America's rural students face a bumpy, uncertain ride into the future of education reform. Looming state cuts and, ironically, the administration's Leave No Child Behind reform initiative will make it tougher for already struggling rural school districts to cope, according to a report released last week. Rural schools in 13 states need particularly urgent attention, warned the rural-education group that wrote the report.
"There'll be a drain of the best teachers out of many rural schools," says Marty Strange, coauthor of the report and policy director of Rural School and Community Trust, based in Washington.
The problem isn't test scores, it's resources. Although rural schools educate a surprising number of children in the US - nearly one-third attend a facility in hamlets or small towns of fewer than 25,000 people - they're largely invisible. State and federal policymakers spend far more time looking at the challenges of urban and suburban schools. Thus, mandates and reforms can put rural districts at a disadvantage.
For example: President Bush's reform plan encourages schools to compete for the best teachers. That plan works well for wealthy suburban districts, which can afford to attract good teachers, but it makes life tougher for poorer districts that can't offer competitive salaries, Mr. Strange says.
Another flaw, he says, are the sanctions imposed on schools when they don't measure up in standardized tests. Such benchmarks work well in large districts, where 100 or more students take a particular test. But research suggests scores will swing dramatically in rural schools where the entire fourth-grade class may include only 10 students. One really good or poor test taker may skew the overall results so much, he warns, that a school's year-to-year performance will prove difficult to measure.
Standards may help rural communities in some ways, other educators argue.
"I'm not a huge fan of standards," says Nancy Jennings, a rural-education researcher at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. But in her state, such tests have highlighted weaknesses in some rural districts. "It certainly points out that the issues ... are not only in urban areas," she says.
Maine, the nation's second most rural state, ranks 13th in the new report's list of the 13 states with the most vulnerable rural schools. Largely rural Mississippi ranks No. 1 because it has the nation's largest share of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches (a rough proxy for poverty), the nation's second-lowest per capita rural income, and the third-lowest penetration of computers in the classroom.
Using 13 such indicators, Rural School and Community Trust found 11 other vulnerable states between Mississippi and Maine: Alabama, Kentucky, North Dakota, South Dakota, North Carolina, Arkansas, West Virginia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Montana.
Since the group published its first state rankings two and a half years ago, rural schools have received more attention. Congress passed legislation to help rural districts compete for federal grants. Supreme Courts in three states have found their statewide school-funding systems unconstitutional because rural areas were getting unequal treatment. And the National Center for Education Statistics has refined its classification system to track rural-school performance more closely.
So far, the attention has not visibly improved the situation, says Rachel Tompkins, president of Rural Schools and Community Trust. "I'm hard-pressed to think of any place where rural schools are better off."