The problem with education policies is that they emphasize economic gain and ignore place. Rural education is all about the link between place and school. Policies need to flow from that fact.
The greatest challenge in rural education is the utter disregard for place.
State and national governments pursue economic growth at the cost of communities, and such disregard is reflected in the way the state approaches public schooling. One of the most ugly and expedient trends in education is the “one size fits all” philosophy that identifies a set of best practices and ignores differences from place to place.
The drive for homogeneity does not stem from a genuine concern for education, but a desire for administrative convenience. Having the same standards in all places may possess the ring of equality, but it conceals a bias favoring urban and suburban schools on which most educational standards are set.
The indifference of state governments to local concerns is evident in their decisions to consolidate rural schools. Policymakers and administrators believe that such concepts as economies of scale result in improved “production” of educated young people, and at a lower cost.
But outcomes of this trend are not promising. Research has found that savings resulting from school consolidation are minimal, and levels of academic achievement have not increased in consolidated schools. Further, the state and federal levels of government lack an appreciation for the role local schools play in the community life of many rural areas, and the damage done to those communities when their schools are closed.
This general reluctance to give students and families much say over what happens in their schools is a common trait of standardization. Rural areas have low numbers of both voters and campaign contributors, and as a result they cannot effectively appeal to the self-interest of politicians. Bureaucrats in departments of education and policymakers are not interested in taking the needs of rural areas into account in curriculum, teacher education, or — the bane of education in our time — in assessments.
The situation of rural schools is worsened by teachers who do not take rural places and rural values into account in their teaching. But, given that the majority of rural teachers grew up in rural areas, this “placeless” approach to education is generally not due to unfamiliarity.
Why would rural teachers not integrate what they know about rural people and rural students into the classroom? The answer may lie in the values implicit in state curriculums, most teacher education programs, and standardized tests.
The entire educational system is geared towards preparing students for college, and any other outcome of a secondary education is seen as comparatively illegitimate. By the time a rural student has become a rural teacher, he becomes part of this system. He upholds the status quo.
They are part of a system that has no clear standard for preparing students for something other than college. They seem to figure that students who intend to work after high school cannot benefit much from school, and then treat them accordingly.
I am not saying we should discourage students from attending college, but neither should we encourage it by default. College is not right for everyone, much less beneficial. We talk about education as if a prosperous philistinism is an acceptable educational outcome, teaching as if schooling people until they are ridden with debt and English degrees is acceptable as well.
Researchers in 2007 found that schools can most effectively engage students in their studies when they show how they relate to a “personally valued future outcome.” However, teachers often fail to make academics relevant to rural students, in part because they may not sufficiently respect and relate to those whose goals are not directly tied to academic outcomes. These implicitly negative views may apply especially to those who want to stay in those communities.
Teachers may also believe that the higher rates of poverty often found in rural areas are associated with a lower quality of life, rather than a greater emphasis on non-economic values of well-being. Those who can find personal satisfaction without sufficiently “buying in” to the dominant materialist culture are a threat to the ideas that happiness is available for purchase, that social respectability is the same as a materially attractive lifestyle.
But not all academically successful high school students will benefit from going to college. Those least able to afford a college education on their current income — the poor — are those more likely to leave college without a degree. Research has found that students from poor backgrounds who go to college may end up trapped — paying for college loans without a degree or the income that degree might bring.
And if the goal of higher educational attainment is to increase one’s quality of life with higher social status and greater income, then college may not be relevant — at least, not on those terms — to many of those who live in places like rural Appalachia, where social status depends less on a person’s finances and profession, and more on how they are viewed as a person. Two researchers have found that the level of educational and occupational attainment reached among rural Appalachians has little relationship to their subjective life satisfaction. In other words, if going to college is intended as a means to a happier life, it has less to offer to those who are happy where they are.
Rural educators may unwittingly alienate their most talented students from seeing a future for themselves in the place where they grew up. Teachers who wish to get their students “out into the world” focus on national and economic life rather than local and community life. In not seeing each community as integral to the nation and the world — as the building blocks of a healthy and desirable society — they see national and community aims as exclusive. In presuming that bigger is better, they do not see small communities as worth strengthening, or even maintaining.
And in seeing education as a means to an economic end, they negate notions of education as empowerment, and make it a mere sorting device for employment.
The fulfillment of economic needs is not sufficient for human happiness. Communities are the keystones of society. This is where people interact, where they are rooted by a sense of shared place. In this sense, communities are rarely found outside of rural areas.
But the emphasis on humans as economic and competitive creatures has long seen rural places not as essential to society in their wholeness, but useful in their pieces — places good only for the extraction of food, timber, ore, and human labor.
The difference in priorities is clear. A social view of human nature embraces community as the product of interconnected and economically interdependent human beings. Economic nature neither comprehends nor appreciates an economic and social interdependence that is local rather than global.
The states follow the economic model first. They consolidate rural schools and push their best students into the universities, regardless of the role of those schools and students in the life of their communities, regardless of their own happiness, and regardless of their odds of graduating.
Rural education reform needs to begin with a change of mind. Policy will follow.
Zach Wilson is a sophomore in the Connavino Honors Program at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. He grew up near Lansing, Michigan.