|An Introduction from a Regional Viewpoint on Rural
Lawrence B. Friedman, Ph.D.
North Central Regional Educational Laboratory
This volume is one key outcome of the Invitational
Rural Education Conference, April 7, 1989, sponsored by the University
of Northern Iowa, the Iowa State Department of Education, and the North
Central Regional Educational Laboratory. Individually, the papers reflect
the authors' knowledge of the rural education enterprise and its diversity
in Iowa and their commitment to improving and expanding educational opportunities
for all rural students in the state. Collectively, the papers depict the
state of rural education in Iowa near the end of the 1980s from a broad
range of viewpoints, including those of teachers, administrators, counselors,
parents, school board members, legislators, state department and area educational
agency staff, professional organizations and advocacy groups. The wide
variety of viewpoints has resulted in a remarkably, and perhaps uniquely,
rich composite picture of rural education in one state.
This introduction represents yet another
point of view, a regional perspective, on rural education in Iowa. I am
the Director of the Education Program at the North Central Regional Educational
Laboratory. The lab, funded primarily out of the United States Education
Department, serves a region of seven states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan,
Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The Rural Education Program conducts a
broad range of projects to develop and identify promising and successful
rural education practices in the region; describe the conditions of rural
education across the region; and dissemination of information on the practices
and conditions to the region. Thus, when I attended the conference and
read the papers in this volume, I could not help but compare what I was
learning about rural education in Iowa with what I had learned about rural
education in the region. This introduction is the result of the comparison.
It briefly characterizes rural students and schools in Iowa and discusses
two Iowa rural education issues in Iowa repeatedly identified by the authors
in this volume that also are concerns of rural education stakeholders across
Iowa's Rural Students and Schools
In brief, almost a third of Iowa's K-12
students attend the almost 50 percent of the state's schools that are rural
schools. Of the nearly all white students population, nearly one in five
are eligible for free school lunches. The average rural school enrollment
is 279 and almost all enroll 500 or fewer students. Compared to the students
and schools of the North Central region as a whole, a substantially higher
percentage of Iowa's K-12 student population and schools are rural. The
ethnic composition of Iowa's K-12 rural student population is slightly
more homogeneous than the region's and a slightly higher percentage of
the population is eligible for free school lunches than in the region.
Iowa's rural schools, on the average, are substantially smaller than the
region's. More specifically,
Almost 151,800 K-12 students attended
Iowa's rural schools, approximately 31.5 percent of the state's slightly
more than 480,500 students (approximate averages for North Central states:
225,200 rural students, 19.4 percent of 1,158,800 students).
Iowa's K-12 rural student population
was more homogeneous (approximately 99 percent white) than the state's
total student population (just under 95 percent white) (approximate averages
for North Central states: rural students--97 percent white, total students
--81 percent white).
Almost 18 percent of Iowa's K-12 rural
students were eligible for free school lunches (approximate average for
the North Central states of Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin: 16
There were 804 rural schools in Iowa,
49.2 percent of the 1,633 schools in the state (approximate averages for
North Central states: 795 rural schools, 29.7 percent of 2680 total schools).
The median size of Iowa's rural schools
was 172 students, compared to 246 for the state, and the average size of
a rural school in Iowa was 189 students, compared to 294 for the state
(approximate averages for North Central states: rural school median size--239,
state median size--425; rural school average size--290, state average size--373).
Nearly all of Iowa's rural schools (99.3
percent) had enrollments of 500 students or fewer and 88.5 percent of them
enrolled 300 or fewer students. At the state level, 89.6 percent of the
schools enrolled 500 or fewer students and 63.4 percent enrolled 300 or
fewer (approximate averages for North Central states: rural schools--86.2
percent enrolled 500 or fewer students and 62.2 percent enrolled 300 or
fewer; total schools--68.1 percent enrolled 500 or fewer and 35.5 percent
enrolled 300 or fewer).
Given this profile of rural students and schools
in Iowa, it is by no means surprising that Iowans have devoted considerable
time, effort, and resources to identifying and addressing rural education
issues. This volume shows that this is indeed the case and that there are
many success stories from which the rural education community of the North
Central region can lean.
Rural Education Issues in Iowa and Responses
Almost all, if not all, of the Iowa rural
education issues identified in this collection of papers are specific instances
of two general rural education issues—equity of educational opportunity
for rural students and efficiency of rural school operations. The volume
makes clear that the issues are interconnected, as are their roots and
their resolutions. The volume also makes clear that the equity and efficiency
issues are being addressed at both the state and local levels.
Equity of Educational Opportunities. Many
of the volume's papers argue explicitly that Iowa's rural students generally
have fewer and/or lower quality educational opportunities than their non
rural counter parts. This argument is implicit in most of the others, whether
staff development, finance, technology, or school effectiveness is under
discussion. Most often the inequity is described in terms of curricular
offerings at the high school level; rural students have fewer courses available
to them than students in non rural schools. Some authors also identify
other sources of inequity that exist at the elementary as well as the high
school level, such as teachers teaching outside their areas of expertise
and lack of staff development and professional development activities through
which teachers become more expert. However, authors also indicate that
often rural students have certain educational advantages, such as small
classes, close student teacher relations, and rich experiences in extracurricular
In summary, the volume paints a picture of both
the positive and problematic aspects of the educational opportunities available
to Iowa' s rural students. In some respects, the state's rural students
have fewer or lower quality opportunities and in others, they have more
or higher quality opportunities. This state of affairs must be taken into
account when addressing the equity issue. Care must be taken to insure
that a strategy does not create new educational opportunities at the expense
of existing ones. For instance, adding high school courses through increasing
teaching loads might easily have a negative effect on student teacher relations
and decrease the time teachers can spend on students' extracurricular activities.
Also, strategies that define the equity issue too narrowly, say only in
terms of inequity in high school curriculum offerings, are likely to ignore
other equally important aspects of the equity issue.
Efficiency of Rural School Operations. It
is often claimed that rural schools operate less efficiently than nonrural
schools; that is, rural schools require more resources than their non-rural
counterparts to operate at the same level. However, the discussions of
rural school efficiency in this volume strongly suggest that Iowa's rural
schools in general operate as efficiently as their non rural counterparts.
The papers suggest that many of the factors contributing to the higher
per pupil costs in rural schools than in non rural schools are facts of
rural life that can be changed only with great difficulty, if at all. For
instance, it is pointed out that greater student transportation requirements
and lower student teacher ratios are part and parcel of rural education
in Iowa. Thus, higher per pupil costs that appear to be the result of relative
inefficiency are often really the result of operating a school under rural
conditions. Resource allocation mechanisms, particularly funding formulas,
that do not take such conditions into account penalize rural schools and
their students. Most, but not all, of the papers that discuss rural school
efficiency, argue that Iowa's rural schools and students have been penalized.
Connections between the Equity and Efficiency
Issues. Authors in this volume who address both issues point out that the
two issues are interconnected in three critical ways.
Clearly, more efficient rural schools
would be able to allocate more resources to educational opportunities for
their students. This volume suggests that a bedrock question is in which
respects Iowa's rural schools could be and could not be operated more efficiently,
given the conditions in which they operate.
The small size and remote location typical
of Iowa’s rural schools are key, if not the key factors, in formulating
and resolving the equity and efficiency issues. When, if ever, is a rural
school too small and/or too remote to provide the educational opportunities
for its students comparable to those provided by nonrural schools? When,
if ever, is a rural school too small and/or remote to operate at efficiency
levels comparable to those of non rural schools? If there is a point at
which a rural school is too small to meet its obligations to its students,
what alternatives exist for the students?
The recent economic dislocations and
consequent social and individual hardships in rural Iowa have made the
resolutions of both issues more difficult and more urgent. The economic
dislocations have left many rural communities and the state less able to
increase financial resources for education. The resulting social and individual
hardships in many rural communities have loosened school/student, school/parent,
and school/community bonds. Under these conditions, the goals of improved
educational opportunities for students and more efficient operations become
harder for rural schools to reach.
Responses to the Issues. The wide variety of responses
to the equity and efficiency issues suggested by the authors in this volume
may be categorized under three headings:
of existing funding mechanisms. The authors argue that equity demands increased
funding for rural districts
in absolute terms and in relation to their nonrural counterparts. They
suggest a number of ways existing funding
mechanisms can be restructured to reflect the conditions under which rural
districts operate and therefore allocate
funds more equitably.
Increased and more varied collaboration.
As is quite clear from this volume, Iowa's rural educators are expert collaborators,
whether sharing administrators, courses, or teachers. The authors argue
that collaboration among rural districts, the Area Education Agencies,
and the Iowa Department of Education have increased the educational opportunities
that rural schools provide and the efficiency with which they are provided.
They recommend that such collaborations should continue to be encouraged
Increased and more coordinated use of
technologies. While cautioning that technology will not solve the equity
and efficiency issues, the authors strongly suggest that Iowa's rural education
community has only scratched the surface when it comes to technology. They
are enthusiastic about the possibilities for increasing instructional,
curricular, administrative, and professional development opportunities
in rural districts via technology. They stress that state wide coordination
is essential for using technology efficiently.
In summary, the volume suggests that the equity and
efficiency issues are best addressed through continued innovation in three
areas: funding for rural districts, collaboration among rural educators,
and the coordinated application of technology to the enterprise of rural
education in Iowa. The volume contributes significantly to the basis from
which further innovations will spring in Iowa and the North Central region.
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