How do rural schools measure up in college and career readiness?

We talk a lot in the education world about urban schools, but what about rural schools? How do rural schools measure up in college and career readiness?

A report by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce projects that by the year 2020, 65 percent of jobs in the United States require some level of postsecondary training. Given projections such as these, it is critical that we as a nation ensure that students have the necessary support to complete both a high school education and postsecondary training.

In the debate about how to improve our nation’s schools and promote postsecondary training, politicians and advocates often focus on the plight of urban schools. It is true that our urban schools struggle to provide quality educational opportunities for all students, but while considering federal policies to improve our nation’s schools, we must also consider that almost a fourth of our students attend rural schools. Graduation rates are higher in rural areas, but rural students are less likely to enroll in two and four year colleges and universities. Why is this case? Could it be that rural high schools offer a less rigorous curriculum that neglects to prepare students for postsecondary education? Could it be that rural students have less geographic access to postsecondary education? Are there other obstacles to postsecondary enrollment that more significantly affect rural students?

In a new report “Big County: How Variations in High School Graduation Plans Impact Rural Students,” education policy experts Jennifer Schiess and Andrew Rotherman ask whether rural high schools graduate a higher proportion of students under less rigorous standards that urban and suburban high schools. They find a both a gap in access to high-level courses (such as algebra II and calculus) between rural and non-rural areas and that rural students taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses were less likely to pass the exams that their non-rural peers. While this final result does not point to a widespread “dumbing down” of curriculum at rural high schools, it does highlight the need to support rural students in enrolling in and successfully completing the high-level high school courses that are predictive of college enrollment and success.

This issue also highlights some potential solutions to a common issue of the need for highly skilled teachers in rural areas. While a high school of 100 or 200 students may not be able to afford teachers that can teach both AP chemistry and AP physics, is there a way that several rural schools in the same area could share these highly specialized teachers between schools and districts? How could virtual learning be used to increase access to highly-skilled teachers? There are many ways that schools and districts in rural areas could better support students, but most of those potential solutions require out of the box thinking and changing the status quo in how things get done.


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