Rural Schools | Feature

Keeping Rural Schools Up to Speed

Rural schools are long accustomed to meeting challenges in innovative ways. For them, the challenge is not so much a lack of technology as a lack of internet access, which affects both teachers and students.

Rural schools and students constitute a substantial segment of American society. More than half of all public school districts and one -third of all public schools are in rural communities. There are nearly 740,000 rural schoolteachers (23 percent of the nation's public school workforce), and more than one-fifth of all public school students attend rural schools. However, because of their small size and geographic remoteness, rural schools face challenges unfamiliar to urban and suburban schools.

Rural students tend to have less access to on-site advanced high school courses than do non rural students. In 2002-2003, 69 percent of rural students attended a school offering advanced-placement courses, as compared to 93 percent of students in cities and 96 percent of students in suburbs. When rural students do participate in advanced courses, however, they are often unprepared, and face issues with receiving on-site support and having access to all course materials. Therefore, many rural students lack the full opportunity to learn advanced material.

Also, rural graduating high school students apply to college at lower rates than non rural students. However, for rural students more than non rural students, a supportive school context has been associated with the educational aspirations and predicted post-secondary enrollment.

Access to Content Expertise
Teachers in rural schools need the professional development that will enable them to help their students achieve. However, small rural schools often do not have access to the content expertise that high-quality professional development requires. Therefore, rural schools often find it difficult to recruit and retain high-quality teachers. When vacancies do occur in rural schools, they impact the school more than in larger urban and suburban schools because faculties are smaller in rural schools to begin with. If a science teacher leaves, for example, there may be no science department until another teacher is hired.

A 1995 report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that schools with fewer than 300 students had higher teacher turnover rates than those with 300 students or more. Schools and Staffing Survey results also substantiated the relationship between school size and teacher recruitment, as a higher percentage of small rural schools ( fewer than 200 students) reported that filling teaching vacancies was either "very difficult" or they were "not able to fill," compared to the percentage reported by all public schools.

One approach to the teacher retention challenge, especially the retention of new teachers, has been the introduction of comprehensive and ongoing teacher mentoring programs. Studies of programs in non rural schools that provide support and guidance to novice educators in the early stages of their careers have reported success in retaining new teachers--when the mentor teaches the same subject. However, compared to non rural teachers, a smaller percentage of rural teachers reported involvement in any kind of induction program during their first year of teaching. Even when new rural teachers participate in such a program, they are less likely to have a mentor from their subject area.

A study evaluating the success of an induction program introduced to both rural and non rural schools reported that more of the rural teachers moved to a different district after the first year. Researchers hypothesized that this difference was a result of teacher-mentor mismatch--the rural first-year teachers were more likely to have mentors from different secondary subject areas or elementary grade levels. Therefore, it is important for teachers not only to have mentors, but also to have mentors who are in the same subject area.

Resources for "Keeping Rural Schools Up to Speed"

Boe, E. E., Bobbitt, S. A., Cook, L. H., Whitener, S. D., & Weber, A. L. (1997). Why didst thou go? Predictors of retention, transfer, and attrition of special and general education teachers from a national perspective. The Journal of Special Education, 30(4), 390-411. Burney, V. H. & Cross, T. L. (2006). Impoverished students with academic promise in rural settings: 10 lessons from Project Aspire. Gifted Child Today, 29, 14-21.

Demi, M., Coleman-Jensen, A., & Snyder, A. (2010). The rural context and post-secondary school enrollment: An ecological systems approach. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 25(7). Retrieved from

Hannum, W. H., Irvin, M. J., Banks, J. B., & Farmer, T. W. (2009). Distance education use in rural schools. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 24(3), 1-15. Retrieved from

Hannum, W. H., Irvin, M. J., Lei, P.-W., & Farmer, T. W. (2008). Effectiveness of using learner-centered principles on student retention in distance education courses in rural schools. Distance Education, 29, 211-229.

Harris, M. M., Holdman, L., Clark, R., & Harris, T. R. (2005). Rural teachers in Project Launch. The Rural Educator, 26(2), 23-32.

Ingersoll, R. M. & Rossi, R. (1995). Which types of schools have the highest teacher turnover? Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U S Department of Education.

Irvin, M. J., Hannum, W. H., Farmer, T. W., de la Varre, C., & Keane, J. (2009). Supporting online learning for Advanced Placement students in small rural schools: Conceptual foundations and intervention components of the facilitator preparation program. The Rural Educator, 31(1), 29-37.

Marcel, K. W. (2003). Online Advanced Placement courses: Experiences of rural and low-income high school students. Boulder, CO: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

Mitchem, K., Wells, D., & Wells, J. (2003). Using evaluation to ensure quality professional development in rural schools. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 18(2), 96-103.

National Center for Educational Statistics. (2008). Data Analysis System Online Application. Retrieved from

Provasnik, S., KewalRamani, A., Coleman, M. M., Gilbertson, L., Herring, W., & Xie, Q. (2007). Status of Education in Rural America. Washington, D C : National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U S Department of Education.

Smith, T. M., & Ingersoll, R. M. (2004). What are the effects of induction and mentoring on beginning teacher turnover? American Educational Research Journal, 41(3), 681-714.

Strizek, G. A., Pittsonberger, J. L., Riordan, K. E., Lyter, D. M., & Orlofsky, G. F. (2006). Characteristics of Schools, Districts, Teachers, Principals, and School Libraries in the United States: 2003-04 Schools and Staffing Survey (No. NCES 2006-313 Revised). Washington, DC: U S Government Printing Office.

Yoder, M. J. (2007). Rural students' access to and success in higher education (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from North Carolina State University website at

Communities of Practice
Online options for course delivery and professional development seem like obvious solutions to some of the challenges of the rural education environment. The online environment makes it possible for schools to access courses that they otherwise could not offer. In small schools where teachers have no subject-matter or grade-level colleagues, teachers can join in virtual communities of practice with distant colleagues. Online also presents opportunities for matching new teachers with appropriate mentors.

Rural students can take part in virtual field trips and meet other students across the country and around the world. In addition, online course and professional development offerings can be cost-effective for rural districts that are strapped for cash, especially as high fuel costs (and long transportation routes) have strained their budgets.

Course and professional development providers and companies, as well as researchers and funding agencies, sometimes assume that online offerings are less accessible in rural environments, and that rural schools lag behind urban and suburban schools in technology implementation. When I've submitted proposals to fund online programs in rural areas, I've gotten used to questions from reviewers about whether the participating schools have computers, or whether they will be able to access the internet--questions that I don't see when I propose programs in non rural schools.

Quite to the contrary, in some cases rural students have better access to technology than do urban ones. Rural students have more instructional computers per capita than do non rural students, and rural schools are more likely than others to have some kind of wireless network .

On the other hand, internet access in rural areas is still highly influenced by local conditions. Depending on the vagaries of service providers, one school can have terrific access while the one in the next county has speed closer to dial-up. In addition, rural schools and districts sometimes go about providing and servicing technology differently than do some in non rural areas. For example, in some rural places intermediate education service agencies handle technology purchasing and connectivity for their member districts.

So if technology is better in some rural places and worse in others, what should online program providers do? The best approach when considering implementing a technology program in rural schools is to not make too many assumptions. Rural schools can be very sophisticated technologically, but conditions may vary from school to school. It's not at all the same as working with a large urban or suburban district, where contacting one technology administrator may get you all the information you need about dozens of schools. Instead, you must inquire about the technology setting in each participating location.

If this sounds labor-intensive, it is. Sometimes the effort required to involve the same number of classrooms from a large number of rural schools as compared to a small number of urban ones--not to mention the need for a backup plan if the connectivity is not what's required--causes online program providers to avoid working with rural schools on technology implementation.

This would be a mistake, however. While individual rural schools are often small, they educate millions of children across the United States. Therefore, providing them and their teachers and administrators the best that online courses and professional development have to offer is important.

Furthermore, rural schools have been using distance-learning technology for a long time, dating back to correspondence courses, radio courses, and classes taught via phonograph records. Rural schools were some of the earliest adopters of interactive video classrooms as well. Currently, most rural districts use distance education, and most do not report connectivity problems with online courses.

Rural schools are not as tradition-bound as some might assume, unless the tradition is using ingenuity to address the educational challenges of their environment. Involving rural schools and districts in online programs can be well worth the effort.