George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Equity

Addressing the Challenges of Rural Students

Rural students often have fewer educational opportunities than metro-area peers, but teachers can work with families to improve outcomes.

June 8, 2021
Fertnig / iStock

Rural districts are an often-overlooked part of the complex American education system, even though 9.3 million students—or one in five nationally—attend a rural school. These districts are typically disregarded because of their small populations compared with larger single districts in more urban areas. In terms of funding, national and state legislation tends to be more directly applied to the larger districts in an attempt to effect the most positive change for as many students as possible. However, when considered as a group, rural districts encompass a large number of students nationwide.

Despite specific challenges within rural districts, students in these districts often score at or above their peers on state and national testing. According to the Economic Research Service at the USDA, in 2018, 22.4 percent of students in non-metro schools were in poverty compared with their metro school counterparts at 17.3 percent. While these students perform well on assessments statistically, their school experience is different from that of their suburban or urban peers in several ways.

To begin with, a large portion of rural students must deal with a lack of access to quality reading materials and instruction at an early age (especially preschool), a lack of consistent access to medical care, the impact of opioid abuse and child homelessness in low-income and rural communities, and other factors. To meet the specific needs of rural students, there are a variety of strategies that can help guarantee access to learning.

The Education Equation

By engaging all components of the learning process—teachers, students, and families—teachers are more able to assess the specific needs of their students and address them with purpose. When positive bonds or relationships are cultivated between each of the components, teachers are more equipped to design learning experiences that fit the needs of their students.

Educators connect in meaningful ways with their students inside the classroom, employing a variety of strategies to build strong bonds and a community of learning. It can be more difficult to establish those purposeful bonds with families. Routinely making calls to parents, sending out weekly or monthly newsletters, or meeting with parents in person can go a long way toward fostering a focus on learning. In rural communities, families are often the central factor in student success in the classroom.

Regular transparent communication with families about your expectations for learning and behavior can have a tremendous positive impact and create an accessible environment for learning. This cultivates a system of accountability, includes families in the process, and helps build student agency within the classroom.

Equity in Learning

For rural students, it can be difficult to connect new learning with prior experiences. Many times, rural students lack life experiences that other students may have because of the typically isolated nature of their families and communities, which can limit their ability to fully benefit from a diverse curriculum. Additionally, rural students don’t have access to a variety of accelerated courses that may be more available in urban or suburban school districts, including AP and dual credit courses.

While working with the district administration to provide these resources in a rural district can be a long and difficult process, administrators often respond positively when approached with possible solutions. Advocating for your students can help encourage administrators to make decisions that will improve the situation.

Rural students also lack consistent access to quality early reading opportunities because of the socioeconomic circumstances of some families and the absence of financial flexibility in rural districts to allocate money to address these issues. For example, while many students have access to local libraries not far from their homes in a rural setting, their districts may not have the time or funding to establish beneficial relationships with the library system that would enable and encourage families and students to take advantage of those resources, especially at the preschool level.

Within the classroom, teachers have the training and ability to modify materials and design curricula that provide greater access to learning at little to no cost with high levels of positive impact on student learning. A barrier for most struggling students is the inability to decode and comprehend complex grade-level texts in every subject. If you modify what texts specific students are required to read, or scaffold their learning by front-loading important vocabulary or other prerequisite information, rural students who may struggle to access the content will have a greater opportunity for success.

Additionally, a lack of funding in rural districts may also mean that many students might not have regular access to technology that would allow them to participate in generally more engaging learning activities.

Creating a School-Home Feedback Loop

These strategies for engaging rural students are centered around developing a feedback loop that consists of teachers, students, and parents. A feedback loop, when purposefully designed, can be an asset in the classroom in limitless ways. It should focus on setting and clarifying learning expectations on a weekly or monthly basis in addition to providing comments specifically focused on creating opportunities for students to revise their work for deeper learning. Parents should have enough information to hold their children accountable for learning.

Teachers need to make a fervent attempt to actively remove all forms of doubt from the rural classroom and continually seek to maintain open lines of communication that enable them to implement an engaging and accessible curriculum. Removing doubt from the curriculum requires that both families and students understand your expectations for their learning, what content is being addressed, and how they might succeed within the learning environment.

While educators in rural districts are capable of designing curriculum in this way, many may lack the experience or training to do so. There also may need to be a shift in the understanding of the nature of learning that may entail a period of adjustment to new styles of teaching. Rural students, in particular, require sound relationships between all of the stakeholders in their education, and teachers can create and foster this dynamic by taking a few purposeful steps toward a more collaborative and transparent classroom.

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George Lucas Educational Foundation