It’s been quite a year. Unless you’re more than 100 years old, have lived in other countries, or are in possession of a fantastic imagination, you’re unlikely to have experienced anything quite like the Covid-19 pandemic.
As 2020 unfolded, my colleague, Sam Redding, and I were struck by the revelation that lots of people were surprised to learn that many rural educators were struggling to offer online classes after schools closed. Living and working in rural places for most of our lives, we were very familiar with the difficulties. I have DSL internet access and feel lucky it’s available here—but I routinely feel the effect of slow download and upload speeds when I try to edit a large document online with colleagues.
My point is not that I’ve experienced a modern rural challenge and you should feel sorry for me. My point is that we took for granted various circumstances of our rural lives. The pandemic revealed to some non-rural folk what some of those circumstances we took for granted are.
Because we’re educators, education researchers, and what are called education “technical assistance providers,” we got to thinking about this. We like to pay attention to population trends—it’s a helpful way to think about who we are as a nation—and one trend caught our attention.
According to data from the Worldbank, the number of people living in rural places in the U.S. has remained relatively stable since 1960. But because the US population also grew and urbanized since then, the percentage of people living in rural communities has declined. This means that a smaller share of people in the US now are likely to have spent an appreciable amount of time in a rural place.
Source: Worldbank Databank, https://databank.worldbank.org/home.aspx
And it is people who make decisions about what education practices, programs, and policies rural educators must use. So it stands to reason that some state education leaders might not know rural people and schools very well and that they might like to as they think about how to ensure that all kids have access to great educational experiences. At the same time, we’ve met a lot of state and local education leaders who do know and love rural communities—and who want to tap into local strengths and relationships to tackle the sometimes-daunting challenges rural schools confront.
Ever-energetic, Sam suggested that we use these insights as inspiration to write a book. It was a pandemic—we weren’t doing much else, after all.
So we did. We were joined by a group of terrific rural education scholars, each taking charge of discussing what research says about four themes: 1) a clear view of contemporary rural education in the U.S., 2) strong rural educators, 3) strong rural learners, and 4) strong rural communities.
Another thing we’d like you to know about this book is that it’s meant for practitioners, people who are doing the hard work of teaching, raising families, leading schools and districts, and leading state-level education organizations. It discusses a lot of research findings so that practitioners can get a good grasp of what we understand at this point about rural learning, teaching, and leading. And it also describes a way that readers can bring together a team to consider what they know about rural education in their state and what they might do to support rural students, educators, and community members.
I’ll close with a quote from the introduction which explains something more about our motivation for writing.
Ultimately, we believe that the capacity to engage, support, and champion rural districts, schools, educators, students, and communities is a matter of equity. Thus, students should have access to equitable educational opportunities, regardless of how rural their zip codes are. Likewise, educators and the communities they serve should be afforded learning and growth opportunities that address their needs, support their priorities, and contribute to community sustainability. The examples herein will help you envision strategies to ensure that rural children and youth go to schools that are as rich, engaging, and rigorous as possible for everyone involved.
Howley, C.W., & Redding, S. (Eds.). (2021). Cultivating rural education: A people-focused approach for states. Information Age Publishing.
Caitlin Howley is a rural education researcher and technical assistance provider with ICF International.