EMU mathematics professor Daniel Showalter led the most recent edition of "Why Rural Matters," a biennial report that analyzes the data behind academic performance, poverty, racial diversity, and other aspects of education in America's rural schools.

‘Why Rural Matters’ – Professor Daniel Showalter on rural schools’ strengths and challenges

Nearly one in five U.S. public school students are enrolled in a “rural” school, and those students and schools face challenges particular to their rurality, according to the latest edition of “Why Rural Matters,” a report published by the Rural School and Community Trust.

The study was led by Eastern Mennonite University mathematics professor Daniel Showalter, who has collaborated on the publication since 2012, when he was a graduate student at Ohio University. That year, he says, he was just a “data guy” – now, he leads the team of four researchers and statisticians from three different institutions to produce “Why Rural Matters” every other year.

“The main point is just to generate discussion, whether it’s in the media, academia, or politics,” Showalter explained, “so rural isn’t just this forgotten land in our country. It’s bringing attention to it.”

Showalter spoke with EMU News about the importance of this research and why it’s been in the limelight since being released in November – U.S. News, Fordham Foundation’s Education Gadfly Show, and Atlanta’s NPR affiliate WABE News are just a few of the media outlets that have featured the 2018-19 edition.

Responses have been edited for space and clarity.

Why is this issue important to you? Did you attend a rural school growing up?

I grew up in a rural area. Maybe even more so, I did some backpacking for a few years through Asia and ended up spending the majority of my time in rural areas just because people were so incredibly welcoming, so they would often let me stay in their homes for as long as I wanted. One tribal family in India let my friend and I stay at their house for six months, without ever having met us before. In some of the countries, the rural education was barely existent, and the children would work in the fields during the day.

I also like how this report is nonpartisan. In our polarizing political climate, it’s refreshing to be able to try to figure out what types of things people, regardless of their beliefs, see as important to the health of rural education and then just track down high quality data that I can put into a usable form to inform discussions and debates.

What are the main components of the report?

It really centers around ranking the rural areas of each state on a set of 25 indicators. By indicators, I mean some way of measuring rural education health, [for example] the percentage of rural students in poverty, the rate at which rural students change residences, or the graduation rate of rural students.

I rank the states almost like a competition. So say we’re talking about child poverty rates, the state with the “number one” ranking would have the most child poverty. Rather than being “good” or “bad,” the ranking is just a flashing red light to say, “Hey, let’s pay attention to this state.”

Each state has a page full of data and infographics about their rankings; that’s the heart of the report. And then we have a narrative that weaves all the data together in a more story-like form.

This edition of the biennial report includes a featured subsection on early childhood education, before kindergarten. What were some of your findings there?

One of my coauthors is an expert in that area, so she did the work there. She found that there’s a disproportionately high rate of abuse and neglect. Opioid use has really influenced that population in the last few years.

Also, the rural early childhood demographic is hit harder by poverty than any other age group, and non-white, non-Asian children in that age group are three times more likely to be living in poverty than white children. She also presented some of the research on action that could be taken to improve the conditions for these children.

Were there any other significant changes in your approach for this edition?

We’ve always included race, because it’s an important issue, but in the past it’s always just been white versus non-white, which seemed inappropriate and oversimplified. So this time, we came up with what we called a “rural diversity index.” This gives every race a unique place in the data. The way we measured it is, if you would go to any rural school in the country, and you would randomly pull two students from that school, what’s the chance that they would be of a different race?

Delaware, North Carolina, and Oklahoma have the largest rural diversity indices in the country – in those states, two randomly chosen students from a rural school are more likely than not to come from different racial or ethnic backgrounds. It still only scratches the surface, but it’s an improved measurement, and we’re planning to go more in depth in a special side report on racial issues this year. 

We also looked at the poverty gap in each state, so just in the rural areas, we compared the educational outcomes of the students living in poverty to their peers living above the poverty line. As expected, in every state, the students living in poverty performed worse, but in some states like Pennsylvania, that gap was relatively small.

Has the report resulted in any direct political outcomes?

One that I can think of deals with the Title I funding formulas. Title I funds are supposed to go from the federal government to the highest-poverty schools in the country, but there are a couple loopholes in the formulas that result in large, wealthy suburban schools getting some of the money that really is designated for high-poverty rural and urban schools.

Our report was one of the tools that was instrumental in raising awareness of that inequity. A congressman who was at a briefing I gave on Capitol Hill presented the findings of our report to the House of Representatives and introduced the All Children are Equal Act to fix the formulas.

The act then went to a House subcommittee vote, but some last minute lobbying prevented it from passing. However, it did start drawing some attention and led to the approval of a $10 million rural education Center being approved this past year.  

What stereotypes about rurality or rural schools does the report challenge?

One, that rural students tend not to be as academic as other areas, or that there’s a “brain drain” where all the smart kids from rural areas leave to go to the cities. I was curious about what the data say, and it turns out that in 28 of the 48 states with data, the rural students actually did better than the non-rural students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. 

Another is that “rural” is shrinking, that it’s drying up, and that’s not really true. We have seen a decrease in rural students, but it’s primarily because of suburban sprawl. A high school might have been considered rural five years ago, but the census now classifies it as non-rural. There are rural areas where the population is shrinking, but in many areas of the country, the rural population is actually growing.

Another stereotype is that rural students are basically white farmer kids, when in reality, rural is becoming more racially diverse at a faster rate than urban and suburban areas.

How are these findings relevant to students at EMU?

I mention this report in my statistics classes to help make my point that statistics are not just formulas, but they are stories you can tell. There are impacts you can make. You can see the world in a different light using statistics.

Another group would be our student teachers. When they go into a rural placement, it sometimes blows them away; there are attitudes they can’t relate with. Our education program includes some focus on cultural approaches, because students don’t really know where they’re going to end up as a teacher.

How did you choose the theme of this edition – “The time is now?”

When Donald Trump was elected as president, it was quite a shock to many people, and since then a lot of attention has been focusing on the rural base that elected him. Our hope is that spotlight can also show some of the injustices that are occurring in rural areas, why people are frustrated, and that maybe change can happen in those rural areas. 

I also want to clarify that by saying that there’s often a “deficit mentality.” It’s not uncommon to hear “rural” as synonymous with uneducated, poor, or inferior – I certainly don’t believe that. I think rural has much to offer in terms of a sense of community, priorities in life being maybe less materialistic at times, and sustainability.

So, there are a lot of assets in rural areas, and the report brings some of those to light.

Discussion on “‘Why Rural Matters’ – Professor Daniel Showalter on rural schools’ strengths and challenges

  1. I am curious as to whether there has been any consideration for the presence or absence of fathers in the home and how some of the indicators of outcome are affected?

    Additionally, you may want to do some research as to the effect of fathers presence in homes and how that effects many social issues present in our country.

    Just a idea.

  2. Your research shows again that statistics are helpful in gauging some assumptions about life, in this case, rural life. Great to see this from you

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