It would be impossible to consider strategies for improving rural education without examining the pressing challenges of rural life. These vary widely by community, yet important trends emerge. Texas, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, Louisiana, and Alabama include 66 of the nation's 100 poorest counties. The historically poor regions of Appalachia and the Deep South remain so, with few catalysts to stimulate meaningful economic growth. Meanwhile, areas in the Mountain West have proven adept at leveraging high-speed Internet access and lifestyle perks to lure well-educated families and late-career professionals into permanent settlement. Yet even within the comparatively wealthy state of Colorado, the condition of rural life varies. Colorado's Hinsdale County, population 843, and Costilla County, population 3,524, have per capita incomes of $43,293 and $16,525, respectively, despite their proximity to one another. Most of America's landmass is to some degree rural (see Figure 1), and about one-fifth of American students live in rural regions.
Overall, one in four rural children live in poverty, and of the 50 U.S. counties with the highest child-poverty rates, 48 are rural. Drug usage abounds. In the mid-2000s, rural 8th graders were 59 percent more likely than peers in large cities to use methamphetamines and 104 percent more likely to use any amphetamine, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Tragically, mental health issues complicate the process of educating rural students. Individuals between 10 and 24 years of age living in rural areas are twice as likely to kill themselves as their urban peers. This may be symptomatic of the persistence of serious depression in rural America, which occurs nearly 20 percent more frequently than in urban areas. Figure 2 shows that the achievement of rural students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) gets worse the farther from a population center they live.
Such complex and socially entrenched ills require a proportionate educational response. Owing to a number of factors, such a response rarely occurs. Onerous policies and inadequate access to resources, among other constraints, hamper improvement of rural education. Most federal and state education policies ignore rural America's many natural advantages and force rural school districts to operate in ways similar to those in urban centers. Various types of policies, including compliance and reporting requirements, teacher certification and evaluation schemes, funding formulas and grants, and the broader category of "innovation killers," disadvantage rural schools in particular.
In the post-No Child Left Behind world, reporting and compliance are significant components of a district's work product and require substantial allocation of resources. Large urban districts may have an array of staffers and consultants to focus on compliance reporting and complete lengthy grant applications. Rural administrators often shoulder these burdens themselves, in addition to tackling numerous pressing tasks. A survey of "every report and indicator that districts are required" to produce in Colorado, for example, generated a "list [that] goes on for 59 pages. Very often, the same information is requested multiple times."
Teacher recruitment and certification in rural communities is a struggle...
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