Mississippi may have shown the most improvement in this year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, but in the state’s rural areas, one in four students lives in poverty, the graduation rate is below the national average, and few students enter college with Advanced Placement credit.
That’s why it ranks as the top “high-priority” state in “Why Rural Matters,” a report released Thursday by the Rural School and Community Trust, the College Board and AASA/The School Superintendents Association.
North Carolina and Alabama are tied for second in terms of having the greatest needs among students in rural areas, followed by Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida. The population of students attending rural schools in many of these states, including Georgia and West Virginia, has increased in recent years.
“While some rural schools and places thrive, others continue to face nothing less than an emergency in the education and well-being of children,” the authors of the report write.
In the most recent NAEP math and reading results, students in rural districts slightly outperform those in non-rural areas, but within many of those states, there are large gaps in performance between poor and non-poor students in rural areas.
Nearly one in five students in the U.S. — about 9.3 million — attend a rural school, and many districts have high rates of poverty and student mobility. States in the West — Nevada, Arizona, Washington, Colorado and Idaho — have the highest student mobility rates in rural areas.
Overall, the report is intended to draw policymakers’ attention to issues facing rural districts. “Many rural students are largely invisible to state policymakers because they live in states where education policy is dominated by highly visible urban problems,” the authors write.
Indicators of college readiness
While past reports have focused primarily on NAEP scores as a measure of how well students in rural schools are faring, this ninth edition of the report adds an emphasis on college readiness. The authors find juniors and seniors in rural areas are more likely than students nationally to participate in dual enrollment programs for college credit. The data was drawn from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection.
The researchers found, however, if a state-ranked well on the percentage of juniors and seniors passing at least one AP exam, they were less likely to rank well on students’ access to dual enrollment programs, “suggesting that schools may tend to promote one over the other.” The data also shows the lower the poverty rate in a rural district, the more likely students are to pass AP exams.
“I grew up in rural South Carolina … and simply didn't have the advanced courses or career programs that would have been so beneficial to me and others — while students in other parts of the state and nation most definitely had tremendous opportunities,” said Alan Richard, spokesman for the Rural School and Community Trust and a former education reporter. “That wasn't right, and it still isn't for too many children across the country.”
Supporting AP teachers and students in isolated areas was one reason the College Board this year made new resources available to help students prepare for exams. During the February announcement, College Board CEO David Coleman called the new online materials a “love letter” to teachers in rural areas who are often the only ones in their school teaching AP courses.
On measures of college readiness among students in rural districts, Nevada, Washington and California were among the 13 states considered in need of urgent attention.
At the other end of spectrum, the report also includes a focus on early-childhood education, noting challenges such as children’s access to early education, teacher recruitment and low teacher pay are exacerbated in rural areas.
The authors also suggest issues such as childhood trauma, including abuse, neglect and parents’ opioid abuse, might be worse in rural areas when compared to non-rural. Meanwhile, services such as developmental screenings and nutrition programs are more limited in rural communities.
“Remoteness of rural places creates food deserts, and for families with economic instability, food pantries in rural areas are often far away,” the authors write.
But they also highlight promising efforts regarding young children, such as Alaska and Kentucky receiving federal Preschool Development Grant funds they plan to target toward increasing access to programs in rural areas.
The burden of transportation costs
The report also provides data on per-student funding in K-12 and the proportion of state funding going to districts in rural areas. While many states provide additional funding to rural districts because of the challenges they face with teacher recruitment and retention, for example, 12 states were identified in the report as providing less funding to rural districts. These include Nebraska, Vermont, Connecticut and Iowa.
With transportation costs being a significant expense for districts in remote regions, the authors also highlight how much states spend on instruction in rural areas compared to transporting students.
“This indicator is an important factor in the educational policy context because extraordinary transportation costs are a burden that shifts money away from programs and resources that directly impact student learning,” they write.
The findings range from as high as $25.89 on instruction for every dollar going toward getting students to school in Alaska to as low as about a $6-to-$1 ratio in New Mexico.
Installing WiFi on school buses is among the innovative solutions some districts are trying to better accommodate students who have long commutes. To address limited access to reliable internet service, some districts have also built their own cell towers and internet networks — not only to service their schools but also to make the signals available to students’ homes.
Working together as part of district collaboratives to share resources or provide professional development is another way many districts in rural areas are meeting the needs of students and teachers.
The 440-student Butte County School District #111 in Arco, Idaho, for example, collaborates with four other districts for career and technical education funding, but students still have to drive 65 miles to participate in CTE internships because there are not enough industry partners nearby, said Superintendent Joel Wilson.
The district also contracts with other districts for a speech and language pathologist and a school psychologist, and it uses general funds for an elementary counselor.
"Our biggest challenge is providing outside services for our students," Wilson said. "A majority of families moving into our community have children with special needs. Some of these needs are physical needs, some are developmental delays, some are social-emotional needs."
'Building a supportive culture'
Lower average salaries, when compared to those in metropolitan school districts or to what someone can earn working in another field, are a primary reason rural districts struggle to attract and keep highly qualified teachers, according to the report.
Some states, however, are receiving outside support for efforts to increase the supply of well-trained teachers and support personnel in rural areas. California, for example, has received two federal grants — $7 million for a teacher residency program in a San Joaquin Valley district and another $2.5 million to help hire school counselors, social workers and other mental health professionals in rural districts.
In Mississippi — where much of the state is rural — most objectives in the state board of education's strategic plan apply statewide. But there are also a few strategies targeting rural areas. These include expanding virtual learning opportunities, giving rural districts an opportunity to be part of the state's Innovation Lab Network, and participating in the Rural Teacher Recruitment and Retention Initiative — a project of the Southeast Comprehensive Center at the American Institutes for Research.
Because Idaho offers an alternative certification pathway, Wilson's district has some teachers with a bachelor's degree, but no credential. He says leaders will carefully vet these candidates and, if they are a "good fit," will use Title II funds to pay for their certification. The key to keeping them, he said, is forming "professional relationships."
"Because of our location and the importance of retaining staff, we have put a lot of effort into building a supportive culture," Wilson said. "I involve teachers and staff in decisions that affect them. The elementary counselor position was the result of teachers expressing the need for support."