How Rural Schools Undermine Their Home Communities

Hollowing Out the Middle, dustjacketAmerica’s small towns are in decline.

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.

Photos Carr and KefalasPushing those kids doesn’t require a huge amount of effort from the school.

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.

Related posts

[Links updated 30-Mar-2014]

Schools Complicit in Rural Brain Drain

What is happening in many small towns — the devastating loss of educated and talented young people, the aging of the population, and the erosion of the local economy — has repercussions far beyond their boundaries.

In 2001, the Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, with the support of the MacArthur Foundation, began a project to interview young adults in America. The Network chose New York City, San Diego, Minneapolis/St. Paul and the Greater Detroit areas for study.

Then, feeling they were missing something, the Network decided it needed a fifth study site in a small, one-school town, far from the big cities of America’s coasts.

Hollowing Out the Middle, dustjacket Sociologists Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, who had spent their entire careers studying urban issues, were chosen to develop a research site. Because they already had a local connection there, they chose an Iowa town they call Ellis¹.

The researchers moved to Ellis, experienced small town life, and tracked down local high school graduates from the late 1980s and early 1990s to interview about their transition to adulthood.

To their surprise, what Carr and Kefalas  found was that the experiences of young people in America’s heartland was, in many ways, a mirror image of the experience of young people in America’s decaying urban areas. They report their findings and their recommendations in Hollowing out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America. Boston, MA: Beacon, 2009.

The biggest question facing anyone who grows up in a small town is whether he or she should leave or stay. 

Carr and Kefalas found significant differences in community support for those who left their hometown compared to those that stayed.

Those that left were  “a homegrown aristocracy.” Most were children of college-educated parents from the town’s higher socio-economic class. A few were “deserving poor” with some special aptitude or talent.

The community selected these kids, groomed them for bigger things not available at home, supported their achievements, and send them out into the world, never to return.  They became Achievers to whom the community pointed with pride.

Those that stayed in their home communities were not considered worthy of  attention. Stayers were from the lower socio-economic class, began working at early ages to the detriment of their school studies, and moved quickly into full-time work, parenthood, marriage.  In school, the Stayers’ slipping grades and poor attendance were ignored: Those kids didn’t matter.

An in-between group the authors call Seekers were not satisfied with their options if they stayed in Ellis — a dead-end job and marriage to their high school sweetheart — but lacked the money or interest to try college. Many of the Seekers chose the military, which draws a significant portion of its recruits from small towns in America’s heartland.

A little further down the road, those who make the initial decision to leave usually after graduating high school, must decide whether to return to the cozy familiarity of their hometown or continue building lives elsewhere.

Some of Ellis kids who left, came back. Carr and Kefalas identified two distinct groups of returnees.

The High Flyers were folks who had good career opportunities elsewhere but chose to come back because they had jobs they could do in Ellis, had family in the area, and valued the small town lifestyle. Ellis greeted the High Flyers enthusiastically.

The other group, the Boomerangs, started out as Seekers, eager for a more exciting life, but come home dissatisfied after a couple of years of college or a tour of military duty. The Boomerangs re-entered the community, unwelcomed and  largely unnoticed.

Although I live far from Iowa, the patterns and personalities described in Hollowing Out the Middle are familiar in my Upstate New York community. School enrollment is declining. The median age is increasing. There are rising levels of poverty, notably among working age people.

In my next post, I’ll look at specific ways rural schools are undermining the communities in which they exist.

¹ To protect the privacy of those whose stories are told in the book, the name of the town, names of the residents, and identifying details were changed in the book.