Journal Issue: Excellence in the Classroom Volume 17 Number 1 Spring 2007
Features of Rural Student Populations
Several characteristics of students in rural schools, especially the share with special needs, the share with limited English skills, the share of highly mobile students, and the share of students who do not go to college, may impair the ability of rural schools to recruit and retain teachers.
One measure of the prevalence of students with specialized needs by school size and type is the share of students with Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs), which are required by federal law to establish eligibility for federally funded special education services. The share of students with IEPs is at best a crude measure of the incidence of needs because not all students with disabilities are recognized as such. Concerns also exist about the “overidentification” of students having special needs and receiving IEPs, perhaps as a regrettable way of removing them from regular instructional settings or of qualifying a district for additional federal and state financial aid, which may or may not reach the intended students. Another consideration, in small and rural settings, is that parents (particularly well-to-do parents) can respond to deficiencies in services by moving to more highly populated areas with better services, thus reducing pressure on the rural districts to provide services.
A further possible difficulty with an IEP indicator is that IEPs themselves vary enormously in how demanding they are regarding the treatments and services identified. An IEP in a small, rural school could look quite different from one for a similar student in a large, urban school, though no relevant evidence seems to exist.
According to the NCES, rural schools look quite similar to the national average with respect to both the share of schools enrolling students with IEPs (on average, about 98 percent) and the share of enrolled students who received an IEP (on average, about 13 percent).30 A lower share of the smallest schools has any students with IEPs (perhaps reflecting the tendency for parents to leave to find better offerings), but those with IEP students have a higher share of such students.
Other students with unusual needs are also putting pressures on rural schools. Efforts by meatpacking and other place-bound industries to cut costs by hiring recent immigrants are forcing schools to teach more students with limited English language skills. A study by Mark Grey finds enrollments of non- English-speaking students climbing in rural schools with little experience with such students. Grey also calls attention to the consequences for schools of high employee turnover in meatpacking.31 Other researchers also cite the disruptive effects of high student turnover on schools.32 Such problems run counter to the image of bucolic and tranquil rural schools and may over time affect the satisfaction that teachers in rural areas report with their working conditions.33
Rural districts in agricultural regions work with children of very low-income migrant farm workers, whose frequent comings and goings pose challenges for schools. Paul Green’s review of research on migrant workers’ living conditions uncovered crushing poverty and some of the harshest housing and labor conditions the United States has ever known. Edward R. Murrow’s documentary, Harvest of Shame, broadcast on Thanksgiving Day in 1960, called the nation’s attention to the plight of farm workers. In 1971 Robert Coles’s Children of Crisis also provided a detailed look at the conditions of migrant farm workers. A more recent assessment suggests that these conditions have remained disturbingly unchanged.34
Green points out that life expectancy in migratory farm families is quite low, about fortynine years, and that infant mortality rates are quite high. He reports that stresses on migrant families are enormous and also cites maltreatment, malnutrition, and intermittent school attendance among their children.35
Reports that native children as well as teachers refuse to accept migrant children into the school culture do not reflect well on the schools that serve these students. One cannot help but wonder what the increased accountability provisions for schools in No Child Left Behind could inadvertently do to the willingness of schools to accept and provide appropriate education for these children. They could become marginalized and invisible, passed on from one set of largely indifferent institutional caregivers to the next with little sense of collective responsibility.
Instability in the student population of rural areas, however, is not limited to the comings and goings of migrant farm workers. It can also stem from poverty and the tendency of impoverished families to move from community to community to escape creditors and abusive spouses and to try to find work in economies where jobs are not stable.36 Indeed, parallels exist with inner-city schools, where the comings and goings of students also pose significant educational challenges. As accountability measures are strengthened in response to NCLB and related state efforts, decisions need to be made and clarified about how to account for the progress of such highly mobile students. There is some risk that districts will be increasingly reluctant to incorporate mobile students into their programs out of a fear of being held accountable for what will presumably be low test scores.
One final characteristic of students in rural schools that may complicate teacher hiring and retention involves the likelihood of college attendance. As Gibbs argues, rural families have lower incomes and less wealth than urban families and are therefore less able to afford to send their children to college.37 Moreover, rural students who do go to college are more likely to attend less expensive and less prestigious public colleges. The parents of children in rural areas are themselves less likely to have a college education, one of the well-established predictors of college attendance in the next generation.38 As a consequence, college preparation courses are less well established in rural high schools than in others, thereby setting up something of a vicious cycle: college preparation programs are less prevalent in rural areas because demand is less well developed, and demand for such programs is less well developed because the programs do not exist.39 The educational aspirations of rural youngsters will almost surely be low compared with those in other areas of the nation.