America’s Rural Schools and Communities

What if I told you there were millions of American boys and girls living in communities where half of students are low-income, just one in five adults has earned a bachelor’s degree, and only 27 percent of high school graduates go on to college?

What if I told you these students are more likely than their peers in any other geographic area to live in poverty?

Most of you would probably gather that I’m talking about our inner cities.


These statistics describe rural America.

Rural public schools enroll eleven million children, fully a quarter of students nationwide. Yet, sadly, the challenges faced by rural educators and their students have received scant attention from national education leaders.

My organization, Bellwether Education Partners, is trying to help solve this problem.

With generous financial support from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation (based in Boise, Idaho) we are helping to launch a new two-year initiative, Rural Opportunities Consortium Idaho (ROCI), to study the challenges facing and the opportunities available to rural communities and their schools.

Bellwether will produce a series of papers and policy briefs on subjects like rural charter schooling and technology. We’ll also provide ongoing advice and support to the foundation, its partners, and others engaged in this issue. Though we’ll dedicate much of our energy to the particular circumstances and needs of Idaho, the project aspires to inform the entire field of rural schooling.

Because this subject is so deserving of in-depth study, ROCI also includes a top-flight task force of academics and policy experts chaired by the exemplary Paul Hill, research professor at the University of Washington Bothell and founder of the Center for Reinventing Public Education. Each member of the task force will conduct research on a specific issue associated with rural education—from the effects of migration patterns and online learning to national politics and higher education access. The membership is impressive:

*Bryan Hassel, Public Impact
*Edward Kissam, Werner Kohnstamm Family Fund
*Paul Lewin, University of Idaho
*Daniel Player, University of Virginia
*Andrew Rotherham, Bellwether Education Partners
*Marguerite Roza, Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University
*Terry Ryan, Idaho Charter School Network
*Kai Shafft, Pennsylvania State University

We’re all excited by this project, but it will not be easy work.

In a recent speech, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, presumably trying to buck up the rural schools community, described some of its recent successes, but he framed his talk as an us-against-them proposition. This unfortunately reinforced the widely held view that rural schools are different, are beleaguered, are on the outside.

Because they’ve received little national attention and seem to be The Other of primary and secondary schooling, our field has remarkably little visibility into the day-to-day issues facing rural schools, much less a clear understanding of what policies and practices are likeliest to help them improve.

Another part of the problem is that rural communities defy generalization. As William O’Hara from the Carsey Institute points out, they include “rural hollows in the Appalachian Mountains, former sharecroppers’ shacks in the Mississippi Delta, desolate Indian reservations on the Great Plains, and emerging colonia along the Rio Grande.”

This, in turn, causes a serious definition problem. Though rural communities occupy 72 percent of the landmass of the United States, the Census Bureau categorizes them in three distinct groups: “fringe,” “distant,” and “remote.” Within these categories are vastly different demographic profiles, poverty-rates, and academic-achievement levels, but the data is often consolidated, masking the nature and severity of the challenges.

Yet another problem is perspective. Most policy types and major news outlets are based in metropolitan area. For them, poverty, community challenges, and educational troubles probably seem to be a uniquely urban phenomenon.

So we have lots of digging to do and probably even more proselytizing.

The good news is that, well, there is good news. For example, Hamblen County Schools in eastern Tennessee, where 62 percent of students are low income and 16 percent are English language learners, has won the National Blue Ribbon recognition for two consecutive years.

The Northeast Leadership Academy at North Carolina State University is training school leaders to take on the particular challenges of rural, high-poverty schools.

While many rural schools have trouble recruiting, developing, and retaining teachers, a number have leveraged technology to provide high-quality mentorship and professional development for educators.

Over the next two years, we expect to find many, many more good news stories, and we hope to unearth some valuable research findings and produce some meaningful recommendations.

In the meantime, here’s the press release and the Ed Week blurb.

To stay posted on all things ROCI, visit and follow @ROCIdaho on Twitter.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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