Drop The Judgment, Y’all – Rural Education Isn’t A Monolith

As someone who cares about the nuts and bolts of educational equity, it pains me that so many of those conversations are only focused around urban areas like Louisville and Lexington. That’s why I use my platform here to to argue for things like rural representation in teacher leadership and opportunity gaps in Applachia. Obviously, I was thrilled when I came across a piece last week called “What It’s Like To Attend School In Rural America.”

In it, former PA Teacher of the Year Jennifer Wahl points out a lot of very real, substantive issues with the isolation that rural communities endure, and how it often leads to challenges like higher education deserts or lack of access to public libraries. These are the kinds of issues that I feel have gone overlooked in so many education reform circles, and I applaud Wahl for discussing them in her piece. The fact that rural education finally seems to be picking up steam in the larger conversation about public education gives me some optimism about where we’re headed.

But of course, when any education issue makes its way onto the big stage, there always seems to be an important concept that gets lost along the way… It’s called nuance. And unfortunately, I tend to find that a lot of the sweeping generalizations and labels that get applied to rural schools communities are at best unhelpful, and at worst insulting.

Before we get down into the weeds, the big truth here is that rural education is a highly complex and diverse beast of a topic. That’s something that the reform world still has yet to fully process, and consequently, I don’t think well-intentioned reformers can address the complex issues that ail rural schools and communities until they do.

I’m not just saying that to take a blow at the aforementioned piece, which points out some very real, systemic problems that rural students in poverty encounter on a daily basis. But I must say, it also makes a complete mess in explaining how those same students rise above their circumstances:

Students from a rural background who move up the ladder of economic stability are plunging into a world of completely different values and social norms. As J.D. Vance said in his memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” “When you go from working-class to professional-class, almost everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst.”

This, to me, is just completely wrong. “Rural” does not mean “poor,” and I scoff at the idea that city-dwellers have different values or social norms than rural citizens do. Furthermore, many rural Kentuckians’ lifestyles would be far less comfortable if we upped and left for an urban enclave like Nashville or Louisville.

I want more people talking about rural schools and communities, but in doing so, we’ll have to fight back against some of these raw generalizations.

This Twitter user gets it:

Poverty may be widely associated with rural life, but that doesn’t mean they always go hand in hand. Of course, you may not know that just from listening to public figures like J.D. Vance, who has been heralded for preaching the “hard truths” of rural America. I’m not a believer, and that’s why in one of the first pieces I ever published with Education Post, I called Vance out for essentially victim-blaming poor folks in his native Appalachia.

As Vance would have you believe, “rural culture” itself is to blame for our students’ lack of social mobility. Until you can tell me exactly what that phrase means, that’s a tough sell for me.

My small community in Western Kentucky is definitely “rural,” but that doesn’t mean I identify with Vance’s Appalachia. Go out west to states like Wyoming and Montana, and you’ll see graduating classes of less than a dozen and more cattle than people. In Hawaii, one of the few states that doesn’t use property taxes for school funding, rural schools have extreme issues with teacher recruitment and retention. The point? “Rural education” and “rural culture” isn’t a monolith, and broad generalizations about “what’s wrong with us” isn’t going to make anything better. 

My hope is that as conversations about rural schools continue to brew, more and more rural education advocates hammer that fact home. Ideally, they’ll focus on issues within our locus of control, like helping more pre-service teachers connect with rural schools or getting more students connected to broadband Internet.

Those conversations may not be as fun as collectively lamenting the decay of rural America, but at least they may present some solutions.

Photo: JD Vance on Twitter.

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