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Education in Rural America

  Graph of Students who did not graduate high school  
In rural communities, much more than in urban ones, schools serve at least two constituencies – schools serve students and teach them survival skills, and schools serve the community as a whole. A school system is the central institution of a rural community. The school is often the largest employer, it claims the largest share of local taxes and may be the only place where events are held that are community wide and open to the public.

But despite the importance of schools as an institution, educational attainment in mid-20th century America was the exception rather than the rule. According to the Economic Research Service of the USDA, in 1960 over well over half of all students never finished high school. Almost 57 percent of urban students and over 66 percent of rural students did not receive a high school diploma. The stereotype of a farmer's son or daughter leaving school after 8th grade was all too common.

Those numbers gradually came down. By the year 2000, only 18.7 percent of "metro" students did not complete high school. Their "nonmetro" counterparts still lagged behind in educational attainment – 23.2 percent of rural students did not complete high school.

If we look at the other end of the educational spectrum – the percentage of students who got their college degree – rural students were less likely to get their degrees. In 1960, only 8.5 percent of metro students and 5.1 percent of nonmetro students received college degrees. The trend in the last half of the 20th century was upwards, but rose faster for urban students than rural. By 2000, a quarter (26.6 percent) of urban students graduated with a bachelor's degree while only 15.5 percent of rural students finished college.

In the 1950s and 60s, rural schools came under pressure. Some of the pressures were the same as those felt by urban schools – but had unique forms in rural areas – and some of the pressures were imposed by the continuing exodus of people from rural areas to urban America.

When the Russian Sputnik satellite first orbited around the earth, it produced both an arms race and an education race. Newspaper headlines screamed that the U.S. didn't have enough missiles to defend itself and that we didn't have enough engineers to build the missiles. Schools were pressured to re-emphasize programs in math and science to catch up with the Soviets.

In rural schools, that was more difficult than in urban ones. One-room elementary schools and small town high schools generally have only a few teachers, and they are required to teach several different subjects. In the 60s and today, it was often impossible to hire teachers who had specific and detailed backgrounds in math or science, as well as other specific disciplines.

By 1950, the prevailing philosophy of educational administrators was that schools needed to be big enough to offer efficiencies of scale, particularly at the secondary or high school level. There was a set of "best practices," the administrators argued, guided by professionals and educational research that should be adopted by all schools. Small schools should be consolidated into more efficient units that could afford to hire professional administrators, specialized teachers and could pay for advanced equipment and curriculum.

In large part, this push for consolidation has been successful. In 1930, there were 128,000 school districts in America. By 1977, there were 16,000. Scholar Jonathan Sher called consolidation of schools the most successful public policy initiative in education of the 20th century.

  Chart of Students who graduated from college  
But beginning in the 1950s, opponents of consolidation began to push back. They argued that some rural areas had to be served by small schools because they were so isolated. The alternative – forcing young children to ride buses for hours each day – did much more harm.

These advocates pushed to find ways to share resources to provide more opportunity for small schools. For instance, many states enacted systems of regional educational service units that could hire specialty teachers in music, art, foreign languages, physical or special education. These teachers would either travel to the individual districts on different days or, later, use telecommunication systems to provide specialized classes to the schools.

Other advocates went beyond the necessity argument to suggest that small schools were actually a better system of education. Dr. Frank Cyr of Columbia Teachers College wrote in the 60s that lower student-to-teacher ratios enhanced individualized instruction and that asking older students in a one-room environment to teach subjects to younger ones reinforced learning.

During the 60s, there were studies that seemed to support this assertion. One study, for example, found that students in small schools were three to 20 times more likely to participate in extra-curricular activities than urban students. There was a greater range of activities available in big schools, but proportionally, fewer kids take advantage of the opportunities.

Other studies reported that students from small schools tended to perform better on standardized tests, particularly on the core disciplines, while urban students demonstrated better understanding of specialized knowledge.

In some states, there were pitched political battles between advocates of consolidation and proponents of small districts.

Nebraska has been one of the most tenacious bastions of small, one-room schools. In the 1960s, there were still close to 1,000 school districts in a state with only around 1.5 million people.

Paul Underwood InterviewPaul Underwood is one of those who believes education is better in a small school. "I know the trend right now is to consolidate and go bigger," he says. "We were taught discipline; we were taught sharing. We had a lot of lessons in life in that little school that were great."

But in the mid-60s, changes in federal education programs tended to cut across the urban/rural argument. President Johnson's Great Society programs in education broke schools into "disadvantaged or nondisadvantaged" based on the number of poor students they served. It didn't matter if poor students went to an urban or rural school. The legislation set up programs for those special populations. Later, legislation mandated programs for other populations like the handicapped or migrant students.

But in the mid-60s, changes in federal education programs tended to cut across the urban/rural argument. President Johnson's Great Society programs in education broke schools into "disadvantaged or nondisadvantaged" based on the number of poor students they served. It didn't matter if poor students went to an urban or rural school. The legislation set up programs for those special populations. Later, legislation mandated programs for other populations like the handicapped or migrant students.

Don Reeves InterviewThe effect of this emphasis on programs for disadvantaged populations was to push schools, again, to consolidate so that they could take advantage of the programs and meet the new expectations imposed by the federal government. Within a few years, the rural education associations dwindled to almost nonexistence.

Don Reeves (left) says that, in effect, rural America is raising and educating young people and then exporting them to urban areas. "I view it as a continuing subsidy of rural areas for urban areas," he says. "We invest a quarter of a million dollars in raising and educating a kid through collee and then they go someplace else, and the benefits are there."

Desegregation. In a way, these federal changes were a culmination of the desegregation movement that began earlier. In 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case brought by Oliver Brown against the Topeka Kansas Board of Education. Mr. Brown was upset that his daughter had to walk over a mile through railroad yards to get to a black school when a white one was only seven blocks away. With the help of the NAACP, his case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that a "separate but equal" system of education for blacks was unconstitutional. It would take a multitude of other local cases to break down school segregation in cities across the nation, and in general, rural areas had much smaller minority populations. But it was clear that legally segregated school systems were a thing of the past wherever they were located.

Despite the challenges, education boomed in America in mid-century. As late as 1940, less than half of all American students graduated from high school. By the early 60s, nearly three-fourths got their high school diplomas. College admissions soared. Education was the way to keep America strong and to improve your own lot in life whether you lived on a farm or the big city.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.


 

The Extension Service


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