The Great Divide

Rural schools are not immune to our nation’s achievement gap

Inequalities in American public schools indicate one of our nation’s greatest failings. The massively disparate educational opportunities available to children based on the socioeconomic status of their families is a tragedy so familiar and ingrained that talk of it risks seeming banal, and the fact that educational inequality falls largely down racial lines further perpetuates the sordid history of race in the United States. To say that the achievement gap is a persistent and consistent record of misunderstanding and prejudice is an understatement.

Beyond the familiar story of educational inequality in the United States, however, lies an additional, suppressed narrative. Although the media have paid much attention to the problems inherent to American public education since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, the public eye has been largely turned on the difficulties and injustices plaguing the country’s underfunded urban school districts. Rural public education, however, poses its own unique set of challenges—and, at the risk of sounding trite, opportunities. In just over three months, I’ll begin teaching in the Mississippi Delta, and even attempting to imagine what my “experience” will be seems reductive and simplistic. While we recognize the complexities of urban life, it is tempting to incorrectly essentialize and romanticize the American “rural experience.”

Nevertheless, it is possible (even for an underexposed product of suburban schools such as myself) to comprehend some of the common implications of shared issues facing rural schools. The number of children in American public rural schools is not insignificant: According to a 2007 study presented by the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2003-2004, more than half of all U.S. public-school districts were rural, and these districts educated one-fifth of all public-school students. The resources available to rural populations shape education in rural areas: in 2004, children in rural schools were less likely to have parents who had completed some form of post-secondary education than children in other areas.

The 2007 study reported that, in 2002-2003, a mere 69 percent of rural, public -high-school students attended schools offering Advanced Placement courses, compared to 93 percent of public-high-school students in cities and 96 percent in suburbs. Rural public schools historically have also had fewer instructional computers with Internet access per capita and lower-paid teachers (even after adjusting for the lower cost of living in rural areas). On the other hand, expenditures per student have tended to be higher, and student-teacher ratios lower, in rural areas compared to cities and suburbs. Like elsewhere in the United States, rural public education is failing its students, but perhaps less so. On the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading assessment, only a third of 12th-grade public-school students in rural areas scored at or above proficient, consistent with the national average. Rural dropout rates are higher than in the suburbs and lower than in cities.

On one hand, the success of public education in any setting is largely the result of quantitative factors that influence schools across regions. Discrepancies in these values manifest themselves in educational inequalities and, over time, have contributed largely to the achievement gap the United States struggles to overcome today. Yet less tangible factors also fundamentally determine the trajectory of a child’s education and a school’s ability to provide effective and comprehensive instruction. These components differ significantly in rural and urban environments in both their nature and the unique challenges and opportunities they present: Ignoring these differences results in profound disadvantages for children educated in rural public schools.

Under No Child Left Behind’s “highly qualified teacher” provision, a teacher is considered highly qualified if he or she holds a bachelor’s degree and a teaching license and demonstrates knowledge in every subject in which he or she teaches. While no rational person could disagree with the fact that all children deserve to be taught by “highly qualified” professionals, the supposed uncontroversial nature of the provision is undercut by the difficulty of evaluating intangible factors that determine whether a teacher is highly qualified.

The neutrality of the provision’s assumptions “are especially problematic in rural schools,” Karen Eppley argues in the 2009 Journal of Research in Rural Education. While logistical challenges of rural schooling make the provision problematic in rural areas to begin with, Eppley argues that greater issues result from external, homogenous determinations of teacher quality. A teacher who is highly qualified to teach in Chicago, for example, might lack sensitivity to issues facing rural children, rendering him qualified on paper but not in action. Since rural students form the minority, the provision deprives rural communities of the opportunity to define teacher quality in a rural framework.

This question is just one of many that characterize the problematic relationship between rural, suburban, and urban schools in terms of policy and public perception of a national crisis in education. In evaluating the current state of education in the United States and moving forward with teacher, student, and school accountability, it is crucial that policymakers and the public recognize the unique obstacles posed by rural and urban environments that hinder American children’s ability to obtain an exceptional education.

Emma M. Lind ’09, a former Crimson editorial chair, is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.