Between 1999 and 2004, people on the Gulf Islands of British Columbia’s Strait of Georgia (an area along with the Puget Sound to the south dubbed the Salish Sea) created their own community maps, an example of place-based education.

What’s the point of rural education?

In her case study of a Missouri school district, Kathleen Budge finds that some educators think living in a rural community makes their students apathetic and unsophisticated. Because rural students fail to “see the bigger picture,” their academic aspirations are limited to high school graduation. The point of rural schools, according to some of the educators Budge interviewed, is to “get them [students] ready for the real world” — that is, a world of college and work away from their communities. This is a view shared by some economists, guidance counselors, and education researchers.

But in another study of 26 rural work-bound, college-able seniors in 11 schools in New York report that their aspirations are, in fact, “real world.” As one student put it, “See, [educators] think that because [work-bound students] aren’t going on to college that they’re just blowing it off, they’re taking the easy route. They need to realize that they’re actually working to go on to work.”

Students in the New York study say that their immediate plans are to join the military, complete vocational training, or begin work. Some plan to attend college later, but are first saving money and gaining life experience. Yet they all argue that their plans are “real world,” decisions based on family needs, a desire for immediate financial independence, or a concern that they not attend college “just to go.” Some of the students even suggest that it’s college-bound kids who are out of touch with the “real world” because further studies prolong their adolescence and dependence on family.

It’s interesting to note that some students’ “real life” aspirations are for making just enough income to provide for comfortable family lives. Their hopes for the future appear to reject fast-paced, achievement-oriented — and ostensibly non-rural — middle class lifestyles.

Students in the study who decided not to attend college immediately recognize that their plans often aren’t supported by their schools. Their adult, “real life” decisions are devalued by educators. The researcher found:

There appears to be a contradiction between social expectations of the outcome of high school and adult identity development. On one hand, individual achievement and responsibility, including responsibility for one’s choices and actions, are social expectations for achievement of adult status. Yet, as these students sense, when students like them make independent decisions regarding occupational choices, achieve these and take responsibility for them, their choices are less valued by educators if they have not chosen to attend college when they have the academic capability to do so. These work-bound students expressed the perception that the singular valued purpose of a high school education was academic preparation for college.

It is clear to the students that the point of a school is in large part to get kids ready for college. But the irony is that, given the economic straits of many rural places, college education often prepares youth for jobs that are not likely to be located in their hometowns. As Daniel Lichter and his co-authors put it, there are “low economic returns to education in depressed rural labor markets—a high school or college education is less likely to be rewarded with a decent job in America’s small towns and rural areas.”

This is an uncomfortable quandary for many rural kids. For example, in a study of 351 rural Iowa youth, researchers found the prospect of leaving local communities to pursue adult job opportunities leads to increased reports of unhappiness. Young people who plan to move away from their rural communities after high school graduation are more likely to express unhappiness with their life chances than those who plan to stay. But declining local economic opportunities and greater educational prospects elsewhere propel many youth out of their home towns.

Fortunately, there are rural schools out there that recognize that the point of education is not simply to prepare kids for jobs. Place-based approaches to education are one way rural schools can encourage the life of the mind without encouraging kids to abandon the life of their communities. These approaches often link curriculum and instruction to local community needs, including economic development. Ideally, as schools and communities find paths to sustainable economic growth, rural youth may find less need to move elsewhere to pursue good jobs.

The Rhinelander school district in Wisconsin teaches its students using the region’s incredible landscape as a classroom. Kirby Kohler talked to students about tracking furbearing animals.

Promise of Place and The Rural School and Community Trust have some great examples of active and effective initiatives. For instance, students at Cannon County High School in Tennessee built and operate a greenhouse, both as a component of the school’s agricultural science program and in response to the community’s need for diversified crops in the face of declining tobacco production. In Littleton, New Hampshire, students developed a way to melt snow off roads and sidewalks by using buried pipes filled with a heating fluid, saving the community money and limiting the damage done by the usual snow removal methods. And check out this cool “museum” set up by students in Kalskag, Alaska.

Yes, students will eventually need to earn a living. But schools can offer more than job training. This is especially important in rural places, where students, parents, and educators must confront the fact that high educational attainment isn’t necessarily the healthiest outcome for the community’s future if it means that graduates leave to pursue opportunities elsewhere.

Helping students acquire the tools to think for themselves, understand their world, make authentic civic contributions, and devise their own destinies are laudable educational purposes. Perhaps most importantly for rural places, education can give kids the insights and skills for reinvigorating the communities they may be reluctant to leave.

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