Most of the reasons for the decline, like technological changes and increasingly interdependent world economies, are largely beyond local control.
Local schools, however, play a significant role in the destruction of their own communities.
Teachers, parents, and other influential adults cherry-pick the young people destined to leave and ignore the ones most likely to stay or return.
In a genuine desire to see their young people succeed, schools encourage the bright kids not only to do well in classes but also to participate in the extra activities that colleges look for in applicants.
Achievers start with advantages
Researchers Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas found the kids most likely to succeed began kindergarten with advantages denied the others :
- parents who value education
- parents who attended college themselves
- parents who can get along without their teen’s paycheck from after-school work.
Underachievers begin behind
By contrast, schools put little effort into the students who require the most effort: the kids whose parents are didn’t attend college themselves and don’t value education. Those students enter kindergarten without experiences that allow them to fit easily into a learning environment.
As economist James L. Heckman argues in a New York Times piece, good pre-kindergarten experiences don’t just develop cognitive skills: They also develop character skills such as self-control, planning, persistence, openness, willingness to engage with others.
Without those character skills, kids get to kindergarten already a half lap behind their peer group. It’s no wonder schools prefer giving their attention to kids who led the race in kindergarten.
Drop out or pushed out?
For their book Hollowing out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, Carr and Kefalas interviewed students who attended a rural Iowa high school in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
One young man they interviewed tells how, as soon as he got his driver’s license, he began working 35 hours a week. Dave had two study halls before a class he disliked, so he found it convenient to skip that class to get to work on time.
One day when he did show up for class, but without his homework done, the teacher took Dave aside and told him he should drop out of school and stop wasting everyone’s time.
Without identifying the student by name, Carr and Kefalas asked the teacher about the incident. “He was silent for a while, then said, ‘I’m not sure which student you mean. There are a couple; those sorts of things happened.’ ”
Those sorts of things do happen to a couple of students in schools everywhere.
But rural schools can least afford to have them happen.
Unfortunately, ignoring their own suicidal impulses is often rural school policy.
Suicidal school policies
When Carr and Kefalas shared their findings with the local school board, telling them they were practically ensuring that their best young people will leave the community, they expected people to be defensive. Instead the school board just shrugged. The only person who responded was the school principal who said, “This is the job we set out to do.”
The effects of the school doing what it sees as its job — educating the best of its young people to go elsewhere — are evident in a declining tax base, aging populations, and in communities struggling to find medical professionals, business owners, and teachers.
Young people are now rural America’s most precious declining resource.
- Could schools grow a local economy?
- Schools need new, innovative business models
- Building narratives and community from school outward
[Links updated 30-Mar-2014]