Why Rural Matters 2009: An Interview with Co-Author and Researcher Jerry Johnson

Last Updated: December 08, 2009

This article appeared in the November 2009 Rural Policy Matters.
RPM: You’ve been lead research on the last three editions of Why Rural Matters, what stands out to you in this year’s findings?
Jerry Johnson: Regardless of what it is — whether it’s funding for schools or school and district size, or teacher quality — the students who need the most get the least and vice versa. The Concentrated Poverty gauge, which is new this year, really makes clear that the worse off you are the more harmed you are by state policy. It’s further support for what we’ve consistently seen: state education policies tend to make things worse not better and contribute to widening achievement gaps and pushing children further and further behind.
The concentrated poverty gauge also really demonstrates how extreme the variations are among states with regard to challenges faced by rural schools. I think a lot of policymakers and the general public don’t realize how desperate the situation is for the poorest districts, and how severely harmed these students and districts are by bad policy that does not take their circumstances into account.
RPM: Why is it important to continue to do this kind of research?
Jerry Johnson: It’s a prevalent misconception that rural places represent the nation’s past and harbor little relevance for the future. That’s not our view, obviously. Rather, it’s our perspective that the well-being of rural communities is crucial to the future of the nation and that the importance of rural places and rural people will grow in a “greener,” more sustainable world.
(Note: Johnson suggests these reading resources on the importance of rural: Stauber, 2001; Kunstler, 2005; Orr, 1995; Rees, 1997 — full references at the end of this article.)
Understanding and describing the contexts and circumstances in which schooling occurs for the nation’s 10 million rural students is important for two major reasons. First, it is an assertion that rural does indeed matter and will grow even more important in the future. Secondly, information about the contexts and circumstances for rural schools can — and should — inform the work of policymakers and practitioners who are positioned to either make things better or worse for these students and their schools and communities, and — if one accepts the argument about the salience of rural well-being — for the nation as a whole.
It’s also important to help people understand that on the whole rural schools in the United States don’t look like the stereotypical white prosperous Midwestern farm family.
On a much more practical level, the report — not just what we do but how we present it — is the only resource of its kind in offering rural-specific facts, figures, and analyses in a user-friendly format.
RPM: What’s interesting to you about doing this kind of research?
Jerry Johnson: The diversity and complexity of rural America continues to hold my attention. The lack of knowledge about that diversity — or perhaps it’s a lack of appreciation for that diversity among the population in general and policymakers and practitioners in particular — continually surprises me, but it also points to the importance of the work.
Related to that diversity and complexity, it’s interesting to me to see what emerges from the data when we make even slight adjustments to the lenses through which we consider variables describing rural schools and communities — something we do deliberately and for that specific purpose.
RPM: Would you describe a little more about why the indicators and gauges change somewhat in each edition of WRM?
Jerry Johnson: We deliberately alter the statistical indicators we use and the gauges we construct in order to call attention to the variability and complexity of rural education. Our intent in these reports is not — as it is in many state-by-state analyses — to compare states in terms of their differing rates of progress toward an arbitrary goal. Rather, our intent is first to provide information and analyses that highlight the priority policy needs of rural public schools and the communities they serve, and secondly to describe the complexity of rural contexts in ways that can help policymakers better understand the challenges faced by their constituencies and to formulate policies that are responsive to those challenges.
RPM: Are there other ways you hope this research will be used?
Jerry Johnson: I hope it will inform policymaking with regard to the Title I formula. Because of number weighting, a sizable portion of Title I funding is being shifted from high poverty smaller districts to larger districts including districts with lower poverty rates. I think more and more people are learning about this inherent unfairness, and most that do understand on an intellectual level that a formula that takes money from poorer smaller districts and gives it to larger districts is unfair. What I don’t think as many people realize is how desperate the situation is for poor rural districts and how severely the formula harms them and the children they serve. I hope WRM helps people understand how serious issues like this are.
  • Kunstler, J. (2005). The long emergency: Surviving the end of oil, climate change, and other converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century. New York: Grove Press.
  • Orr, D. (1995). Earth in mind: On education, environment, and the human prospect. Washington, DC: Island Press.
  • Rees, W. (1997). Ecological footprints and the imperative of rural sustainability. In I. Audirac (Ed.), Rural sustainable development in America (pp. 41-78). Hoboken, NJ.
  • Stauber, K. (2001). Why invest in rural America and how? A critical public policy question for the 21st century. Kansas City, MO: Center for the Study of Rural America, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
Read more from the November 2009 Rural Policy Matters.