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Raising Kids for Export

  York, Nebraska, rural school  
Most schools in rural areas do a good job of educating their students, but many students don't stay around to return the favor. Too often in rural high schools, some kids will drop out – in higher proportions than in urban schools – to take lower paying jobs. Some kids will get their high school diplomas and take jobs locally. And others will move away to college and look for jobs in the cities.

Here are the numbers that support this stereotypical picture.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, public school students in rural areas perform better than their peers in cities, but generally not as well as their peers in suburban areas. The 2007 report, Status of Education in Rural America from the Institute of Education Sciences, showed –

  • in science, 32 percent of rural 4th-graders scored at or above the "proficient" level on the NAEP assessment (National Assessment of Educational Progress); in contrast, only 27 percent of town students and 19 percent of city kids scored "proficient" or above.
  • the proficiency levels for science dropped by the time students reached the 12th grade, but the relative pattern remained – 18 percent of rural seniors scored at or above the "proficient" level and, in contrast, only 13 percent of city students scored "proficient" or above.
  • in math, 21 percent of rural students in the 12th grade scored proficient or above while 18 percent of city students achieved the same level; suburban kids did better in math than all others with 25 percent at or above proficiency.
  • in reading, 31 percent of rural 4th-graders scored at or above proficiency while town kids scored 28% and city kids 24%; again, suburban kids did better yet with 34 percent scoring at or above proficiency.
  • after graduation fewer rural kids go on to college – only 27 percent of rural 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in college in 2004, while 37 percent of both city and suburban kids, and 32 percent of town kids were enrolled in college.

Several studies have shown that most students look for economic opportunity elsewhere. For instance, 2002 masters thesis by Philip Wade Simpson found that nearly two-thirds of the Nebraska high school students surveyed felt they had to leave the rural community to find work. Fewer than 25% felt their town offered opportunities for new business. Many studies have documented the net migration away from rural areas of those individuals with college or more advanced degrees.

Those relative few who earn advanced degrees and who do return to live and work in rural areas are paid less. The USDA has documented that the average college graduate will be paid 23 percent less in a rural area than a graduate with the same personal characteristics in a metropolitan area. That pattern holds true for those with advanced degrees, as well.

So, in effect, rural schools are educating their students so that they can export them to urban America. Some rural educators are complaining that they are financially subsidizing urban centers. Others are taking a hard look at the curriculum – should rural schools be teaching courses like vocational agriculture Don Reeves InterviewHeather Derr Interviewto benefit the few students who will return to the community and get local jobs, or should they be emphasizing college preparatory classes recognizing the reality that most of their charges will be taking urban jobs?

Don Reeves (left) is one of the community leaders who believes rural areas are unwittingly supporting urban areas. "I view it as a continuing subsidy of rural areas for urban areas," he says, "as we invest a quarter of a million dollars in raising and educating a kid through college, and then they go someplace else and the benefits are there."

Heather Derr (right) has seen her own son grow up interested in mining and the production of metals. "We grew our kid for export," she says ruefully. "I'm sorry to say, we did. But it was apparent from the age of five – four or five on – that his [my son's] mind was elsewhere… Getting out of Nebraska was the best thing that ever happened. And that's all he ever wanted, was to get out of Nebraska."

Video InterviewChris Ziegler InterviewElaine Stuhr (left) is a former Nebraska state senator who saw the "brain drain" develop and tried to find ways of fostering rural economic development. "I think that started – raising our children for export – in the [hard times of the] 80s when I heard so many farmers say, 'I don't want my son to come back to the farm.' … But I think that there are some bright spots. I think we are seeing more young people come back to some of these rural areas, particularly because of technology and that they can do whatever no matter where they are."

Chris Ziegler (right) says that he believes the desire to stay on the farm or in rural communities may start very early on. "Today I would say that one of my girls will definitely be on the agricultural side of things," he says of his daughters. "[Shelby has] just got the temperament or the mindset. Learns every day. Her first gilt just had pigs the other day, and we kept her home from school that morning while her gilt was farrowing and she's on cloud nine… Now Kailey, she's an energetic little one that has got a mind like a steel trap. She's going to be an artist of some sort."

Keeping potential artists like Kalie in rural communities may one of the keys to the future. Retaining the best and the brightest in rural areas is a multifaceted problem involving educational reform and economic development. Some advocates are suggesting that rural areas can generate economic growth by attracting people in the "creative class occupations" who value nature and other cultural amenities.

Research has shown that university research facilities, high-tech firms, and other creative endeavors have sparked significant economic growth in places like California's Silicon Valley and North Carolina's Research Triangle. They've found rural areas that have duplicated the same kind of success.

  • For instance, natural amenities like skiing has attracted creative-class people to the rural county around Aspen, Colorado. Economic growth followed.
  • Llano County near Austin, TX, has two large lakes in it. In the 1990s, artists started settling there and the creative-class and jobs followed.
  • Don Freeman InterviewTompkins County in New York state has Cornell University in it and has experienced high-tech growth.
  • And even Jefferson County, Iowa, is a Midwestern creative-class magnet because it is the home of the Maharishi International University. There are enough adherents to transcendental meditation that the county has attracted more than 100 software development and professional service firms.

Don Freeman (right) is one of the community leaders of York Nebraska and recognizes the importance of cultural and creative outlets for economic development. "One of their biggest reasons for leaving or living someplace else is there's nothing to do in York, or any small community," he says. "Nebraska has got a big problem with the brain drain, as they call it. And I don't see any quick remedy to it. I think that maybe as companies get bigger, they'll maybe realize the value of a smaller community. As we get more computerized -- which we will -- we can operate from any place to run a business, most businesses. So I think that'll help us in the long run."

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.


 

Declining Towns

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