Rural Education

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hobart l. harmon

international context
sheldon g. weeks


Rural education reflects the circumstances, challenges, and context of places in America called "rural." Rural America has been and continues to be a vital part of the nation. As of 2001, rural America comprised 2,288 counties, contained 83 percent of the nation's land and was home to 21 percent of its population (51 million people). The United States, like the rest of the world, is steadily becoming more urban. Two national censuses illustrate the point dramatically. For the first 140 years of the nation's existence, most Americans lived in open country and small towns. The 1920 census was the first to record that urban people outnumbered those living in open country and small towns. Just seventy years later, the 1990 census recorded not only that most Americans lived in urban areas but also that they lived in metropolitan areas of 1 million or more people.

The Changing Nature of Rural America

Rural America has changed in many ways. The rural economy in particular has changedshifting from a dependence on farming, forestry, and mining to a striking diversity of economic activity. Improvements in communication and transportation between urban and rural areas have reduced rural isolation and removed many of the cultural differences between the two areas. Television, phone service, and transportation systems have helped bring rural and urban dwellers much closer together in terms of culture, information, and lifestyles. And while it continues to provide most of the nation's food and fiber, rural America has taken on additional roles, providing labor for industry, land for urban and suburban expansion, sites for hazardous activities and the storage of waste, and natural settings for recreation and enjoyment.

No one industry dominates the rural economy, no single pattern of population decline or growth exists for all rural areas, and no statement about improvements and gaps in well-being holds true for all rural people. Many of these differences are regional in nature. That is, rural areas within a particular geographic region of the country often tend to be similar to each other and different from areas in another region. Some industries, for example, are associated with different regions: logging and sawmills in the Pacific Northwest and New England, manufacturing in the Southeast and Midwest, and farming in the Great Plains. Persistent poverty also has a regional pattern, concentrated primarily in the Southeast. Areas that rely heavily on the services industry are located throughout rural America, as are rural areas that have little access to advanced telecommunications services. Many of these differencesregional and nonregionalare the result of a combination of factors including the availability of natural resources; distance from and access to major metropolitan areas and the information and services found there; transportation and shipping facilities; political history and structure; and the racial, ethnic, and cultural makeup of the population. As a result, rural areas differ in terms of their needs and the resources they possess to address those needs.

Understanding rural America is no easy task. It is tempting to generalize and oversimplify, to characterize rural areas as they once were or as they are now in only some places. Still, there is an overall pattern of economic disadvantage in rural areas. The historical and defining features of rural economies often constrain development. Regardless of other differences, efforts to assist rural areas must take into account three common rural characteristics: (1) rural settlement patterns tend to be small in scale and low in density; (2) the natural resource-based industries on which many rural areas have traditionally depended are declining as generators of jobs and income; and (3) low-skill, low-wage rural labor faces increasingly fierce global competition.

Connecting rural America to the digital economy and raising the skills of workers and leaders found there will be essential for rural America to compete more effectively. A third of all rural counties captured three-fourths of all rural economic gains in the 1990s. This concentration of economic activity is the result of powerful shifts in demographics, technology, and business practices. And while rural America has often based its development on relatively low labor costs, future opportunity will be based more on skilled workers and capital investments. Many rural schools need to raise their standards and become fully integrated into telecommunication networks.

Some observers point to technology as the driving force of the rural economy in the twenty-first century. Others believe a significant portion of today's rural America will be "metropolitanized" in the years ahead, continuing the trend in which the fastest growing portion of the U.S. economy from the 1970s into the twenty-first century was the part that was "formerly rural." That is, rural areas adjacent to the nation's metro areas, or ones growing fast enough to become a metro area in their own right, probably have very bright economic futures.

Rural areas suffer from the out-migration of both young and highly skilled workers, leaving an aging population and strained public services (including public education). Most areas have difficulty providing the capital and infrastructure to encourage and sustain new rural entrepreneurs. As a result, many rural areas are searching for local features that can spur new growth, such as scenic amenities, environmental virtues, or unique products that reflect the cultural heritage of a particular region. Expanding agricultural opportunities will be important, through value-added processing and new specialized crops. Better educated residents and improved rural economic networks are essential to the development of new rural businesses.

Defining Rural Schooling

No single definition exists to define rural America and rural schools. All that is not metropolitan is often said to be rural. As noted earlier, one should remember that rural America is quite diverse from one part of the country to another. Issues and trends in rural education may be place (region) specific for any number of factors. Generalizations about education in one rural area of the United States may or may not be true for another. Nevertheless, generalizations can provide a foundation of information for examining issues and trends in a regional and local area.

The Common Core of Data (CCD), maintained by the National Center for Education Statistics, uses information on two locale classification schemes to identify every school and district in the nation. The first locale scheme consists of seven types of locale codes created in the late 1980s, ranging from a large city to rural. The categories of rural and small town are often used to describe the rural segment of American schooling. In 19971998, nearly 64 percent of all school districts were classified as rural or small-town districts. The second locale classification scheme in the CCD is metropolitan location, divided into three categories: a central city of a metropolitan area, metropolitan but not central city, and non-metropolitan. About 53 percent of all districts were located in nonmetropolitan areas. Interestingly, in these two schemes, rural and small-town schools were found in both metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas. Of the 9,249 districts identified as rural and small town, 1,693 were located in metropolitan areas. Lastly, fewer than 1,000 kindergarten through grade twelve unit schools remained in the United States, that is, schools with all gradeskindergarten through twelvelocated in the same building.

In 1998 the National Education Association used data primarily from studies conducted by federal agencies to describe public education in rural areas and small towns compared to central city schools and urban fringe schools. A few of the findings were as follows:

  • Approximately one-half of the nation's 80,000 public schools and approximately 40 percent of the 41.6 million public school students were located in rural areas and small towns. Rural schools were smaller, less likely to have minority students, and less likely to provide bilingual education, English as a second language, magnet schools, and job placement programs. But rural schools were more likely to offer remedial programs and Title I programs that serve high poverty populations.
  • Of the approximately 2.56 million public school teachers, approximately 40 percent were in rural and small town schools. Compared to teachers in central city schools and urban fringe schools, rural teachers tended to be less well educated, slightly less experienced, younger, and less likely to belong to a minority group. Rural school principals were more likely to be male and less likely to belong to a minority group compared to principals in central city schools and urban fringe schools.
  • Teachers in rural and small town schools spent more time with students at school and outside school hours, had smaller incomes, and were less likely to have benefits of medical insurance, dental insurance, group life insurance, and pension contributions.
  • Teachers in rural and small town schools perceived student use of alcohol to be a more serious problem and were less likely to perceive a serious problem in student absenteeism, tardiness, verbal abuse of teachers, and student disrespect for teachers. Teachers in rural schools were less likely than teachers in central city schools, but more likely than teachers in urban fringe schools to perceive poverty as a serious problem in their schools.

In his 1982 book Rural Education: In Search of a Better Way, Paul Nachtigal contended that the important factors that differentiate a rural community in one part of the country from a community of similar size and isolation in another part of the country appear to be related to the availability of economic resources, cultural priorities of the local community, commonality of purpose, and political efficacy. Nachtigal described some basic differences between rural and urban areas, which are listed in Table 1.

Perceptions of all rural schools as inferior schools are incorrect. States with a predominance of small, community-centered schools do rather well. For example, on achieving the National Education Goals, in 1998, eight of the top ten states on math and science performance, six of the top seven on student achievement in the core subjects, and all top five on parent involvement were rural states. In fact, many of education's so-called best practices were born out of necessity long ago in the rural school. Examples include cooperative learning, multigrade classrooms, intimate links between school and community, interdisciplinary studies, peer tutoring,


block scheduling, the community as the focus of study, older students teaching younger ones, site-based management, and close relationships between teachers and students.

Challenges and Issues

Many of the challenges and issues that confront rural schools are not new, and in large measure they are linked to regional and local circumstances of change and reality in rural areas.

Adequate funding. Rural school districts, with their modest fiscal bases, usually cannot generate sufficient local resources to supplement adequately the state school finance programs the way that more affluent localities can. In at least sixteen states, supreme courts have ruled that their state system of school funding is unconstitutional and have ordered that new systems be developed. While equity and efficiency arguments have been prevalent in most of these cases, these court challenges also highlight the need to provide a level of funding for providing adequate educational opportunities if students are expected to meet state-mandated standards of performance.

Setting standards. Americans want schools where students must meet some standard of achievement. But who sets the standard is a critical issue being debated in rural schools and their communities. Local versus state (or federal) control of public schools is at the center of the controversy of setting standards. Rural schools and community advocates, such as the Rural School and Community Trust, believe that standards should originate within the community in which the students live. Others argue that the state should set standards because local schools in some rural areas traditionally have low expectations for student achievement and because taxpayers in some rural areas have low interest in funding high standards for all students. Rural interests also argue that rural communities cannot afford to fund the requirements for state-mandated standards and that school consolidationin the name of fiscal efficiencyis the likely result. Some policymakers also believe federal and state interests in having an educated citizenry for competing in a global economy compels standards be set at the state level, with local schools having flexibility to decide how to teach the content rather than what to teach.

School size. The majority of schools in rural settings are small, enrolling fewer than 400 students. Only 2 percent have enrollments exceeding 1,200 students. Research reveals that a high school with an enrollment of 400 is able to offer a reasonably comprehensive curriculum and that high schools ought not to enroll more than 600 to 1,000 students. Schools with high populations of students from low-income families do best academically in small schools. Public concerns regarding school safety issues also reinforce the need for small schools, where teachers know students well and students have a feeling of belonging in the school and community.

School facilities. While rural schools may be located in some of America's most beautiful areas, in 1996 about 4.6 million rural students were attending schools in inadequate buildings. Three out of ten rural and small-town schools have at least one inadequate building. One in two schools have at least one inadequate building feature, such as a roof, a foundation, or plumbing. Approximately one-half have unsatisfactory environmental conditions in the buildings. Approximately 37 percent have inadequate science laboratory facilities, 40 percent have inadequate space for large-group instruction, and 13 percent report an inadequate library/media center.

Technology needs also force building modifications. Many older schools lack conduits for computer-related cables, electrical wiring for computers and other communications technology, or adequate electrical outlets. Without the necessary infrastructure, schools cannot use technology to help overcome historical barriers associated with ruralness and isolation. In 1990 rural schools expressed a need for an estimated $2.6 billion for funding maintenance on existing buildings and almost $18 billion to replace obsolete rural schools.

Diversity and poverty. Addressing issues of education in rural areas includes confronting the realities of people in poverty and the growing diversity of rural America. Geographic diversity best defines the issue of diversity in rural America. Using 1990 census data, 333 of the 2,288 rural counties have a minority group that makes up one-third of the population. These counties contain only 12 percent of the total rural population. They are geographically clustered, however, according to the residents' race or ethnic group. Rural minorities often live in geographically isolated communities where poverty is high, opportunity is low, and the economic benefits derived from education and training are limited. Rural counties in which African Americans make up one-third or more of the total population are found only in the South. Native American (American Indian, Alaskan Native) counties are clustered in three areas: the northern High Plains, the Four Corners region in the Southwest, and Alaska. Most of the Hispanic counties lie near the Rio Grande, from its headwaters in southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. Hispanics are the fastest growing rural minority group. Agricultural areas in Washington, ski resorts in Colorado, and meatpacking centers in Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa saw new or greatly expanded Hispanic settlements in the 1990s.

Nearly 10 million poor people live in rural America, comprising almost one of every five rural residents. A poverty gap exists between rural minorities and the white population. Rural minorities are significantly more impoverished as a percentage of the population. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of poor people living in rural America are white (72.9%). Fewer than one-fourth (23.6%) are African Americans, and Hispanics make up only 5.4 percent of the total. Less than 5 percent are Native Americans. These facts contradict the widely held notion that poverty in the United States is a minority problem. These people are the working poor in rural America. Addressing rural education will require solutions to both the poverty gap of minority groups and the persistent impoverished conditions of all rural poor, especially those who work for low wages.

School improvement capacity. Major initiatives in the 1990ssuch as the National Science Foundation's Rural Systemic Initiative, the federal government's Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program, the Annenberg Foundation's Rural Challenge (now the Rural School and Community Trust), and the U.S. Department of Education's Regional Educational Laboratory programhave each in their own way attempted to give assistance to rural school systems. Increasingly, rural school districts are relying on regional educational service agencies (ESAs) in their respective states as vital partners in school improvement efforts. In his 1998 book Expanding the Vision: New Roles for Educational Service Agencies in Rural School District Improvement, E. Robert Stephens called on ESAs to pursue strategic goals that will enable them to be the first line of school improvement support for their rural school districts. ESAs are particularly important in giving rural schools the capacity to educate students with special and exceptional learning needs. The Association of Educational Service Agencies is the national professional organization serving ESAs in thirty-three states.

Teacher recruitment and retention. Attracting and retaining quality teachers will be critical in creating and implementing higher standards for student academic achievement. According to Said Yasin's report "The Supply and Demand of Elementary and Secondary School Teachers in the United States," during the 19981999 school year there were 2.78 million teachers in public schools. More than a million of those teachers (approximately 40%) were in six states: California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Ohio, and Texas. These six states also have almost 1,400 rural school districts. The number of elementary and secondary school teachers was projected to increase by 1.1 percent annually to a total of 3.46 million by 2008. Urban and poor communities will have the greatest need for teachers, with more than 700,000 additional teachers needed by 2010.

The rural teacher shortage affects all subject areas but particularly math, science, and special education. According to the National Association of State Boards of Education, an adequate number of teachers is trained each year. The problem is one of distribution. Causes for a teacher shortage in rural areas include: social and cultural isolation, poor pay and salary differentials, limited teacher mobility, lack of personal privacy, rigid lockstep salary schedules and monetary practices, the luring of teachers away by higher paying private sector businesses and industries, strict teacher certification and licensure practices and tests, lack of reciprocal certification and licensure to enable teaching in another state, recruitment cost (time/costs to gather information), and a high rate of teacher turnover (30% to 50% in some areas).

Leadership. The most critical issues in managing and running small rural school districts are finances, regional economic conditions, state regulations, salaries, and providing an adequate variety of classes. The greatest turnover among superintendents occurs among the smallest districts, those with fewer than 300 students. An environment of high-stakes testing and increasing public accountability for student and school success is placing a premium on persons who can effectively lead schools (and school districts). As is noted in the 1999 book Leadership for Rural Schools: Lessons for All Educators, edited by Donald M. Chalker, being an effective principal in a rural area means building positive relationships with the people in the rural community. The school in the rural community is still a respected institution, with much more focus on people than on business. Building trust and finding ways to make the curriculum incorporate the strengths of the community are key features of successful school leaders in rural areas. In the decades ahead, leading rural schools and school systems in ways that contribute to community and economic development appear essential for sustaining a prosperous school and community in much of rural America.

Policy action. Lack of a precise demographic rural definition frustrates those who work in setting educational policy. In 2000, for the first time in history, an organizationthe Rural School and Community Trustsystematically attempted to gauge and describe the relative importance of rural education in each state. This first effort used both importance and urgency gauges. The results revealed a cluster of seven states where rural education is crucial to the state's educational performance and where the need for attention is great: Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and West Virginia. These states are in regions that are chronically depressed, suffer large areas of out-migration, and are deeply distressed by changes in the global economy. Louisiana, Montana, and Oklahoma rounded out the top ten states where rural education was important and the need for policy action was urgent. That twenty-five states now have affiliate organizations with the National Rural Education Association also reflects the growing trend for rural education interests to unite and seek solutions to public education issues.

Research. In 1991 Alan J. DeYoung pointed out in his book Rural Education: Issues and Practices that rural educational issues rarely attract the attention of prestigious colleges of education and their professorates. Part of the reason is that rural areas are places with traditions and cultures of labor and of working, rather than demand for intellectual understanding and for abstract scholarship. In 1996 rural education researchers Hobart L. Harmon, Craig B. Howley, and John R. Sanders reported in the Journal of Research in Rural Education that only 196 doctoral dissertations were written between 1989 and 1993 on the topic of rural education.

Since 1997, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement has operated Regional Educational Laboratories. These labs were authorized by federal law to devote 25 percent of their funding to meeting the needs of rural schools, part of which has been the conduct of applied research. In 1996 the Education Department designated one of the labs to operate the National Rural Education Specialty, a practice that ended with the start of a new five-year contact period for the labs in 2001. The need for research and evaluation of practice in rural education is likely to increase as more accountability and results are expected from public investments in education.

Educational Services in Rural Areas

Public elementary and secondary schools are the greatest provider of educational services in most local rural communities, and often are the community's largest employer. In 1917, passage of the Smith-Hughes Act by the U.S. Congress provided funds for teaching agriculture to boys in high school, as well as to young farmers and to adults who came to school on a part-time basis. In the 1960s, Congress initiated many educational programs, including Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provided funds for educating disadvantaged children. In the 1970s, federal vocational funds helped establish regional vocational centers in rural areas. Federal school-to-work funds in the 1990s encouraged school systems, including rural school systems, to better connect the school curriculum with the workplace. By the mid-1990s, the U.S. Department of Education operated more than 140 elementary and secondary assistance programs, of which twelve specifically targeted or included rural schools.

Passage of the Morrill Act in 1862 provided an opportunity for persons interested in agriculture and the mechanical arts to attend a land-grant college. In 1914 Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act, which created the Cooperative Agricultural Extension Service, arguably the agency that has provided more educational opportunities for rural adults than any other agency. The Cooperative Extension's 4-H youth program has also been a leading educator of young people in rural America. Like much of rural America itself, these traditional agricultural-focused agencies have been responding to the need to serve a broader constituency in rural areas, in addition to agriculture.

Rapid expansion of community colleges in the 1960s and 1970s greatly expanded higher education and adult education opportunities to many rural communities. These efforts expanded the informal adult education opportunities made available by organizations such as the National Grange, the National Farmers Union, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the National Farmers Organization.

In addition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and a host of other federal agencies operate programs serving the educational needs of rural America.

See also: Agricultural Education; Community Education; Federal Educational Activities; Financial Support of Schools; Poverty and Education; School Facilities.


Beaulieu, Lionel J., and Mulkey, David, eds. 1995. Investing in People: The Human Capital Needs of Rural America. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Beeson, Elizabeth, and Strange, Marty. 2000. Why Rural Matters: The Need for Every State to Take Action on Rural Education. Randolph, VT: Rural School and Community Trust Policy Program.

Castle, Emery N., ed. 1995. The Changing American Countryside: Rural People and Places. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Chalker, Donald M., ed. 1999. Leadership for Rural Schools: Lessons for All Educators. Lancaster, PA: Technomic.

DeYoung, Alan J. 1987. "The Status of American Rural Education Research: An Integrated Review and Commentary." Review of Educational Research 57:123148.

DeYoung, Alan J., ed. 1991. Rural Education: Issues and Practices. New York: Garland.

Dewees, Sarah, and Hammer, Patricia Cahape, eds. 2000. Improving Rural School Facilities: Design, Construction, Finance, and Public Support. Charleston, WV: AEL.

Galston, William A., and Baehler, Karen J. 1995. Rural Development in the United States: Connecting Theory, Practice, and Possibilities. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Gibbs, Robert M.; Swaim, Paul L.; and Teixeira, Ruy, eds. 1998. Rural Education and Training in the New Economy: The Myth of the Rural Skills Gap. Ames: Iowa State University Press.

Haas, Toni, and Nachtigal, Paul. 1998. Place Value: An Educator's Guide to Good Literature on Rural Lifeways, Environments, and Purposes of Education. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearing-house on Rural Education and Small Schools.

Harmon, Hobart L., and Branham, Dan H. 1999. "Creating Standards for Rural Schools: A Matter of Values." High School Magazine 7:1419.

Harmon, Hobart L.; Howley, Craig B.; and Sanders, John R. 1996. "Doctoral Research in Rural Education and the Rural R&D Menu." Journal of Research in Rural Education 12:6875.

Howley, Craig B. 2000. School District Size and School Performance. Charleston, WV: AEL.

Howley, Craig B., and Eckman, John M., eds. 1997. Sustainable Small Schools: A Handbook for Rural Communities. Charleston, WV: AEL.

Howley, Craig B., and Harmon, Hobart L. 2000. "K12 Unit Schooling in Rural America: A First Description." Rural Educator 22:1018.

Howley, Craig B., and Harmon, Hobart L., eds. 2000. Small High Schools that Flourish: Rural Context, Case Studies, and Resources. Charleston, WV: AEL.

McLaughlin, Donald H.; Huberman, Mette B.; and Hawkins, Evelyn K. 1997. Characteristics of Small and Rural School Districts. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Miller, Bruce A. 1995. "The Role of Rural Schools in Community Development: Policy Issues and Implications." Journal of Research in Rural Education 11:163172.

Moore, Robert M., III, ed. 2001. The Hidden America: Social Problems in Rural America for the Twenty-First Century. Selinsgrove, PA: Susque-hanna University Press.

Nachtigal, Paul. 1982. Rural Education: In Search of a Better Way. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Rural Challenge Policy Program. 1999. Public School Standards: Discussing the Case for Community Control. Randolph, VT: Rural Challenge Policy Program.

Seal, Kenna R., and Harmon, Hobart L. 1995. "Realities of Rural School Reform." Phi Delta Kappan 77:119120, 122124.

Sears, David W., and Reid, J. Norman, eds. 1995. Rural Development Strategies. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Stephens, E. Robert. 1988. The Changing Context of Education in a Rural Setting. Charleston, WV: AEL.

Stephens, E. Robert. 1998. Expanding the Vision: New Roles for Educational Service Agencies in Rural School District Improvement. Charleston, WV: AEL.

Stephens, E. Robert; Stern, Joyce D.; Collins, Timothy; and Sanders, John R. 2001. Milestones in Rural Education, 19502000. Greensboro: SERVE, University of North CarolinaGreensboro.

Stern, Joyce D., ed. 1994. The Condition of Education in Rural Schools: Statistical Analysis Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. 1995. Understanding Rural America. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. 1996. "Value of Rural America." Rural Development Perspectives 12:128.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. 1999. "Socioeconomic Conditions." Rural Conditions and Trends 9:1143.

internet resources

ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools, Regional Educational Laboratory at AEL, and National Rural Education Association. 2002. "Rural Education Directory." <>.

National Education Association. 1998. "Status of Public Education in Rural Areas and Small Towns: Comparative Analysis." <>.

Yasin, Said. 1999. "The Supply and Demand of Elementary and Secondary School Teachers in the United States." <>.

Hobart L. Harmon


Rural education is always considered in comparison to urban education. There are other dichotomies, including government versus private or mission schools; access to the first year of schooling for male versus female pupils; the standard of facilities and resources; the education and experience of teachers; and the quality of education offered and the language of instruction (the national language is often a foreign tongue to people in rural areas).

The Challenges of Rural Education

When outside teachers who do not speak the local language staff rural schools, cultural conflict occurs. Often they feel superior to the local people and refuse to take the time to learn about the culture of their host community. Teachers posted to rural schools usually apply for transfers and if denied them simply "run away." Even when "at post," they often teach only a portion of their load, as they find excuses to leaveto collect their pay, to go to the health center, to attend funerals, and so on. Teacher absenteeism is a major problem in rural areas.

In the Majority World (or Third World, the South, where the majority of the peoples of the world live) there exists a range of possibilities that are encompassed by rural. Population densities vary but are usually small and scattered. The environment is also diverse, ranging from plains and deserts to mountain areas with deep valleys and flowing rivers, to places with small islands scattered across large areas of open sea. "Remote" and "isolated" are other categories of rural. Schools in rural areas tend to lack amenities. Electricity is either not available or limited. Where education systems rely on interactive radio and television to deliver primary school classes, the isolated schools are left out. Even if they have batteries for radios, the signal either does not reach them or is too weak to be understood. If the community must construct the classrooms and teachers' houses, they are often built out of local or temporary materials, which are perceived as inferior by outsiders. School supplies may never arrive, so teachers fall back on teaching from their kit from their training college days and rely more on rote learning.

Rural schools tend to harbor untrained or unqualified teachers. School inspectors do not like walking or riding in canoes for a number of days, so remote schools rarely get visited. Where population densities are small, rural schools tend to need only one or two teachers. This requires either staggered intakesa class every two or three yearsor multigrade teaching (as in the old one-room, one-teacher schoolhouses in rural America that went from kindergarten to grade twelve, which are now museums as they have been replaced by busing and regional schools).

The solution to this problem in the Majority World has been boarding schools or primary schools with hostels for students from remote communities. Most secondary schools still rely on boarding students from far away.

Some countries, such as Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, and Tanzania, have experimented with "quotas" to control the transition from primary to secondary school so that a fair proportion of those pupils in rural schools are able to continue their education (or to ensure that females are represented at the next level). Selection systems employing quotas have lasted for only a few years because urban elites, who make the decisions, find rural children taking places in schools where their children might have gone.

Where rural schools are inferior in facilities and the quality of teachers (for example, the majority of South African farm schools, which enroll 40 percent of the primary pupils), the consequence is that students tend not to get selected for the next level of schooling. The examinationsthe item banks written by educators who live in citiescontain clear urban biases and favor the progression of urban children. "First-past-the-post" examination systems in rural areas have tended to favor the children of outsiders (such as health professionals, police officers, extension officers, and teachers) over local children.

It has been found, when intelligence tests have been administered, that bright rural children do not get admitted into secondary schools, whereas duller urban children do. This is because first-past-the-post selection systems based on formal primary-school-leaving examinations favor children from urban areas where there are better facilities, equipment, and teachers, and more diverse experiences. All of this contributes to the vicious cycle of rural poverty and neglect. The policy debates are never ending. Where successful, the best students who excel on examinations generally leave their communities, never to return. This results in a leadership vacuum in rural areas. Even youth who have been barred from further studies often migrate to gain experience or seek employment in unskilled jobs that are not available at home.

Changing Strategies

Some policymakers believe that in order to keep young people in rural areas, rural education should be different from urban education. It is claimed that if schooling is more relevant to local conditions and designed to contribute to rural development, the youth may not want to migrate. They also assume, usually fallaciously, that teachers can become community development workers and assist in the transformation of rural areas. The change in name from primary to community schools, which has occurred in many countries, reflects this bias. Planners often ignore the aspirations that rural parents have for their childrento become educated, obtain a job in a city, and send remittances home to their aging parents.

Ways of adapting primary education to local conditions, while maintaining standards and permitting the quality of learning and supporting upward mobility for the brighter children, are being explored in many countries. An example is integrating school gardens with agricultural and nutrition education and school lunch programs. Another is new programs in minority education that address local needs without undermining quality or equality of opportunity.

Urban elites may clamor for "vocationalization," but for other people's children, not their own. Generally there has been a rejection of vocationalization of primary schooling. Rural education must not become "unequal" education. The conviction remains that primary schooling must be a firm foundation for further education, while being terminal for those who are unable to continue to the next level. This was the key message in the 1967 book Education for Self-Reliance, written by Julius Nyerere, president of Tanzania. The challenge of how to achieve both objectives at once continues to exist in the early twenty-first century.

The distribution of school supplies and materials remains a critical issue. Urban schools tend to get supplied first and rural and remote schools last. This syndrome is found in the delivery of most government services and prompted Richard Chambers, a leading rural sociologist, to call in 1997 for "the last first" as fundamental policy to support rural development. It is perhaps unlikely that central ministries of education, either nationally or in regions or districts, will provide isolated schools with computers, solar power, and communication dishes before they have provided the new panacea of information technology or e-learning to their urban schools. The gap between the poor and undereducated in rural areas and their urban counterparts is bound to increase.

Other strategies that have been employed with varying degrees of success include the Book Flood in Fiji, in which schools were given large numbers of storybooks, intended to attract students' attention and to expose them to a wide variety of subjects. The Book Flood was endorsed by the World Bank and has spread to other countries (reading enhances learning, no matter what is read). Inducement allowances have been used to attract and hold qualified teachers in isolated schools. In some countries a "bridging" or extra year of schooling is provided to help children from remote communities catch up. Indonesia has relied on nonformal education centers. In New Zealand and Papua New Guinea vernacular preschools, where reading and writing is taught before grade one, has enhanced the capacity of rural pupils to comprehend formal schooling and to excel in school. In some places, particularly in Central and South America, missionaries run private schools that are of a better quality than those provided by the government. More than 160 countries are struggling with issues related to developing rural education. Rarely do the policymakers strive for a comparative perspective or try to learn from each other. Therefore the policies employed are very diverse.

See also: International Education; International Gap in Technology; Poverty and Education.


Chambers, Robert. 1983. Rural Development: Putting the Last First. London: Longman.

Chambers, Robert. 1997. Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last. London: Intermediate Technology Publications.

Colclough, Christopher, and Lewin, Keith. 1993. Educating All the Children: Strategies for Primary Schooling in the South. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Education Foundation. 2001. Education Atlas of South Africa. Johannesburg, South Africa: Education Foundation.

Gibson, Margaret, and Weeks, Sheldon G. 1990. Improving Education in the Western Province. Waigani, Papua New Guinea: National Research Institute, Division of Educational Research.

Le Roux, Willemien. 2000. Torn Apart: San Children as Change Agents in a Process of Acculturation. Shakawe, Botswana: Kuru Development Trust; Windhoek, Namibia: Working Group for Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa.

Levin, Henry M., and Lockheed, Marlaine E. 1993. Effective Schools in Developing Countries. London: Falmer Press.

Nyerere, Julius. 1967. Education for Self-Reliance. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Government Printers.

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Sheldon G. Weeks