Where Has All the "Rural" Gone?

Last Updated: March 01, 2001

Where Has All the Rural Gone?

Report PDF (147 KB)

Rural Education Research and Current Federal Reform

By Topper Sherwood

Like the traditional American farmer, the rural education researcher appears to be something of an “endangered species.” Rural education research has been misunderstood, underfunded, unencouraged and, taken as a whole, the resulting collection of work has suffered for it, according to many observers. A variety of studies—notably, analyses supported by the U.S. Department of Education itself—identify significant deficiencies in the national body of research, including available raw data, on rural schools.

Time and again, rural areas have been declared the orphaned “stepchild” of the national education research program, which has largely failed to adequately identify and address conditions specific to them. Moreover, when attention is paid to “rural,” it is more often for the sake of a representative sampling than for learning something more substantive about rural schools. Many education researchers are unable to shed or even recognize their own urban biases, and too often assess rural communities in terms of inadequacy, as opposed to their assets. All this contributes to the deficiency of data and conclusive intelligence. Just as poverty of capital resources causes physical suffering, the lack of solid information about “rural”—in an age that purportedly values information above all else—causes many rural communities to endure lessons of contemporary education reform learned “the hard way.”

This situation is unfortunate for all, because—aside from the fact that almost 7 million U.S. students (16.7 percent of all) attend some 22,400 rural schools (28 percent of U.S. schools)—rural districts have valuable stories to tell. A 1994 report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Research and improvement (OERI), pointed out that rural schools often serve as the “proving grounds” for a range of educational innovation:

Many so-called ‘innovations’ being championed today were born of necessity long ago in the rural schoolhouse... Cooperative learning, multi-grade 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... all characterize rural and small school practices.