Rural Kids Need School Reform Too


I didn’t really think much about rural representation until I first got involved in teacher leadership. For the first time, I learned that there was an entire world of organizations, social media campaigns and professional-development sessions all dedicated to improving schools and closing achievement gaps in Kentucky.

“Wow!” I thought. “How awesome to see so many educators who had dedicated their professional lives working to improve equity and enhance opportunities for their students.”

Whether that was advocating for higher standards or new forms of accountability, among other approaches, these folks were doing it. The more I read and learned about what different organizations were doing for Kentucky’s students, I was amazed that this was happening in my own backyard.

Well, sort of.

It was happening in Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) and Fayette County Public Schools (FCPS), the two largest urban districts in Kentucky.

Both are well over 100 miles from where I live.

The schools I have taught in have mostly been at the far end of the rural-urban spectrum— I have fond memories of seeing wild turkeys and deer in the field outside one of my old classroom windows—so I know personally that conversations about making better schools don’t often involve people from out here in the country. And that’s within my own state!

Around the country, most talk of school reform is understood to be in reference to cities. Chicago. Minneapolis. DC. Oakland. And so on. Yet there are millions of rural families for whom options are limited and resources are scarce. Shouldn’t we be talking about them, too?

Those of us from rural areas don’t often see the same gains from school reform that larger, more urban districts do, as city schools tend to be the priority of these efforts. And don’t get me wrong, it’s crucial that we work to improve our urban schools—after all, if our efforts for school reform don’t benefit those students who need it most, how successful can we actually consider ourselves? The more I think about our goals, though, I believe the heart of school reform is simply trying to make schools better for all students, so that nobody’s income, background or ZIP code hampers their opportunity to get a great education.

If we want to truly achieve this, we’ll need voices from rural areas too, even if they’re not typically the focus of reform efforts.

We Have Issues, And They’re Worse Than You Realize

Here in Kentucky, our students are much more prone to poverty than their peers in other states. With 1 in 4 students in the Bluegrass State living in poverty, teachers have to take into account that it’s hard for kids to concentrate on learning when they’re more worried about having food and a place to stay the night.

It’s not like poverty only exists here in rural America, but it’s a major obstacle for rural students who deserve opportunities to learn and be successful. Areas like mine are often overlooked when we discuss school reform, since city schools are usually the target of such efforts.

It may seem surprising, but rural areas are generally more impoverished than urban areas, and it sometimes frustrates me when it seems like nobody is really doing anything meaningful to address it.

It’s not just that rural areas have more poverty, though. The poverty that people experience here is a different breed. Like the Center for American Progress describes, it creates unique challenges that aren’t always present in urban areas:

Rural schools face particular difficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers and principals. Rural schools continue to lag behind others in internet access, and rural high schools are not able to provide advanced coursework such as AP and IB classes in the way more urban and suburban areas do. Research on rural education has, at times, been underfunded or not encouraged. And, overall, rural areas have experienced shrinking tax bases, shifting local economies, and brain drain among young people who move to more urban areas after high school graduation.

These are real and long-lasting issues that are affecting our children, but I’m worried that we’re not taking them into consideration the way we should be.

For those of us who work or teach in rural areas like mine here in Kentucky, we know these things to be true because we have witnessed it firsthand. Granted, I don’t mean for this to take away from our efforts at reforming urban schools, because their needs are important and unique. As an advocate for better schools, I’ll support any honest effort to help students achieve and have opportunities to be successful—but as a rural teacher, I just want those efforts to include my students, too.

It’s Not A Zero-Sum Game

Let’s be clear, I’m not at all saying that our focus on urban schools is misguided, or that we should turn our attention the opposite way.

We’ve seen great success stories out there about turning urban schools around for the better, and we need to keep up those efforts. We just need more voices to be heard, because what brought us to this point isn’t enough to get us where we would like to be.

School reform is not a zero-sum game. It’s not as if showing some attention to rural areas means we have to take a step back from the progress we’ve made with urban schools—it’s just a discussion we need to have to make our schools more effective, because regardless of the rural-urban divide, we obviously have not gone far enough to support them.

The issues we face are different, of course, but our efforts to reform education would be even more effective by listening to people with different perspectives and backgrounds. We can improve schools for all students, we’ll just need to start listening more.

An original version of this piece appeared with Education Post. Photo by Philipp Chernov, Twenty20-Licensed.

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