

A lack of resources and visibility

Of course, the numbers form only part of the picture when it comes to rural education, with some observers contending that students who live outside metro areas are often overlooked by policymakers and education experts. In 2017, the Rural School and Community Trust—a nonprofit organization dedicated to highlighting the needs of rural schools and students—released a summary of these issues in its "Why Rural Matters" report

One clear takeaway from the report is as follows:

“Many rural students are largely invisible to state policymakers because they live in states where education policy is dominated by highly visible urban problems.” 

According to the report, rural communities often face a lack of resources and equity, especially when it comes to the availability of early childhood programming, adequate pay for teachers, and funding for schools. For example, although states like South Dakota and Mississippi have high rates of rural children who live in poverty, the report indicated that 6% or fewer of eligible preschool students are actually enrolled.

Since most education and policy experts agree that attending a high-quality preschool or early childhood program can be a key step on the road to future success in school and beyond, these findings are problematic to say the least. 

Indeed, according to a 2018 report by RAND Corporation, which has been studying the impact of early childhood programs for more than two decades:

When the RAND team looked at every child outcome in every study of the 115 programs—more than 3,000 measured outcomes in all—they found that 29% showed convincing evidence of improvement. 

The report went on to observe that high-quality programs in outlying areas like the San Felipe Pueblo in rural New Mexico often have a broad impact on the community as a whole. The San Felipe Pueblo approach involves working directly with families on parenting skills, culturally relevant programming, and overall support for children and their caregivers as part of what a write-up on RAND's website termed a “recognition that social and economic disparities can leave a mark long before grade school.” 

In other words, early intervention and support are essential in rural areas. Although the value of early initiatives is also seen in non-rural settings, families trying to get by in rural areas—especially those that are under-resourced or experiencing deep poverty—often have few options for preschool programs, with some relying solely on providers such as Head Start.

Moreover, as a post on the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health's blog put it, “Many poor rural areas across the United States lack the resources needed to support childhood literacy” beyond preschool. According to the blog, the absence of books and a conveniently located library can hinder the early development of literacy skills in children, which can in turn affect children’s overall health and future opportunities.

Literacy initiatives may help bridge the gap

In response to the situation outlined above, Columbia professor Helen Duch and colleagues developed a community-based literacy program designed to help “community leaders and parents to seed their towns with books.” Rather than waiting for children to access books once they enter school, this creative approach is intended to plant stories and books all over rural communities. The strategies piloted by Duch and her cohort include the stocking of freestanding little libraries, the creation of “StoryWalks” that “display children’s stories along a trail,” and setting up cozy corners for reading or sharing stories.

While Duch’s program is too new to fully review yet, creative and community-based initiatives have found success in other rural communities. For instance, Literacy Intervention in Rural Communities through Collaboration has been working alongside partners such as the Rural School and Community Trust to realize the goal of providing a “comprehensive approach to making improvements that last, designed for the unique assets and needs of rural communities.”

Save the Children also provides literacy-based programming in rural communities through its Early Steps to School Success model. As profiled in a recent US News and World Report opinion piece by Mark Shriver, who helps run the program, this model is noteworthy in that it includes parents—many of whom are struggling to become fluent readers themselves. According to Shriver, access to greater resources helps “ensure equal opportunity for all Americans, including those in rural areas.”

Ultimately, the specifics of individual programs rolled out in rural communities aren't as important as the very presence of the programs themselves. With children's early development on the line, literacy initiatives, preschool programs, and resource availability may make all the difference.

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