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Another fresh look at preserving strengths in small rural schools; Rural Education in Urbanized Nations: Issues and Innovations, edited by Jonathan P. Sher. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press. $30.

It's really quite marvelous -- at the very time that urbanization is a worldwide phenomenon, rural schools are improving. This was not the case 10 years ago, and certainly not the case 20 years ago.

The prevailing wisdom then was that small was bad, bigger was better; that rural school areas should, at the very least, be consolidated and that not only would economies of scale be recognized, but by so doing, rural children would be taken out of their academic backwaters and given "an equal educational opportunity" with their city brethren.

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While school districts were consolidated and thousands of small rural communities were left schoolless, the result was not economy, but increased expenditures, not the least of which was transportation, and what appeared as "equality" turned out to be unequal in its distortion of rural needs, strengths, and purposes.

But the US was not the only country trying to improve schools by making them larger and removing children from home communities. So were most of the industrialized nations in Europe doing the same.

Yet, there came a point when areas of Scotland, Norway, Iceland, and Australia, for example, could consolidate no more and attention turned instead to the question of how to provide sound schooling in isolated rural areas.

At first, the thought was that some way must be found to bring the "better" city schools to the country -- in other words to assume still that small was bad and bigger was better and so infuse the small with crumbs from the tables of the bigger.

And some improvements have actually come via this route, as is documented through television's role in direct teaching of rural Portuguese children.

There has also been a countermovement, and this is to recognize that small rural communities have their own special strengths rooted deeply in the community and that it is these strengths which should guide the local school efforts, not transplants from less relevant urban areas.

It has been a fascinating struggle, and many small communities are still torn between outside solutions and community- based reforms. Yet a growing number of rural areas have begun to recognize that the way to improve local schools is not to close them, not to make them seem like city schools, but to pick and choose from all available sources and to devise a local system to meet local needs.

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There promise to be a growing number of reports saying just this, and growing documentation of how one rural area after another has done its adaptations and adoptions to create more, not less "equality" for its children.

Those who live and work in rural areas in any part of the world will want to search this very readable volume for suggestions that may be, after alterations, applicable to their special localities.

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