Ethan Darden and Gunner Murphy, students at Barrackville Elementary/Middle School in rural Marion County, WV, learned about blackbirds via a display from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

[imgcontainer] [img:WVstudentsblackbirds530.jpg] [source]West Virginia Department of Education[/source] Ethan Darden and Gunner Murphy, students at Barrackville Elementary/Middle School in rural Marion County, WV, learned about blackbirds via a display from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. [/imgcontainer]

What does a former governor have to say about education in our very rural state – West Virginia? With a group of other rural activists, I went to Charleston recently to find out.
Bob Wise, current president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and West Virginia’s governor 2001-05, was speaking at a meeting  sponsored by the Education Alliance. (The nation’s only statewide public education fund, the Alliance works to create partnerships between public schools and businesses.)

Wise focused on the nation’s high drop out, and low graduation, rates. According to a report released by his organization, roughly 1.2 million students don’t graduate from high school on time each year, with racial/ethnic minority and low-income students disproportionately represented among these non-graduates. Although he didn’t report on rural drop out rates specifically, the National Center for Education Statistics’ Status of Education in Rural America indicates that 11% of rural students were dropouts in 2004, whereas 9% of suburban and 13% of urban students were. Likewise, the graduation rate was higher in higher in rural areas (75%) than in cities (65%), but lower than in towns (76%) and suburbs (79%).

Wise emphasized the economic costs of dropping out of high school. According to an Alliance report, the average yearly income for high school dropouts is $17,299, compared to $26,933 for high school graduates. These costs are not simply individual losses, said Wise. High school dropouts also cost states and localities in lost income and wealth and increased public spending on food stamps, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and other need-based social programs. He spoke of the expense of prisons as another cost of low graduation rates.

Yet Wise also posed the problem as a moral one: young people deserve full, decent, and equitable educations.

Since, as he put it, “the Bible and the billfold” come together in this issue, it’s a rare political moment. Wise stressed that in conjunction with Obama’s pursuit of national “college- and career-readiness” and rapid changes in state education policy (spurred by the various Department of Education funding competitions — notably the Race to the Top), the time to pursue education reform is just about right.

As an aside, Wise did note that not all of the Obama education reforms are feasible for rural communities. Wise cited charter schools in particular, saying that some rural communities could barely afford and populate their local public schools, let alone establish another independent charter institution.

[imgcontainer] [img:wvstudents-tree530.jpg] [source]West Virginia Department of Education[/source] Earth science students in Tyler County, WV, planted a sapling chestnut near a stream by the high school campus, reintroducing this native tree to the region. [/imgcontainer]

What’s to be done? Wise’s fixes for high dropout rates include adoption of the Common Core standards, developed by states and coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Forty-eight states have tentatively committed to adopting these math and English language arts standards, although they are not yet final.

I haven’t recovered from the mental whiplash I got from this enormous leap — “problem” to “policy solution.” Wise did not explain, first, what contributes to high drop out rates, or, second, how his proposed solution – common core standards — addresses whatever causes young people to drop out. The voluntary(ish) adoption of common content standards across states may ultimately prove useful, but I wasn’t convinced, because Wise skipped the important bit: he failed to warrant his claim for why common standards are the best bet for lowering drop out rates. And he certainly didn’t address the concerns that some rural communities have about what it means to integrate a more global curriculum into their local instruction.

So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised at Wise’s answer to my rural question to him. I asked how we should deal with the rural education irony, whereby rural kids who graduate from high school and go on to get college degrees discover that they are overqualified for local jobs and end up leaving their rural homes. I asked how we could do the right thing—make sure kids get all the education they can stand, reaching as much of their intellectual potential as possible—without also contributing to the depopulation of rural communities.

Wise answered that we have no other choice — that educating kids to their potential is the right thing to do. He cited the development of highways as an analogy; interstates bring people in, but people also use them to leave. But, he said, not all kids leave, and some of those who do come back home and create new jobs. Essentially, Wise said, it’s a risk we have to take. That risk, plus broadband, he added, might save rural communities.

[imgcontainer] [img:wvstudents-books530.jpg] [source]West Virginia Department of Education[/source] Fourth graders from Chapman Elementary School (Logan County, WV) presented Governor Joe Manchin with copies of their magazine of the state’s history: West Virginia Did You Know [/imgcontainer]

It wasn’t the full back-and-forth dialogue I wanted. If it had been, I would have cited some data about how rare it is for formerly rural kids to return and inspire real economic development. For example, in their book Hollowing Out the Middle, Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas examine the uneven outcomes of various efforts to lure the “creative class” back to rural states. And I would have added that something else is wanted along with the education we must provide.

I’m no policy wonk, but I do know that there is some empirical evidence that place-based approaches, which pair local curriculums with community development efforts, might help. Or that regional partnerships and school district cooperatives can be used to achieve economies of scale that allow rural communities and schools to develop and fund local solutions to the twinned issues of economic decline and outmigration.

But the lack of any policy suggestion was disheartening, especially from a local boy, someone who should know what the rural “brain drain” is doing to his home state. My purpose here is certainly not to bash Governor Wise. I do, however, want to point up what our exchange suggests—that we rural education activists probably need to do more education and to be more active.

Caitlin Howley is a Senior Manager for Education and Research in the Appalachian Regional Office of ICF International.

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