Rural Schools Can’t Be “Out of Sight, Out of Mind”
By Gov. Bob Wise
Much of the recent debate over high school reform at the federal level has not involved rural schools; big cities tend to dominate the discussion. “Out of sight, out of mind” may be one explanation. Another may be a set of erroneous assumptions about education in rural America. When one out of every four students fails to graduate from our rural high schools, it’s not just a “local” issue; it’s a national crisis. Every student in America deserves the chance to graduate from high school ready to succeed in college, a career, and life.
Why should education reformers pay attention to rural high schools? And why now?
First, principles of basic equity demand it. The concept of No Child Left Behind was to identify where shortcomings existed in different populations of students and target them for assistance. Rural schools and rural students are no exception. We have an obligation to help them.
Second, beyond the moral imperative for equity is the growing complexity of our economy. With almost 90 percent of the fastest-growing high-wage jobs now requiring postsecondary education,1 our nation needs every child to be prepared to participate in the global economy. No longer can we write off large numbers of children, whether by race or by region, and still meet the steadily growing skill demands of the twenty-first century. Whether a rural-educated child remains in her community or begins a career in Silicon Valley, our nation desperately needs her operating at the maximum of her ability.
Third, another critical element in current reform efforts is the ability to evaluate and replicate. The nature of rural schools and close-knit communities can be more conducive to implementing change rapidly and performing the necessary evaluations. In communities where residents gather in the volunteer fire hall, the church, the local retail outlet, or the high school, discussions are frequent and consensus can often be quickly achieved—another example of how establishing and evaluating successful practices in rural schools can lead to quick replication in more populous areas.
Finally, beyond calling attention to the condition of America’s rural high schools, there is one other overarching priority: the severe budget crises in many state and local governments coupled with the current national urgency for massive education reform dictates a need for major policy actions in the very near future. Given the dire fiscal situation in most states, the reality is that the next two to three years will provide a rare moment when the federal government will be the driving force. The traditional educational functions of administration and instruction will remain with local school districts and states, but the federal government will have the responsibility to provide the commitment and strategic resources for true innovation.
There is a limited window of opportunity at the federal level to achieve critical policy changes that will truly lead to every child graduating from high school ready for college and ready for a career. Addressing the challenges and conditions for rural schools must be part of the solutions.
1U.S. Department of Labor, “America’ s Dynamic Workforce, 2008” (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor,\ 2008), http://www.dol.gov/asp/archive/reports/Workforce2008/ADW2008.pdf (accessed September 1, 2009).