An original version of this piece appeared with Education Post in 2015.
A new poll from Education Post reveals that not only are rural schools unique in their geographic and community characteristics, but also in the views held by parents who send their kids to those schools. Seventy-three percent of rural parents polled believe that schools and teachers have the potential to overcome challenges of poverty and other social factors—a larger proportion than both urban and suburban parents. But a deeper look at their perceptions reveals that rural parents have less confidence that their schools actually deliver on that promise.
Rural parents are decidedly more negative on the public school system.
Sixty-one percent of rural parents polled feel the U.S. public education system is headed down the wrong track. This nearly two-thirds majority compares with 52 percent of suburban parents and only 38 percent of urban parents. And though they are more bullish on their own community schools—a trend reflected generally among Americans in countless polls—they are markedly less enthusiastic than their urban or suburban counterparts.
That said, rural parents are more likely to believe that all children have access to the same quality schools (57% agreed with that notion).
But more negative views on how well schools actually perform suggest that “same quality” might not equate to “good quality.” Rural parents are less likely to believe that their children’s schools are preparing them well for life after high school, particularly when asked specifically about preparation for the workforce and in terms of general skills needed for adulthood.
Rural parents indicate they have fewer good options for schools, but also view charter schools less favorably.
Nearly half of rural parents indicate they have access to only one or no good schools for their children. This compares to over two-thirds of urban and suburban parents who report having at least a few good options. But at the same time, rural parents are much less supportive of an expanding charter sector, the most common public school choice option. Rural parents view opening more charter schools as a low priority, are less likely to believe charter schools provide good options for low-income families, and are more likely to believe that charter schools divert resources from traditional public schools.
The lack of options for rural parents reflects the reality of many rural communities where sparse populations mean that a critical mass of students needed to support multiple schools just doesn’t exist. And the relative scarcity of charter schools in rural settings may also color perceptions. There are simply few rural charters to highlight at all, much less highly successful ones. And where district schools play a central role in the social fabric and economy of rural places, this lack of positive experience may exacerbate perceptions of charters as unwelcome interlopers.
Rural parents attribute success in school to students, but believe that schools are ultimately responsible for preventing failure.
More than urban and suburban parents, rural parents credit students themselves (versus families) when they are successful in school. At the same time, more rural parents believe that schools bear the responsibility for ensuring that low income students don’t fall behind. These attitudes contrast with the perceptions of urban parents, who were less likely to cite schools as primarily responsible for ensuring that low-income kids keep up and more often looked to families to play that role.
And only about 1 in 3 rural parents thinks standardized tests are fair or that they have a positive effect on the school system.
In contrast, the majority of urban parents view testing positively. So again, rural parents’ stronger views that education institutions serve as the safety net for at-risk students diverge from feelings about the structures in place (test-based accountability) to help ensure that the safety net works.
While rural schools face many of the same challenges as schools everywhere—lagging or stagnant achievement, poverty, poor post-secondary participation—education policy tends toward solutions built on an urban framework that may not translate well to rural communities.
So the disconnect between what rural parents believe about what schools can and should do and feelings about whether the current system actually does those things in their communities is not all that surprising. The challenge for policymakers is identifying the levers that work best for rural schools to deliver on the faith rural communities place in them.
Jennifer Schiess is an Associate Partner with Bellwether Education Partners. Previously, she spent a decade working with the Texas Legislature, most recently serving as the primary adviser to the legislature on school finance and a range of other public education issues including standards, assessment and accountability; educator quality, compensation and benefits; and charter schools and school choice policy.