ERIC Identifier: ED296820
Publication Date: 1988-03-00
Author: Rios, Betty Rose D.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Rural Education and Small Schools Las Cruces NM.
"Rural"--A Concept Beyond Definition? ERIC Digest.
The problem of defining "rural" is not new. People know when they are
rural, but such perception does not satisfy demographers, policymakers, or
educational researchers. After all, difficult policy decisions have to be made
and resources have to be allocated on some quantifiable basis. Numbers, however,
miss the essence of what it means to be rural, and seldom satisfy those on the
receiving end of the definition. Rural people know that rural Maine is not like
rural Texas, which in turn is not like rural Georgia or Alaska.
What follows makes no attempt to provide the definition of rural or rural
education so eagerly sought by journalists, legislators, and others in their
efforts to quickly and neatly pigeonhole rural America and its attributes.
Instead, the intent is to show the complexity of the problem of defining rural,
provide examples of definitions used by various agencies, and list sample
operational definitions derived by educators in the absence of a workable,
WHAT IS RURAL?
In order to define rural education or rural schools, it is necessary to
define rural. Developing such a definition has been a conceptual problem for
some time. For example, in an analysis of 178 rural mental health and sociology
sources published from 1971 through 1980, 43% did not define the "rural" they
discussed, 48% used local or "homemade quantitative" definitions, and 23% used
"external quantitative" definitions, such as census data (Bosak and Perlman,
1982). This presumedly shared understanding of what rural is, and a preference
for other than official definitions of rural, permeates the literature.
WHAT ARE SOME QUANTITATIVE DEFINITIONS OF RURAL?
According to Whitaker (1982), "rural" was first used by the U.S. Bureau of
the Census in 1874 when it was defined as indicating the population of a county
exclusive of any cities or towns with 8,000 or more inhabitants. Modified over
the years, by the 1980 census, a specific definition for rural had been dropped.
Instead, the urban population is now defined as all persons living in urbanized
areas and places of 2,500 or more located outside urbanized areas; all
population not classified as urban constitutes the rural population (U.S. Bureau
of the Census, 1983).
One way to define rural is by determining what it is not. The Office of
Management and the Budget defines metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) as
geographic areas consisting of a large population nucleus, and economically and
socially related adjacent communities. Remaining areas are categorized as
nonmetropolitan (Morrissey, 1987). To further complicate matters, the Farmers
Home Administration considers rural areas to be open country communities of up
to 20,000 in nonmetropolitan areas, and towns of up to 10,000 with a rural
character in metropolitan areas. (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban
Development, 1980). The Rural Highway Public Transportation Administration
defines rural as indicating areas with populations of 5,000 or less. The
Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Social and Rehabilitative
Services, and several agencies under the U.S. Department of Agriculture define
rural as areas outside MSAs (Pressler and Swenson, 1984).
WHAT ARE SOME QUALITATIVE DEFINITIONS OF RURAL?
According to Blakely (1984), major features previously used to define
rural--simple life, agriculture, smallness, homogeneity, and dullness--fail to
describe much of rural America. Instead, rural is increasingly defined by
examining numerous broad categories of information. Deavers and Brown (1985)
have developed seven categories of rural areas based on social, demographic, and
economic information. Economic categories include agriculture, manufacturing,
mining, and government; social dimensions include persistant poverty and growth
of retirement population; proportion of land in federal ownership comprises the
final category. Horn (1985) looks at values, socioeconomic factors, political
structure, locus of control, and priorities for schools. Croft (1984) suggests
that an ecological approach comprised of cultural values, number of people, and
ambiance can be used to work toward a definition of rural. Noting that other
authors propose occupational, ecological, and sociocultural definitions,
Whitaker (1982) also supports complex, multidimensional definitions. He cites
Maine's State Planning Office's 10 category urban-rural typology based on 15
indicators, which include number of year-round residents, persons per household,
degree to which jobs are concentrated on a few industries, percentage of
resident workers in farming or fishing, monthly fluctuations in employment,
percentage of housing built before 1940, etc.
WHAT, THEN, IS RURAL EDUCATION?
Sinced there is no single definition of "rural," it follows that there is no
clear definition for "rural education." Carmichael (1980, p. 21) confidently
defines rural education as "that education provided the school-age children
residing in rural areas," but then notes that there is some confusion over the
term "rural." Dunne (1981) affirms that there is such a thing as rural
education, but cautions that it is not found in large rural schools and not even
in all small schools. Real rural education, she contends, is defined by these
characteristically rural strengths (1981, p. 4): --a lack of distinction between
what belongs in school and what belongs in the community, --a kind of generalism
which expects people to do whatever they are able without filling specialized
roles or performing strictly age-graded functions, --close and supportive ties
between families and schools, --a sense of comfort and cooperative spirit among
school children, and --rural independence and self-reliance translated into the
WHAT ARE SOME DEFINITIONS OF RURAL SCHOOL DISTRICTS AND RURAL SCHOOLS?
Helge's (1983) 3-dimensional approach to categorizing or defining rural
school systems includes elements of topography; population; density; and other
community and district variables, including district administrative structure,
ethnic groups represented in the community, major religions practiced, average
age of residents, community communication and power structures, degree to which
the district collaborates with other agencies, etc. Citing the inadequacy of
Census Bureau definitions for rural, Pladson and Lemon (1982) developed a
two-factor model of ruralness for K-12 or 1-12 schools that encompasses
population and geographical isolation by means of two sets of criteria: school
enrollment and distance from an urban center. Each criterion is divided into
three categories which ultimately yield a model of most to least rural schools.
The enrollment categories cover districts with enrollments of 0-100, 101-300,
and 300-600; isolation categories cover schools located more than 40 miles,
25-40 miles, and 10 to 25 miles from an urban center.
The National Rural and Small Schools Consortium (1986) considers a district
rural if inhabitants number fewer than 150 per square mile, or if the district
is located in a county where 60% or more of the population lives in communities
of 5,000 or fewer. The New York State Education Department (1984) notes that a
rural school district is generally defined as one with 25 or fewer students per
square mile. In 1982, the Small/Rural Education Network Review Panel said that a
rural school district is located in a rural community, or in a county where 60%
or more of the communities are rural. Sheldon Jackson College limits
participation in its Early College Incentive Program to 8th graders from rural
Alaska--towns or villages of under 2,000 (Craddick, 1986). In Arkansas, the
Legislature stipulates that the term rural school shall be interchangeable with
the term small high school and shall include schools of 500 or less in K-12
(General Assembly of the State of Arkansas, 1981). Questionnaires for Hubel's
(1986) survey of rural administrators' research concerns went to superintendents
of K-12 schools of less than 1,000 students. In their study of very small rural
public schools, Dunne and Carlsen (1981) limited the survey to elementary
schools with fewer than 15 pupils per grade, high schools with fewer than 200,
and K-12 or 1-12 schools or districts with fewer than 300 pupils in all grades.
In the 1986 edition of THE CONDITION OF EDUCATION, issued by the U.S.
Department of Education's Center for Education Statistics (1987), five terms
were used to define or imply rurality: rural, nonmetropolitan, small town, small
place, and school size. Rural and nonmetropolitan were used several times as
subsets of metropolitan status, as were suburban and urban. The Center did not
initiate procedures to report data on districts with fewer than 300 students
until March, 1983 (Helge, 1983).
Listing these examples of efforts to define rural districts and rural schools
is not an empty exercise. According to Arends (1987), rural and small schools
enroll nearly 10 million students--a significant figure.
As this sampling of definitions illustrates, the two categories of definition
of rural--qualitative and quantitative--generally spring from two different
needs. Agencies and researchers need quantitative measures that can be easily
manipulated and compared. Others who are closely involved in rural America know
that their part is qualitatively different from other parts. These two divergent
needs--to quantify and to qualify--present a dilemma in terms of access to
resources and programs for rural America and for rural education. It is
difficult to capture qualitative measures in ways that readily translate to
legislation, policy, or management. Furthermore, rural America's insistence that
it is not only different, but also has myriad differences within itself, is both
its strength and weakness. The inability to present a unified, powerful rural
America to legislators and other policymakers ensures that rural issues, such as
education, will continue to receive a lack of recognition.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Arends, Jane H. BUILDING ON EXCELLENCE: REGIONAL PRIORITIES FOR THE
IMPROVEMENT OF RURAL, SMALL SCHOOLS. Washington, DC: Council for Educational
Development and Research, 1987.
Blakely, Edward J. RURAL COMMUNITIES IN AN ADVANCED INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY:
DILEMMAS AND OPPORTUNITIES, 1984. ED 247 048.
Bosak, Jeanine and Baron Perlman. "A Review of the Definition of Rural."
JOURNAL OF RURAL COMMUNITY PSYCHOLOGY 3 (1982): 3-34. ED 238 667.
Carmichael, Dale. "The Challenge of Rural Education." BAYLOR EDUCATOR 5
Craddick, Jan O. EVALUATING THE EARLY COLLEGE INCENTIVE PROGRAM. Sitka, AK:
Sheldon Jackson College, 1986.
Croft, Don B. THE CONCEPT AND ATTRIBUTES OF RURAL. Las Cruces, NM: New Mexico
State Univeristy, 1984 (draft).
Deavers, Kenneth L. and David L. Brown. NATURAL RESOURCES DEPENDENCE, RURAL
DEVELOPMENT, AND RURAL POVERTY. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture,
1985. ED 258 775.
Dunne, Faith. "Is There Such a Thing as Rural Education? A Portrait of the
Small Rural School." THE SMALL SCHOOL FORUM 2 (1981): 2-4.
Dunne, Faith and William S. Carlsen. SMALL RURAL SCHOOLS IN THE UNITED
STATES: A STATISTICAL PROFILE. Washington, DC: National Rural Center, 1981. ED
General Assembly of the State of Arkansas. AN ACT TO ESTABLISH AN OFFICE OF
RURAL SERVICES IN THE STATE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, ACT 682. Little Rock, AR:
March 23, 1981.
Helge, Doris. THE STATE OF THE ART OF RURAL SPECIAL EDUCATION. Murray, KY:
Murray State Univeresity, 1983. ED 241 202.
Horn, Jerry G. RECRUITMENT AND PREPARATION OF QUALITY TEACHERS FOR RURAL
SCHOOLS. Manhattan, KS: Kansas State University, 1985. ED 258 785.
Hubel, Keigh. NATIONAL RURAL EDUCATION ASSOCIATION RESEARCH AGENDA REPORT.
Ft. Collins, CO: National Rural Education Association, 1986. ED 275 471.
Morrissey, Elizabeth S. THE NONMETRO WORKING POOR--A PROFILE OF FAMILY HEADS.
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1987.
National Rural and Small Schools Consortium. DEFINITIONS OF RURAL, SMALL, AND
REMOTE SCHOOLS. Bellingham, WA: Western Washington University, 1986.
New York State Education Department. EDUCATIONAL TELECOMMUNICATIONS IN SMALL
RURAL SCHOOLS, 1984. ED 249 003.
Pladson, Janet L. and Donald K. Lemon. "Elementary Principals and Their
School Districts in Three Categories of Ruralness." RESEARCH IN RURAL EDUCATION
1 (1982): 11-14.
Pressler, Larry and Diane Swenson. RURAL AND SMALL-CITY ELDERLY. AN
INFORMATION PAPER. Washington, DC: Senate Special Committee on Aging, 1984. ED
Small/Rural Education Network Review Panel. MINUTES. Arlington, VA: November
U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1980 CENSUS POPULATION. VOLUME 1, CHARACTERISTICS
OF THE POPULATION. CHAPTER B, GENERAL POPULATION CHARACTERISTICS, PC 80-1-B.
PART 1, UNITED STATES SUMMARY. Suitland, MD: May, 1983. ED 238 977.
U.S. Department of Education. THE CONDITION OF EDUCATION. A STATISTICAL
REPORT. 1986 EDITION. Washington, DC: Center for Educational Statistics, 1987.
ED 277 162.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HOUSING NEEDS OF THE RURAL
ELDERLY AND THE HANDICAPPED. Washington, DC: Office of Policy Development and
Whitaker, William H. THE MANY FACES OF EPHRAIM: IN SEARCH OF A FUNCTIONAL
TYPOLOGY OF RURAL AREAS, 1982. ED 242 459.