Q&A: The Unique Assets and Challenges of Rural Education

Image of young children looking at bugs in a field

Although 18.3% of American students live in rural communities and 53% of school districts serve rural students, they are often underrepresented in education policy dialogue and research. From classroom size to out-of-school opportunities and college preparedness, rural students tend to have different experiences than their non-rural counterparts. For that reason, research and interventions that are specifically focused on rural settings provide an essential lens to support these students.

As the Indiana State Liaison for REL Midwest, AIR Researcher Billie Day helps maximize opportunities for rural students, schools, and communities. She answered some questions about what assets and challenges affect rural education, some misconceptions about it, and her personal connection to the work.

Q. How did you become interested in the topic of rural education?

Day: I’ve lived the experience of rural education: I was raised on a small farm in southern Indiana without a phone or running water. Even though I was the valedictorian of my class, I was not actively encouraged by my high school to go to college, and I knew almost nothing about the application process. I only applied to one college—Indiana University—and I was lucky that they accepted me, and that it happened to be a good school. Ever since then, I’ve always thought about questions in education research from that lens: how do state policies affect rural schools? And how do we raise awareness of the opportunities that are available to rural students?

Q. What advantages do rural communities have and how does that affect education there?

Day: These communities tend to be tight-knit. If everyone in town has attended the same local high school, and everyone knows the students personally, the community is very invested in students’ success, and communities will do whatever they can to help. These are small but mighty networks.

Also, rural communities understand that the world is changing, and they have been receptive to adopting technologies and innovations that will support their students. For example, rural schools haven’t always been able to offer advanced-level courses because only a couple of students might enroll. Many rural schools have embraced virtual classrooms to allow their students to take advantage of those classes that they can’t offer on-site.

Q. What unique challenges do education systems in rural settings face?

Day: One major challenge is recruiting talent to work in schools. In some communities, the average age of residents is rising, while at the same time, young people are leaving their hometowns en masse. This leaves communities with smaller pools of talent to draw from. Recent work from REL Midwest suggests that the percentage of special population students—who may need additional resources or support—is rising, but in many rural communities, there isn’t enough of a workforce to accommodate that growth.

As in much of the country, funding can also be a big challenge. Each state has different funding mechanisms, but many midwestern states depend on referenda, which are not always easy to get passed. Furthermore, because of the long distances that rural students often travel to get to school, the funding schools do receive often gets allocated to student transportation.

Another challenge is that many evidence-based best practices, which are based on research conducted in urban and suburban settings, assume a certain level of local resources that rural communities don’t necessarily have. For example, work-based learning best practices strongly promote internships and part-time positions. However, rural communities may not have many businesses or organizations to partner with, so if they still try to implement those programs, they may end up pigeonholing their students into one or two professions, just because those are the ones in town.

Q. What are the most common misconceptions around rural education and rural communities?

"Recent work from REL Midwest suggests that the percentage of special population students—who may need additional resources or support—is rising, but in many rural communities, there isn’t enough of a workforce to accommodate that growth." 

Day: One is that all rural students want to leave their communities, which isn’t true—especially if they’re able to find professional opportunities there. Another is that all rural communities are alike; in reality, the demographics of rural communities vary widely, as do the challenges that they face. For instance, some are growing in size, while others are dealing with population drain.

On certain issues, rural communities do need a customized approach because of the specific challenges they face. Some things, like the best way to teach a child to read, translate across circumstances. Others, like helping students visit and prepare for college when there are no universities nearby, do not. Context matters.

Q. What is the best way to support rural educators?

Day: Collaboration is very important for rural schools. Because of their sheer size, urban schools tend to get most of the financial support. Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs) really help to counteract those economy of scale issues. By building partnerships with other rural schools and districts, they establish a bigger pool of resources to draw from. It also helps focus rural-based education research, because getting more schools to participate in a particular study increases their sample size.

RELs also provide a platform to highlight best practices and innovations taking place in rural communities, which may not receive attention elsewhere but are of particular value to other rural communities.