Rural education report highlights needs and successes

In the 2022–23 school year, 7.3 million students were enrolled in rural school districts, or about 14 percent of all pupils, according to Why Rural Matters 2023: Centering equity and opportunity, the tenth in a series of reports from the National Rural Education Association. The authors note that the number of students in rural schools exceeds that of solely rural districts, and estimates there are more than 9.5 million students attending rural schools, which “means that more students in the United States attend rural schools than attend the 100 largest U.S. school districts combined.”

The report analyzes the contexts and conditions of rural education in each state in the U.S., spotlighting for policymakers the rural education issues that need to be addressed. As the first report to come out since the pandemic, it adds new indicators related to well-being, equity and the impact of COVID-19 on rural areas.

States are ranked on: Importance of rural education, student and family diversity, educational policy context, educational outcomes and access to supports for learning and development.

“The intent is not to compare states in terms of their differing rates of progress toward an arbitrary goal. Rather, the intent is (1) to provide information and analyses that prioritize policy needs of rural public schools and the communities they serve, and (2) to describe the complexity of rural contexts to give policymakers a more complete picture of challenges faced by their constituencies so that they might formulate policies that are responsive to those challenges,” states the report.

Key findings
  • Rural districts/schools need more access to psychologists and counselors. The student-counselor average in non-rural districts is 295-1; in rural districts the average is 310-1.
  • More access to gifted and talented programs is needed, especially for Black and Hispanic students. About 40 percent of U.S. public rural schools do not offer a program for gifted students. Black and Hispanic students are underrepresented by about 50 percent compared to their enrollment rates.
  • Rural areas may offset some of the impact of poverty on educational outcomes. Across all districts, students experiencing poverty scored 27 points lower than their peers on the grade 8 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math and 22 points lower on the reading assessment; in rural schools, these differences were 22 and 18, respectively.
  • Many rural areas continue to lack basic internet access. More than 13 percent of rural households lack the minimum broadband connection for streaming educational videos or virtual classrooms, compared to 9.9 percent across all locales.
  • Rural students are more likely to graduate high school. In the majority of states, rural students graduate at higher rates than their non-rural peers.
  • Rural teachers make substantially less. The adjusted U.S. average salary for teachers in rural districts is $76,374—a promising jump from the $69,797 four years prior, but still substantially lower than the $81,645 average for non-rural districts even after adjusting for local wage differences.
California findings
  • Overall, California is 34th out of 46 states (with enough rural students to make data available) in the report’s priority rankings of rural indicators that need addressing.
  • California was ranked with others considered “low-priority states” in regard to needing education policy changes related to rural schools. “Many of these states are characterized by small schools and districts and have stronger investments in public education overall,” according to the report.
  • The state is among the top five in highest average rural educator salary.
  • California is among the top 10 priority states where rural high school students are less likely to graduate than non-rural high school students.
  • The state ranks among the worst in counselor-student ratios with more than 400-1.
COVID-19 impacts on rural schools

“In the world of large-scale data sets, and especially publicly available ones, a two to three year lag in availability means that as of the writing of this report, COVID-era data are only just now becoming available,” according to the report.

Rural Matters 2023 looks at the limited research and data available to analyze the impact to rural students on their academics and well-being. Like students across locales, the overarching result of NAEP assessments was a reduction in scores. “In mathematics, rural grade 4 performance declined by two points and rural grade 8 performance declined by eight points in 2022 compared to 2019. In reading, rural grade 4 performance declined by one point and rural grade 8 performance declined by four points.”

The report cites a study of learning loss following a 2005 Pakistan earthquake that closed schools over a period of time. “After modeling these accumulated losses, the study concluded that ‘if learning in grade 3 is reduced by one-third, roughly the amount of time many children are [during the pandemic] likely to be out of school, learning levels in grade 10 (compared to a counterfactual of the same children with no shock) are a full year lower,” states the report.

“New models of intervention are needed as soon as possible to make up for lost instruction earlier to minimize the accumulation of learning loss. One such model, an ‘instruction reorientation strategy,’ combines short-term remediation with long-term reorientation of instruction to children’s learning levels. That model not only erases learning losses, but places grade 10 students farther ahead than they would have been absent the shock of the pandemic,” according to the report.

Rural areas already lacking in access to healthcare saw their situation grow worse. The report cites research from the National Cener for Educational Statistics that “more than two-thirds of public schools reported an increase in the percentage of students seeking mental health services from school since the start of the pandemic” and that “higher percentages of public schools and rural and town locations than in suburban locations strongly disagreed that their school can effectively provide mental health services to all students in need.”