ERIC Identifier: ED438154
Publication Date: 1999-12-00
Author: Carter, Carolyn S.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small
Schools Charleston WV.
Education and Development in Poor Rural Communities:
An Interdisciplinary Research Agenda. ERIC Digest.
More than a third of a century after the Great Society initiatives focused
the nation's attention on inequalities of educational opportunity, poverty
continues to put large numbers of students at risk of school failure (U.S.
Department of Education, 1997). The "invisible" rural poor face particular
challenges (Hodgkinson, 1994). The challenges to education and life success
are most severe for children living in the nation's poorest rural counties,
the 535 rural persistent poverty (RPP) counties.1
Teaching and learning happen within the social, cultural, political,
environmental, and economic contexts of a particular "place." These contexts
influence the opportunities students have to learn and what we expect of
them. Although these contexts are interconnected, efforts to study and
improve education, community services, economic development, and environmental
protection often "pass in the night." Disciplinary structures of academe,
departmentalized funding, lack of a shared definition of "rural," and implicit
urban biases create many structural barriers in attempting to cope with
the messy, nonlinear complexity of poor rural schools and communities.
Consequently, "the information specifically on poor, rural students,
communities, and schools is sketchy, lacking in focus, and not comparable
across studies" (Khattri, Riley, & Kane, 1997, p. 93). For example,
while rural schools educate their students as well as urban systems (Gibbs,
Swaim, & Teixeira, 1998), it is not clear from the data how poor rural
schools compare with poor urban schools.
This Digest provides background information on RPP counties and outlines
critical areas and types of multidisciplinary research needed to develop
tools, programs, and community capacity that can improve the quality of
life, including education, in poor rural communities.
WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT RPP COMMUNITIES
Historically, most RPP communities developed from extraction-based economies
in Appalachia, slave- and sharecropper-based economies in the rural South,
migrant agricultural communities in the Southwest, and scattered Native
American reservations in the northern and western United States (U.S. Department
of Agriculture, 1997). Histories of inequality and outside control of resources
have left many RPP communities with deep social stratification, low-performing
(sometimes dual) education systems, and low expectations for students from
poor families. Schools are asked to prepare students for jobs that are
not available locally, and resources are often controlled by outsiders
or local leaders who rely on access to a cheap labor force.
Studies show a direct relationship between employment opportunities
and the quality of schooling in distressed rural communities (Smith, 1992;
Smith & DeYoung, 1992). When major employers need an educated workforce,
they tend to support quality schooling. This support is reinforced by the
participation of educated parents. However, when local employment opportunities
are insufficient, the well educated tend to leave the area. The community
then loses its investment in education.
Reform efforts in RPP communities also must take into account economic,
political, and social marginalization that continues to structure educational
practice and community life. Sustained reform requires not only engaging
community support but changing traditional social forces that contribute
to poverty (Duncan, 1999).
Building community capacity for change requires developing stronger
human and social capital. Human capital is embodied in individuals' skills
and knowledge and can be created through educational opportunities. Social
capital, embodied in relationships among people, includes the webs of information
flow, social norms, expectations, obligations, sanctions, and trust that
make it possible to achieve particular goals (Coleman, 1988). Histories
of social division across lines of class, culture, ethnicity, gender, or
language in many RPP communities lead to fragmented relations and an inability
to address school and community deficits (Putnam, 1995). Building social
capital requires encompassing all segments of the community by forming
equal partnerships with representatives of government, education (including
higher education), economic development agencies, extension, churches/heritage
institutions, civic groups, foundations, public/private entities, local
media, and families.
In October 1999, an interdisciplinary group of researchers, policymakers,
and experts in education and community engagement met to develop research
agendas for revitalizing RPP communities. Participants at the conference,
funded by the National Science Foundation, developed many of the recommendations
outlined here (Kusimo, Keyes, Balow, Carter, & Poe, 1999). Their recommendations
for research fall into three main categories: (1) capacity building, (2)
policy, and (3) education and interdisciplinary approaches.
Participants called for case studies, model development and testing,
and evaluation studies to determine best practices. Additionally, other
observers have called for robust comparative studies of poor and wealthy
rural and urban schools (Khattri, Riley, & Kane, 1997). Useful research
and development tools would include expanded databases and repositories
for reports, videos, and multimedia representations.
Schools and community development. Much has been written about the potential
role of schools in the economic life of rural communities and of schools
as centers for community development; however, little research documents
these interrelationships (Salant & Waller, 1998). A research agenda
on the role of school/community linkages might include
* strengthening educational achievement and improving schools,
* helping youth become more resilient and adaptive,
* fostering lifelong learning,
* enriching community capacity building,
* revitalizing and developing communities (Hobbs, 1987; 1989),
* increasing educational expectations for all children,
* creating new paradigms for young people to stay in and "grow" their
Local leadership capacities. Research on building community-based leadership
in various capacities might include:
* democratizing relationships, building trust, addressing inequities
in power structures, and involving all constituencies in decision making
* supporting parents as agents of change for children
* developing new avenues for civic engagement (for example, grassroots
access to media)
* identifying and building on cultural, historic, and economic assets
* identifying and supporting technology use, including new and emerging
technology as well as extant forms of technology
* identifying reasonable targets of opportunity for capacity building
(for example, creating school-based adult training programs in computer
applications or other needed skills)
* understanding strategic economic activities, including how to "grow"
good jobs, provide education for staying in the community, train for new
jobs, and capitalize on community skills and assets.
Technology. New technologies and increasing access to distance learning,
telecommuting, and e-commerce show promise for changing power dynamics
and providing new opportunities in distressed rural communities. Research
to document the impacts of telecommunications technologies on poor rural
communities and schools and on social structures and power relationships
in RPP communities would be helpful. Case studies of communities where
both new technologies and appropriate technologies have been used, as well
as research on planning for and use of tomorrow's technologies in distressed
rural communities, would inform future development.
Many critical gaps exist in research on policy. Governmental policies
needed to help facilitate change in one place can sometimes create barriers
elsewhere. For example, rural areas are not eligible for many initiatives
because they cannot meet "economies of scale" criteria or because they
lack required partner institutions or infrastructure.
Policies developed from implicitly urban models may exacerbate rural
challenges, as in the case of recent legislation to reduce class size through
hiring new teachers. Such efforts can weaken the teaching force in RPP
communities when experienced teachers take new jobs in less distressed
communities. Other policies that favor large schools compound the effects
of poverty on the educational achievement of poor children (Howley &
Bickel, 2000). Current policies related to infrastructure development often
do not adequately address biases against poor rural communities.
Disenfranchisement creates particular policy challenges. Because democratic
processes may not work in distressed communities, top-down approaches to
reform or grants to local agencies may strengthen entrenched power structures
that benefit from class divisions. Equal partnership may require extended
efforts in capacity building among disenfranchised groups to increase participation
and local leadership. Useful research would include studies on how to develop
appropriate policies for RPP communities with disenfranchised groups.
Research on policy bias should (1) explore reasons and solutions for
uneven development and unequal educational opportunities, particularly
focusing on race and tribal issues; (2) compare government spending on
rural programs with previous years and with urban/suburban monies; and
(3) investigate ways political inequalities influence learning and opportunities
to learn. Planners need studies of government devolution, demographic shifts,
and ways to harness the underground economy, as well as policies that evaluate
and fund dissemination of successful ideas.
EDUCATION AND INTERDISCIPLINARY APPROACHES
Duncan (1999) argues "a good education is the key that unlocks and expands
the cultural tool kits of the have-nots, and thus gives them the potential
to bring about lasting social change in their persistently poor communities"
(p. 208). To realize the goal of a quality education for all will require
the collaboration of many players, including researchers from a variety
of disciplines. The job will require new perspectives, tools, expertise,
and research that build on assets and successfully
* involve multiple institutions and social structures;
* communicate in the "local language";
* partner equally with communities;
* include all constituencies, developing local leadership;
* cope with the realities of globalization and take advantage of the
potential of e-commerce; and
* create the sense of efficacy, empowerment, self-determination, and
hope that is essential to developing vital rural communities.
Successfully translating empowerment into community action calls for
a much larger role for applied and action research. Such research must
be participatory, owned by those affected by it, and grounded in community
priorities. To address the challenges facing distressed rural communities,
research must be powerful enough to guide us beyond rhetoric and to systemic
1 Rural persistent poverty counties are defined as those below the poverty
level in each of the census years 1960, 1970, 1980, and 1990 (U.S. Department
of Agriculture, 1997). The majority of rural poor are Whites, but Hispanics
and Blacks are disproportionately represented. According to a U.S. GAO
(1993) report on rural school-age children, 34.8% of rural Hispanics, 40.8%
of rural African Americans, 12.2% of rural Whites, 11.6% of rural Asians,
and 59.6% of rural Native Americans live in poverty.
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