Paul Theobald & John Siskar. 21st Century Education: A Reference Handbook. Editor: Thomas L Good. Sage Publication. 2008.
Historically, schools in rural settings are unique educational institutions in both their purpose and their development. Rural schools have been interdependent with the surrounding community. Much of the curriculum and policies of rural schools were designed and adapted to meet the needs and beliefs of the community, and the existence and development of the community was predicated, to a large extent, on what happened in the schools. Even today, one can find many examples of rural schools that are the strongest unifying factor and main support for the communities they serve. In those settings schools help shape the formal and informal boundaries of communities and the identity of community members. This tight school-community connection, however, while lingering in some locales, eroded significantly during the 20th century.
Starting with the beginning of the progressive movement in the 1930s and 1940s, rural schools have been pushed to standardize their policies and practices, consolidate individual schools into larger districts, and institute a curriculum removed or irrelevant to the place or community where the school resides. Today, many organizations, including The Rural School and Community Trust, the National Rural Education Association, and the National Center on Rural Education, work hard to ensure that rural education is given serious consideration. Mainstream groups like the National Education Association and the Educational Commission of the States have interest groups focused on rural education issues. From a 21st-century vantage point, rural schools appear to be a small, almost insignificant part of the total public educational endeavor in this country. But while this may appear to be the case, the reality is that rural schools represent fully one-third of the nation’s total and rural students represent fully 20% of all public school students nationwide. Further, the traditional role and characteristics of rural schools reflect an education that is constructivist, place-based, democratic, and respectful of others. These are educational notions that challenge the current emphasis on standards and accountability.
Characteristics That Make Rural Education Unique
There are many factors that combine to make rural education an inherently unique enterprise. There is what sociologists call high “community capital” because people tend to live in rural locales by choice, given the fact that crime rates tend to be low, the locale is beautiful, and there is a strong sense of community. Rural people believe in protecting and supporting children. They tend to support public education and community-based schools.
Schools are perceived as either the most important, or an important, public institution in rural communities. The rural school can be a place that supports services for poor families and children. It is a community center that has facilities for public meetings, voting, exercise, and recreation. It might be the only library in the area and a resource for economic development. The school is often the largest employer and a major supporter of local businesses. Good schools are seen as a way to create a quality local workforce.
Rural schools also have substantial challenges. Rural communities are losing population and the population that remains is aging. Younger people are leaving, especially the most talented, for better jobs elsewhere. All of this results in low and declining property values that in turn result in a decreased ability to adequately fund schools through property taxes.
Poverty is a real issue as well. Most poor counties in the United States, 244 of the 250 poorest, are rural. On average, more children live in poverty in rural areas than in urban areas. Rural communities often struggle to provide adequate housing, access to quality health care, ensure proper nutrition, and supply adequate child care. In general, the infrastructure of the social services is weak. Also, there tends to be less access to philanthropic support from foundations or private individuals.
The remoteness of rural settings attracts a certain group of people, but is not attractive to everyone. There is limited access to goods, entertainment, shopping, and services, and less access to telephone, computers, and the Internet. This not only creates extra challenges for the teacher, it also creates a problem for the school in terms of recruiting and retaining teachers.
One characteristic that surprises many people is the high minority population that is found in rural areas.
In many rural areas, minority students comprise a greater percentage of a school’s population than in urban areas. Often, rural schools have high percentages of Native American and African American students who have unique educational challenges and needs. The number of Hispanic students is also rising in many rural communities, creating a need for additional specialized programs and teachers. (Malhoit, 2005, p. 11)
Cultural Concepts of Rurality and the Development of the Public School
A factor central to understanding rural education is America’s cultural conception of rurality, or of what it means to be rural. Stereotypes are commonplace. Rural locales are places where hicks reside, or hillbillies and other country bumpkins, or maybe just “dumb farmers” or “dumb fisherman.” This cultural message is ceaselessly delivered by a large variety of electronic media: radio, television, movie theaters, and even various types of computer software. All Americans, but especially impressionable young children, are taught lessons about rural life via televisions shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, The Simple Life, The Bob Newhart Show, and many others; or via movies such as Deliverance or For Richer or Poorer.
Further, it is completely permissible, and in fact particularly in vogue today, to poke fun at rural residents through the use of what has come to be called “redneck humor.” The comedian Jeff Foxworthy has built a career doing this, and many others have followed in his footsteps. Whereas it is culturally out of step for a White person to tell Black jokes at this point in our history, anyone—not just rural dwellers themselves—may tell redneck jokes with total approbation.
This cultural dynamic has not been well studied. In fact, there is virtually no scholarship that yields much insight into this issue. It may be that the cultural trend to denigrate or castigate rural residents as backward or behind the times is a residual phenomenon that dates back to the breakdown of feudalism itself during the 18th century. Feudal power was rural, held by aristocrats and a royal family residing in large rural estates. It was finally usurped by the emerging urban bourgeoisie who grew increasingly wealthy by tapping manufacturing opportunities during the Industrial Revolution. Wealthy, but powerless, they demanded a political voice and political reforms such as extending the franchise, equalizing representation, and separating church and state. The rural opponents of these reforms were “unwilling to change with the times,” or “unwilling to pay the price of progress.” The fiery English social critic William Cobbett claimed to have witnessed the development of the trend to denigrate rural dwellers during his own lifetime (1750-1835), contending that it was not only England’s industrial moguls who began to look down their noses at rural dwellers, but all manner of urban shopkeepers, bookkeepers, craftsman, clerks, and the like.
Since the creation of the United States was in itself a rejection of feudalism, it was also in some measure a rejection of rural power. There should be no surprise that our cultural development has tended to nurture this perspective related to rural life and living. It was gradually turned into a kind of cultural common sense to assume that the future would inevitably be an urban future and that success was something that happened in urban places. When family or neighbors saw real promise in a young man or woman, it was commonplace to proclaim that he or she would go far, meaning, of course, that he or she would end up in a far off urban center as one of society’s sophisticates.
Enter the Public School Endeavor: Schools Seen as the Way Out
Although the establishment of what were initially called common schools was originally based on the idea that citizens required an education to shoulder the burden of democracy, the end goal of public schooling gradually shifted (especially in the wake of social Darwinist perspectives related to intellectual wherewithal) toward providing the skills and dispositions needed to become successfully employed. In short, schools gradually became entities designed to prepare students for an eventual occupational destiny.
Enmeshed in a culture steadfastly predicting an urban future for itself, the public school enterprise, especially throughout the 20th century, began to perceive rurality as a condition from which one could escape. Affirming what they understood to be common sense, teachers began to think of themselves as the purveyors of opportunity, the vehicle for success in urban America, missionaries of a sort steadfastly committed to saving talented rural youth and sending them on to urban places.
An excellent study of this very dynamic is Michael Corbett’s Learning to Leave: The Irony of Schooling in a Coastal Community (2007) even though the setting is rural Nova Scotia. Corbett documents how three generations of rural Nova Scotia students pitted school definitions of success against their desire to stay home and become an adult part of their community. His work and that of many others helps us understand larger cultural perspectives related to rural life and living. With this in mind, we shouldn’t find it surprising that rural education appears to be a small part of the public education endeavor when in reality it is a sizable segment of that endeavor.
Some Useful History
For most of our history as a nation, the dominant school experience was rural—almost the opposite of what exists today. As a consequence, many educational policies and practices that are taken for granted were fought over for decades in the nation’s rural schools. It is important to recall that America’s founding generation, and several thereafter, rejected the idea of creating systems of free schools. It wasn’t until 50 years after the country’s founding, during the late 1830s, that states began to create free school systems. The drive to create free school systems was coincident with the drive for universal manhood suffrage, the emerging women’s suffrage movement, the establishment of abolitionist societies, the call for city parks and green spaces, the establishment of the Sunday school concept, the drive for prison reform, and the reform of insane asylums. In short, the establishment of free school systems was coincident with a growing democratic impulse in the United States, an impulse famously documented by a French visitor, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic text Democracy in America (1836).
As a consequence, as the 19th century progressed, any obstacle to free schools for all was increasingly seen as undemocratic. In fact, by the time Nebraska became a territory under the terms of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, certain key school issues had surfaced as litmus tests of a state’s commitment to democratic principles. Did a state make provisions for a totally free education? Or was it permissible for local school officials to charge tuition? Did the state direct local school authorities to provide free textbooks to all students? Or did they countenance the requirement that parents must provide required texts? Was the state careful that all children meant all and that persons of color were not excluded? Were women allowed to serve on school boards or to hold the office of county or state superintendent? What about tenant farmers living and working within a given school district? Could they vote at school board meetings, or were they prohibited from voting as nontaxpayers? Did the state leave loopholes that would allow for egregious discrepancies in funding the state’s common schools? What about private religious, or in the parlance of the late 19th century, sectarian, schools? Did the state permit the dispersal of school funds to such schools? Where did the state stand on the issue of compulsory education? Was it enough to provide a system of common schools, or was the state ready to ensure that every child in the state attended one?
From a modern vantage point it is difficult to appreciate what a challenge it was to develop a free school system. Any school expenses that could be paid through a tuition charge saved local taxpayers money. Charging tuition was especially popular if a district contained tenant families who were not taxpayers. What is more, tenant farmers were typically denied a voice at school meetings and were therefore unable to protest the use of tuition for school funding. Many states failed to end tuition as a part of common school funding long after common schools were established. For example, New York continued the practice until the late 1860s.
Eligible voters in all states since the Jacksonian suffrage reforms of the 1830s included White males over age 21. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution added Black males to the list of voters. In the matter of voting for school board officers or voting at school board meetings, however, the vote was reserved for freeholders, or to those eligible to pay property taxes in the district. Since all decisions surrounding the provision of schools were a direct expense to local taxpayers, it was assumed that they alone should make the necessary decisions. Generally, women were allowed to vote if they were widows or by other means became property owners, but this was by no means a given and there was considerable confusion over the issue. Consequently, extending the right of women to vote in school elections and at school meetings became a political issue and one of the litmus tests for gauging the measure of democracy within a given state. Iowa, Nebraska, and North Dakota were among the first to officially sanction the right of women to be qualified to voice their views in the affairs of the school. An 1881 Nebraska school law amended earlier language by inserting a mere three words concerning who was eligible to vote at school board meetings, “Every voter and every woman who has resided in the district forty days, and is over twenty-one years of age, and who owns real property in the district, shall be entitled to vote at any district meeting” (Annotated Statutes of the State of Nebraska, 1881, p. 820).
A similar litmus test was whether or not tenant farmers who merely rented land in the district ought to be allowed to exercise a voice in the affairs of the schools their children attended. Once again, Nebraska was among the leaders in establishing this democratic provision. Just 2 years after expressly granting women this right, the school law related to who could vote in school elections and at school meetings was again amended, this time reading, “Every person, male or female, who has resided in the district forty days and is twenty-one years old, and who owns real property in the district, or personal property that was assessed in his or her name at the last annual assessment; or has children of school age residing in the district, shall be entitled to vote at any district meeting” (Compiled Statutes of the State of Nebraska, 1881. Second Edition with Amendments 1882, 1883, and 1885, p. 549).
States in the trans-Mississippi west were also leaders in promoting the cause of free textbooks for all schoolchildren, an issue that became a part of the Farmers Alliance and Populist Party platforms during the late 1880s and early 1890s. Most states ignored the popular demand for this provision until well into the 20th century. But as early as 1877, the state superintendent of public instruction reported that 66 Nebraska school districts had voluntarily purchased textbooks for all students in their schools. By 1880, the number rose to 246; by 1886, 422. In 1891, Nebraska became one of the first states in the union to pass legislation requiring all districts to provide free textbooks. Six years later this act was tested through litigation to see if various sorts of school supplies must also be provided freely. The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that “we do not think the term text-books should be given a technical meaning, but that it is comprehensive enough to and does include globes, maps, charts, pens, ink, paper, etc., and all other apparatus and appliances which are proper to be used in the schools in instructing the youth” (Affholder v. McMullen, 1897, p. 544).
It is fair to look at the 19th century as the time when many of the bugs were worked out of America’s public education system—though several, especially those related to race, were left unresolved, to be tackled in the next century. Because the 19th century educational experience was overwhelmingly rural, the terms and conditions of free public schooling were largely worked out in the nation’s rural schools. But as the 19th century turned over to the 20th, the heyday of rural education was about to end. In keeping with cultural developments identified earlier, rural schools were gradually regarded as subpar, not as good as schools in the city. In fact, by the end of the first decade of the 20th century, it is possible to find references to a new concept, one that ostensibly held the power to convert rural schools into city schools.
Rural Education and School Consolidation
As noted earlier, for the largest part of our history as a nation, rural schools dominated the educational landscape and represented the typical school experience for average Americans in all states. They remained so until 1918 when urban schools became the most typical school experience for Americans. By the 1980s, however, the primary educational experience had shifted again to suburban schools. In the process, rural schools fell to the point where they are now, the least common school experience in the nation, albeit still a significant portion of the overall total.
This dramatic turnabout reflects the widespread embrace of an educational policy known as school consolidation. Few would argue with the proposition that school consolidation—closing a small school or schools to make a bigger one elsewhere—has nearly always been economically motivated. This is not to say that it has nearly always been touted as a school finance measure—far from it. Throughout the middle decades of the 20th century it became fashionable to equate school consolidation with school improvement. The popular cultural maxim, bigger is better, was often used to sell the concept. The argument went like this: why support a handful of poorly supplied and poorly taught one-room elementary schools when one well-supplied and well-taught school would do?
Of course, the school improvement argument was augmented with the economic one: a consolidated school will cost less—residents may pay lower taxes if a school consolidation plan is allowed to take place. It should be noted that these arguments lacked much in the way of persuasive power until technological developments (most notably the internal combustion engine) made it possible for school children to get to and from school at distances well beyond what they could reasonably walk. When the utility of the automobile and school bus was made even more attractive by the lure of indoor plumbing, central heating, electric lights, and so forth, school consolidation became overwhelmingly popular. Well-educated sophisticates were convinced that rural school consolidation couldn’t proceed fast enough. Colleges and schools of education all across the country were filled with professors who possessed unquestioning faith in consolidation as a policy option that would always and everywhere improve the education of youth and save taxpayers money. It has only been in recent years that the wisdom of this policy has received serious scholarly scrutiny.
In practical terms, school consolidation meant first that farm children, instead of walking to a neighborhood one-room school, boarded a bus and went to school in town. The next wave of consolidation meant that children in and around very small towns no longer walked or were bussed to the town’s school, but were bussed to yet another larger town some distance away. The third wave of consolidation was primarily confined to high schools and involved closing consolidated schools and combining the secondary schools of four and five towns into one or two county high schools. A fourth wave has been identified as well, this one moving back over towns that maintained K-8 attendance centers and closing them down in the interest of implementing the middle school concept.
Each successive wave has simultaneously generated more vigorous local opposition and further stretched the plausibility of the standard rationale supporting consolidation, namely that it will improve the educational program for children while it saves taxpayer money. In fact, as late as 2007, it is impossible to point to any substantive research which suggests that school consolidation may do these things. The reason has to do with a mix of factors, some economic (e. g., matters of scale) and some tied to the nature of teaching and learning (e. g., the significance of teacher-student ratios).
It was hardly the cost and rarely even the quality question that concerned the parents and children affected by proposed consolidations. Opposition to school consolidation was rampant because rural Americans psychologically connected the school with the well-being of their community. Community allegiance and affection were affronted by the very suggestion of closing down the local school—a circumstance that resulted in court challenges in every state. Again, as late as 2007, the courts, invariably deciding cases on the basis of past judicial precedent, allowed state and local educational authorities free reign with respect to determining the number of school buildings a district will support and which students will attend them. In other words, with some exceptions—victories in lower courts that were thereafter lost upon appeal—the courts have continued to defend consolidation as a viable school policy, the lack of evidence to support it notwithstanding.
Some educational researchers have tried to use research on optimal school size to defend efforts at consolidation. The concept rests on the assumption that a certain number of students will maximize a school’s revenue while keeping the student-teacher ratio fairly low, thus maximizing student achievement. This assumption has some merit, but is very easily confounded by contextual variables. What if it takes a 2-hour bus ride one way to reach the total number of students deemed desirable? Such a circumstance would almost certainly jeopardize the academic performance of the students forced to spend 4 hours a day on a bus in addition to a regular school day; just as it would skew economies of scale by increasing transportation costs. It turns out that research on optimal school size lends little support for rural school consolidation.
Each new governor and each new group of state legislators, when faced with the first budget-cutting exercise, almost immediately jumps to school consolidation as a cost-saving measure. It is an easy, convenient solution. It affects only rural dwellers from the smallest communities—a distinct minority among state voters. For their part, residents of small communities are left to their own devices for fighting back. They might create partnerships with similarly targeted communities and schools, but, by and large, the nation’s colleges and universities have ignored the plight of the victims of school consolidation.
Without question, in terms of sheer numbers, more pitched battles between local schools and state departments of education have been waged over the issue of consolidation than any other school issue. These battles, however, have been nonviolent and civil when compared with the battles waged by majority populations fearing the inclusion of racial and ethnic minority children within their schools. Although we tend to think of this as an urban or suburban phenomenon, this was not always the case. In fact, two of the five cases decided under the umbrella of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas were rural schools. In some places in Texas and California, school consolidation as a policy option was used as a way to segregate racial minorities in one school while preserving another as a White school.
School consolidation represents a wonderful example of the power of cultural assumptions. Because of the antirural bias in our culture, symbolized by the treatment afforded rural dwellers in the media, we have uncritically adopted consolidation as a reform measure with almost no evidence to support it. We can’t say with any certainty at all that it will improve student achievement or save money—yet the concept continues to be promoted and practiced in the 21st century.
There is more than a small irony that at the same time school consolidation is being touted, the trend in larger districts is toward adopting a small school model. In some cases it means creating schools within schools to take advantage of the power of close relationships to affect learning. Research shows smaller schools work better. Small schools consistently display better student achievement, higher graduation rates, fewer discipline problems, fewer violent incidents, less vandalism and theft, reduced truancy, less substance abuse, and decreased gang participation. Small schools have higher rates of participation in extracurricular activities and, in general, students feel greater school connectedness with less alienation. Similarly, teacher morale is better and teachers exhibit more positive attitudes when teaching in a small school setting.
Small schools are more likely to adopt new, more effective instructional strategies, like flexible scheduling, cooperative learning, interdisciplinary learning, and to create learning environments that are active and experiential. There is ample research that these strategies help students, especially minority and disadvantaged students. Other strategies—looping, multiage, and heterogeneous classes— that urban and suburban schools are trying hard to implement represent the traditional organizational structure of rural schools.
Small classes, often a hallmark of small schools and certainly the norm in rural schools, also helps students. When class size is less than 20, students produce higher academic achievement. The greatest gain is among disadvantaged and minority students. All of this demonstrates that inputs into the educational system are crucial variables related to student learning. The current policy milieu has completely shifted the educational focus to outputs, that is, standards met and test scores achieved. The intentions behind this shift may be laudable, but we are beginning to understand that this focus comes with significant costs. This is especially the case with the push to consolidate rural schools.
The Unmeasured Costs of School Consolidation
As noted earlier, buying into some of our most baseless cultural assumptions, such as bigger is better, educational policy makers have come to view school consolidation as synonymous with school improvement. During the past seven or eight decades, for instance, the United States went from supporting some 140,000 school districts down to just 16,000. Consolidation has been a defining characteristic of education throughout the 20th century. In the arena of educational policy we have set in motion a kind of community-destroying force. What is only now becoming clear is that the disintegration of community comes at an enormous cost. In fact, it is becoming apparent that the health and well-being of democracy itself rests on our ability to maintain healthy communities.
The award-winning work of Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam unveiled this insight. During the early 1990s, he and several colleagues went to Italy to study the implementation of a new governmental structure, one that put a good deal of decision making into local communities. Putnam was especially interested in why the north of Italy responded by establishing a vital, growing economy, while southern Italy languished on the verge of economic depression. In a book called Making Democracy Work (1993), Putnam and his colleagues argued that it was an abundance of local associations in northern communities that made democracy work by giving citizens a political role to play.
Scholars from a variety of disciplines—communitarians, as they came to be known—had already begun making the theoretical connections between healthy communities and well-functioning democratic processes by the time Putnam published his study of Italian democracy. But Putnam’s work gave the scholarly community a chance to see how the argument works in a real-life situation. On the heels of this contribution, Putnam almost immediately set to work establishing the connection between the simultaneous and reinforcing diminishment of community and democracy in the United States. The result was the publication in 2000 of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of Community in America.
Bowling Alone is the story of the collapse of American participation in local associations of the sort that feed democratic participation. Americans across every demographic, whether it is race, income, gender, religion, or age, are participating less and less in the affairs of their local communities. As a sense of community disappears, democracy languishes. Many Americans—almost half— don’t bother to vote, and most wouldn’t think of running for office. Volunteering for a community project and charitable giving has fallen to the lowest levels ever. In part, these things have occurred because of increased television viewing, time spent commuting to and from work, and access to a large variety of entertainment options; but another part of the explanation is that political, economic, and educational policy has been demonstrably unkind to American communities. School consolidation looms large in this regard, but larger cultural assumptions about where success lies are to blame too. When schools send the message that rural youth must leave their communities to be successful, they are tearing at the fabric of American community—contributing in a significant way to the collapse of community Putnam so ably identified.
The result is that the United States has become a far less democratic country over the past three decades—falling to near the bottom of the top 25 democracies on nearly every measure of democracy (Dahl, 2002). Still, Putnam identified the nation’s small towns and rural places as locales that retain a sense of community, places where you can still see vestiges of community participation of the sort that animated this country much earlier in our history. Many believe that the nation’s best hope for a more democratic future lies in an educational system that places a high value on human community. This argument contends that the next generation—enculturated into an ethic of attending to the needs of one’s community, rather than to one’s own future occupational self-interest—will be better equipped to deal with the dire social and ecological circumstances that they will inevitably inherit.
Rural Education in the 21st Century
What does the future hold for rural education? If the current educational and social climate continues and education is only examined in terms of the content students need to learn, rural education will continue to falter. With the widespread adoption of learning standards, there has been a tacit and unquestioned acceptance of the proposition that the primary, if not exclusive, purpose of schools is to teach content. One has only to look at the No Child Left Behind Act to understand this proposition.
Throughout the history of education in the United States, however, there has been continual debate and shifting policy related to the role of schools. While today’s policy makers have focused on answering the question, What subject matter do students need to master? others have suggested that reforms in education should more closely reflect global societal and developmental concerns. They want to examine other questions, such as: Should schools be helping individuals develop their own strengths and interests? Do schools have a responsibility to develop citizens who will be able to contribute to society, and if so, does that mean that schools should help create an effective workforce, a citizenry ready to participate in democracy, or simply a literate populace? Should schools contribute to a society that is healthy and physically fit? Do we teach a subject because it will help children to understand the world or because society needs more experts in a given field?
Those interested in the needs of tomorrow’s workforce recognize the need for the next generation of workers to be proficient with creative thinking and problem solving, working as part of a team, teaching others, working with diversity, interpreting and communicating information, and using computers to process information. Multiculturalists want students to have a deep understanding and empathy for people and cultures different from their own. Communitarians want students to understand the role of place and community. Constructivists want students to think and critically process information. Social reconstructivists, those who feel the purpose of schools is to solve society’s problems, want students to actively participate in and attempt to better society. Many of these educational groups have rallied for more interconnected, interdisciplinary learning experiences so that students can understand the relationships between what they learn in one class or subject and another.
For instance, communitarians emphasize the study of place. A particular place on earth can be a kind of auricular lens through which all traditional school subjects may be closely examined in an integrated way. The immediacy and relevance of place in the lives of students can be a huge catalyst to deep learning. The exploration of community is an active and experiential approach, in which students will work with each other and with adults in the community. The discovery that develops as students learn why the place looks and feels as it does yields a kind of intellectual satisfaction that cannot be matched even by the complete mastery of a disconnected textbook curriculum.
Underpinning various theoretical perspectives is an understanding that students need to be connected to and working within their own community and the wider world on real-life problems. Students need a curriculum that goes beyond teaching content in isolation. They need to develop an appreciation and predilection for being actively engaged in society. They need to practice democratic processes and learn how to work collaboratively with people who may see the world differently.
All of these are things that traditional rural education does well. A dramatic example that will help illustrate the point is the case of the small town of Howard, South Dakota (population 900). A business teacher at the high school created a rough plan for a community-oriented learning unit. After acquiring the support of his principal and a minigrant of $500 from a nearby university, he worked with his students to develop a plan to measure the community’s cash flow—how much was earned there, where it was spent, and what it was spent for. The students conducted town meetings with local business owners, consulted with the county auditor, and engaged in long debates with all stakeholders over the wording on their surveys.
It was a courageous undertaking, and the students were never shy about proceeding. They unabashedly asked community members throughout Miner County to reveal the intimate details of their income and spending habits. When the surveys were collected, the students found themselves with a phenomenal 64% response rate and an enormous amount of data to analyze. Using sophisticated statistical procedures, the students sorted data by income level, spending location, spending category, and other parameters. All takes on the data revealed much the same lesson: the people of Howard spent most of their income in the larger and more distant cities of Mitchell and Sioux Falls.
Student analyses of the data were reported in the local newspaper before the school year was out. The community response was overwhelming. When Howard citizens saw how much they were spending outside of the community, they changed their spending habits. They bought much more locally. Revenue from local sales tax began to skyrocket. The county auditor reported that by the end of the summer, annual sales tax projections had already been exceeded. Based on the average number of times a locally spent dollar will turn over within a community, the county auditor estimated that the students had engineered a $6 to $7 million infusion into the local economy.
Needless to say, the Howard business students learned a good deal about economics: spending, saving, and the relationship between economic vitality and community well-being. They experienced what it feels like to do something worthwhile and to earn the respect of the community in the process. The subject matter, the audience outside the classroom, the interaction with community members, and the constructive nature of the learning process all heightened the students’ academic achievement. Since this pedagogical experiment, Howard has developed a national reputation for aggressively combating policy decisions that might adversely affect it. The town was the subject of a Wall Street Journal article during the spring of 2005 (Eig, 2005). It represents a shining example of what rural education might be in the 21st century.