It’s been over 60 years since the U.S. Supreme Court declared education “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” In ruling that separate was in fact not equal, Brown v Board of Education forced federal, state and local governments to open public schools to all children in the community. The decision marked a huge victory for the civil rights movement.
In recent years, states have focused much attention on student achievement, but little on how many students ultimately leave school with a diploma in hand. This is changing: Nearly every governor has pledged to develop tougher ways to measure graduation rates at the same time that the No Child Left Behind Act has begun requiring states to hold schools and districts accountable for the results.
Of course, one prerequisite for shepherding more students successfully to graduation means keeping them in school in the first place.
Rural students and the schools they attend receive little attention in either policy or academia. No one seeks to minimize the problems of rural schools. But, at least from a national perspective, the unique needs of rural education are often obscured by their urban and suburban counterparts. However, such a metropolitan-centric attitude neglects a significant portion of the student population.
Approximately one half of school districts, one third of schools, and one fifth of students in the United States are located in rural areas (White House Rural Council 2011; NCES, 2016).
Advocates of school choice often accuse public schools of delivering a “one size fits all” education. Give parents the ability to choose a school, so the argument goes, and competition will produce more variety, parents will find a better match for their child’s unique needs, and better results will follow. The truth is, public education is not the monolith its critics make it out to be.
In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education struck down state laws that required schools to be segregated by race, which then existed in 17 southern states. More than a half-century later, although schools can no longer exclude students on the basis of race, many of our public schools still do not reflect the diversity of our nation.
The composition of our school communities matter, not just for improving student outcomes, but for the stability and prosperity of our nation.
Giving parents and students the ability to choose their school is promoted by supporters as the key to improving American education overall. On the surface, the idea has great appeal. Who, after all, opposes having choices?
Indeed, both Republican and Democratic policymakers have embraced school choice in various forms that range from opening up alternatives within the public school system to providing taxpayer dollars to students to take to private schools. But for all the rhetoric, does school choice live up to its supporters’ claims?
Reporting on public education too often subscribes to the “if it bleeds, it leads” school of journalism. Little wonder the American public grades schools nationwide a “C” or below (PDK/Gallup, 2015). And little wonder the hard-working educators and administrators inside our schools feel their efforts aren’t appreciated.
Survey after survey shows Americans are split, even about the very purpose of education. According to the most recent PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools, 45 percent of respondents felt the main goal of school is to prepare students academically, while about a quarter each said that preparing students to be good citizens and workers was the main goal.
The headlines don’t lie. School districts across the country are struggling to attract and keep good teachers, a situation that seems to be particularly acute in states such as California and Oklahoma. At the same time, public school enrollments are more diverse while the expectations states have set for the next generation of learners are higher.
When we first embarked on the Path Least Taken series, which concludes with this third installment, we did so because we noticed a lot of attention and resources had been poured into making sure students graduated ready to enter college, but not necessarily the workforce.