Out of the Loop: At a Glance

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).

Clearly, the nation cannot afford to overlook the needs and circumstances of its rural schools. By raising awareness of the problems faced by rural schools, our hope is to focus the attention of policymakers and communities on the solutions.  

Rural counties experience more poverty

  • Approximately 64% of rural counties have high rates of child poverty compared to 47% of urban counties (Schaefer, Mattingly, & Johnson 2016). Rural children are also more likely to experience “deep” poverty, a situation in which a child’s family income falls below half of the poverty line. Rural poverty is also more persistent, and can last for generations. (Farrigan 2017).
  • As elsewhere, rural poverty distributes unevenly along racial lines, creating inequalities that disproportionately affect minority children. For example, black, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native children in rural areas are more likely to attend a school experiencing high levels of poverty than are white or Asian children (Schaefer, Mattingly, & Johnson 2016). 

Rural students face academic hurdles

  • For many rural students, taking lower-level courses is not a matter of choice, but a matter of access. The average rural school offers half as many advanced mathematics courses as those in urban areas, and nearly half of rural students attend a school that offers only one to three advanced mathematics courses (Graham & Teague 2011). 

  • While rural students are more likely to graduate from high school compared to their urban peers, they are less likely to enter and graduate from college (Jordan, Kostandini,& Mykerezi 2012; Department of Agriculture 2017; Hill 2014). Rural high school graduation rates exceed the national average, even among rural low-income students. Nonetheless, rural students overall are significantly less likely to hold a college degree than students in metropolitan areas, 51% to 62% respectively (Department of Agriculture 2017)


Staffing shortages are the rule

  • Rural schools are more likely to report difficulty in filling vacancies, particularly in STEM positions, (NCES, 2012; Player 2015). The teachers they can recruit tend to have minimal credentials. For example, there is a 10-percentage point gap in master’s degree attainment between suburban and rural teachers, and the likelihood of teacher postgraduate education decreases as a community’s isolation increases. (Player 2015).  

Rural districts have many operational challenges

  • Inadequate funding is a constant issue. On average, rural districts receive just 17% of state education funding (Showalter, Klein, Johnson, & Hartman, 2017). Rural districts, which tend to have small student populations, have also been found to be disadvantaged by the Title I funding formula, which emphasizes the number of students in poverty over the portion of a school’s students that are in poverty (Camera & Cook 2016).
  • Transportation is a large line item for consolidated rural schools, which require students to be bused across long distances from a large attendance area, often spanning an entire county. (Johnson, Showalter, Klein, & Lester 2014). Because of this, less money can be directed toward instruction, which could have significant negative consequences for student learning.

… meaning that popular reform strategies don’t apply to rural settings.

  • School choice is not a viable option in rural districts, which are sparsely populated, but can cover hundreds of square miles. Not surprisingly, only 11% of charter schools are rural compared to 56% that are located in city districts (McFarland et al, 2017).
  • Virtual schooling likewise faces many obstacles. More than two-thirds of Americans who lack access to internet live in rural communities. Many rural schools struggle with slow connections, while those in the most remote areas have no connectivity at all (Microsoft, 2017). Of more concern, virtual schools are failing to produce results. A recent study found that online charter students lost ground in both math and reading. In math alone, the loss was the equivalent of a whopping 180 fewer days of learning compared to their peers in brick-and-mortar schools (CREDO, 2015). 

At this time, the national conversation around education often neglects the perspectives, needs, and circumstances of rural America, despite high needs and widespread challenges. Yet, these issues are now more relevant than ever. Our failure to include the voices of this critical portion of the country undercuts our commitment to provide every student with the high-quality public education they deserve.

Questions for rural district leaders

Do you have a plan for dealing with staff shortages?  Are you able to provide incentives to attract well-qualified teachers and principals? Are they effective? 

Have you sought partnerships with local colleges and universities?  Do you collaborate on providing professional development for your staff as well as “grow your own teachers” strategies?

Do you have the infrastructure and bandwidth to support virtual learning? Are you set up with sufficient computers and staff to effectively blend online and face-to-face instruction?
Are there local, regional or state consortiums you can join or launch to address specific issues related to your community (food scarcity, healthcare access, lack of transportation)? Do you work with your state and local representatives, as well as your professional associations, to advocate for your community’s needs? 

By Megan Lavalley, a former research analyst for the Center for Public Education.

First Published January 2018. Copyright 2018 by the Center for Public Education.