Poverty in Rural K-12 Schools

About one-fifth of the nation’s 55 million K-12 students — about 10.5 million — attend rural schools. Many of those students are being left behind, according to a research report issued in September by the Arlington, Va.-based Rural School and Community Trust.

The report, “Why Rural Matters 2009,” which is updated every two years, analyzes state and regional challenges and opportunities connected to rural K-12 schools in the U.S.

This year’s report takes a new look at the issue of poverty in rural schools using a tool called the Concentrated Poverty Gauge. Developed to analyze the effects of poverty on rural K-12 students, the gauge averages five indicators and identifies states with urgent, critical, serious and fair needs for educational policy reform.

The first indicator ranks states by the number of rural students in concentrated poverty districts. The second indicator measures the percentage of rural poverty in concentrated poverty districts. The third indicator breaks out the percentage of minority students in concentrated rural poverty districts. Fourth, the gauge looks at expenditures per pupil in these districts. Fifth, and last, comes a measure of the educational results in poor districts by looking at graduation rates.

The report calls the graduation rates in concentrated poverty districts “disturbingly low.” Wyoming’s concentrated poverty districts, for instance, graduate fewer than one in three students, compared to an 82 percent average graduation rate when all of the state’s rural districts are considered.

South Carolina’s poorest rural districts graduate four in 10 students. The same holds true for Georgia’s poorest districts. Graduation rates in poor districts in North Dakota and Alaska have fallen below 50 percent. Ten states have rates below 60 percent: North Carolina, Alabama, New Mexico, Arizona, Florida, Michigan, South Dakota, Louisiana, Mississippi and California.

In three states — Colorado, Idaho and Washington — the study found that students attending school in concentrated poverty districts graduated at a higher rate than students in all rural districts. The State of Washington, for example, reports a graduation rate of 104 percent of students from concentrated poverty districts in rural areas, compared to a rate of 76 percent from all rural districts in the state.

The authors of the report speculate that those results may be attributable to social promotion and grade inflation.

Jerry Johnson, a co-author of the report, says that the findings related to poverty stand out in this year’s report. “The concentrated poverty gauge, which is new this year, really makes clear that the worse off you are the more harmed you are by state policy,” he says. “It’s further support for what we’ve consistently seen: state education policies tend to make things worse not better and contribute to widening achievement gaps and pushing children further and further behind.”

Johnson goes on to say that policy makers and the general public don’t realize how desperate conditions are in the nation’s poorest districts and “how severely harmed these students and districts are by bad policy that does not take their circumstances into account.”

Perhaps the greatest insight in the report comes with the recommendation to put aside the state-by-state view of rural education in favor of regional analysis. In the words of the report: “… the real story of the distribution of rural school poverty is that, in terms that may matter most, it is not state boundaries that define the character of what is truly a regional pattern. Instead, there are numerous geo-cultural regions that transcend state boundaries and define clusters of high poverty rural schools that share similar characteristics, including natural resources and landscape, economic base, history and demographic patterns.”

The report suggests that formulating rural educational policies state by state often fails rural areas because geo-cultural rural regions often cross two, three, four or more state boundaries. As a result, different educational policies formulated in two, three, four or more states make for inconsistent — and frequently unsuccessful — rural educational programs.