Reimagining Education in Small Towns

To combat the hollowing out process, the authors want rural schools to target students for the modern postindustrial workplace with employer collaboration by PATRICK J. CARR AND MARIA J. KEFALAS

Things are not going so well in small-town America. While the so-called “Great Recession” of the moment has focused considerable attention on the travails of Main Street and Middle America, the truth is that the troubles that plague such places have been a long time in the making.

For the past 30 years, nonmetropolitan counties and the towns that dot this nation’s landscape have been steadily losing population. Between 1980 and 2000 more than 700 nonmetro counties lost at least 10 percent of their population, and between 2000 and 2005 more than half of all such counties have had more deaths than births. Though this is a trend that affects almost all regions, from Maine to Louisiana and from Montana to Alabama, it is most pronounced in the middle section of the country.

Patrick CarrRutgers University sociologist Patrick Carr has studied the effects of population decline in rural American communities. Photo Courtesy of Rutgers University, Rutgers, N.J.

What makes these trends ominous for small-town America is that this is a story not just of population loss, but of the systematic siphoning off of the young and educated, what is usually referred to as “brain drain.” Though young people always have left small towns to seek their fortunes elsewhere, these losses are more debilitating now because of the economic transformations that have profoundly restructured opportunities for those who stay in these communities that have so long depended on vulnerable manufacturing and agricultural sectors. Put simply, a generation ago, the loss of educated young people was not as devastating because of the opportunities in the mid-20th-century economy that sustained those who stayed in or returned to small towns through work in factories or on family farms.

Lacking Basics
Continued downsizing, automation and outsourcing in manufacturing have stripped jobs away, while Big Agriculture has forced many family farms to fold. The jobs that are left, in many cases, pay less and have fewer benefits than they did even a decade ago. The overall result is what we call a “hollowing out of the middle,” where many small towns are losing population, growing older and in some cases lacking basic services such as medical care. For many towns, the final harbinger of hollowing out is when there are not enough children to keep a local school viable, and consolidation is the only opportunity for a local education system.

In examining what causes hollowing out, and what can be done to arrest the decline of small-town America, we believe education is a key reason hollowing out is such a devastating problem for so many towns in America. Moreover, we think a reimagined school system can be a key to renewal and growth for these areas.

As part of a MacArthur Foundation-sponsored study of young adults in 21st-century America, we first visited the Iowa town of Ellis (a pseudonym) in 2002. The foundation’s Network on Transitions to Adulthood commissioned an in-depth study of young adults who had attended high school in the late 1980s and early ’90s to find out about their experiences becoming adults and how this might vary by region, race, class and gender. We traveled to Iowa to learn how young people coming of age in the countryside compared to their metropolitan peers in Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York and San Diego.

We began by collecting incoming high school freshman lists of two cohort sets, those young people who entered Ellis High School to graduate in 1990, 1991 and 1992 (the mature transition set) and in 1994, 1995 and 1996 (the recent transition set). The idea was to talk to young people in their late 20s and early 30s (mature set) and in their early to mid-20s (recent set). Working closely with the school, we located almost everyone on the list and sent them a short questionnaire to amass some baseline information on each person.

In all we had an 81 percent response rate to the survey and we used the information to nonrandomly select people for in-depth interviews. We were interested in talking with young people with a range of experiences in terms of education (from high school dropouts to those with professional degrees), work experience, marriage and family formation, those who had served in the military and, importantly, those who had stayed in and around Ellis and those who had left to pursue their careers elsewhere. We conducted more than 100 in-depth interviews with young adults living in Ellis, elsewhere in Iowa and in 15 other states.

We were immediately struck by the central dilemma of coming of age in a small town, which comes down to two basic questions: Do you stay or do you leave, and if you leave, do you ever come back? The pathways that people from small towns take to adulthood are inextricably linked with the answers to these questions, and from the narratives we collected we identified several distinctive groups within our sample.

Those who left were what we call “Achievers” and “Seekers.” Achievers are those young people who are carefully cultivated, mentored and groomed to leave small towns after high school. They usually are the sons and daughters of the upper middle class, and they attend prestigious state and private four-year universities as a stepping-stone to careers that will take them far from where they started. Achievers are the group most likely to leave and not come back, yet they are the ones who receive the bulk of the educational and communal resources growing up. Many Achievers spoke of how they felt that they were in essence groomed to leave, being set forth to do great things away from their hometown.

Seekers share with Achievers a sense that they want to experience the wider world, but they lack the close attention, cultivation and support their counterparts experienced. For them, college is not an easy option, and so they use the military as the route out of town. Many Seekers return after fulfilling their service duties, but many lack the credentials and skills they thought they would accrue while in the armed forces.

A third group, the “Stayers,” are those young people who never leave town and can’t think of why they ever would. They tend to be male and to do poorly in high school, and they often work long hours instead of devoting time to study or participate in athletics or extracurricular activities. Stayers are not really the objects of educational or communal investment, and they turn to work as a source of status and salvation. However, the changes in the regional economies mean that Stayers are ultimately betrayed by their faith in work, and many end up working for lower wages and fewer benefits than their parents.

There are also two groups of people who return to small towns, what we call “Boomerangs” and “High-Flyers.” Boomerangs are those who leave for a short period of time and quickly return to their hometown. They usually are female, and many always intended their time away would be temporary. Boomerangs often have associate’s degrees and work in pink collar and white collar occupations, and many marry Stayers.

High-Flyers are the smallest of our five groups, and they are also the most coveted by small towns everywhere. High-Flyers are the Achievers who come home with degrees and credentials. High-Flyers are the medical professionals, lawyers and entrepreneurs whom many small towns need desperately to provide services and bolster the local economy, and while programs exist in every state affected by brain drain to entice them, most High-Flyers return not because of incentives but because they value the lifestyle of small towns over that of a big city or metropolitan suburb.

Micro and Macro
Hollowing out happens when Achievers leave, the opportunities for Stayers and many Boomerangs disappear or diminish, and precious few High-Flyers are available to sustain communities over time. It also happens because of a confluence of micro and macro forces that propels some young people away while keeping others close to home.

Significant for this analysis is the pivotal role played by local schools in hollowing out, which is best illustrated by an example from our research. In 2005, we produced a report for Ellis High School on our findings and presented the report to the Ellis Board of Education in August.

Young people told us they had qualitatively different experiences in high school and opinions of their education. The Achievers seemed to get the most out of their time at Ellis High, and most of them spoke of how they had been helped tremendously by teachers and staff at the school. Some Achievers recalled this as a sort of favoritism that was shown toward them, and it contrasted markedly with the experiences of the young people who would end up as Stayers, Seekers or Boomerangs, who felt they were relatively neglected. Stayers, in particular, said high school was alienating, and at the time they could see no real use for what they were learning there. Some Stayers reflected ruefully they wished they had learned the skills valued in a modern economy.

As we went through our findings and spoke about the pathways Ellis youth take after high school, there were nods of recognition from board members and the principal of the school. Clearly, we were not telling them anything they didn’t already know. So we decided to press the issue a little.

“You do realize, don’t you, that because you do your job so well here that you are basically making sure the best students leave Ellis and the odds are they won’t come back?” we said. “And at the same time you spend very little of your resources on those who stay or return.” In response, the board members shrugged their shoulders and grinned ruefully. The principal told us later that evacuating the best and brightest out of the town was “the job we set out to do.”

Perhaps we are unfair to lay the blame for hollowing out solely at the feet of educators who, after all, are only doing what they have always done — preparing their best to succeed. But when we view this process against the backdrop of the larger hollowing out phenomenon, it seems at once to be a counterproductive practice and one that will have to change if the small towns currently under threat are to have any chance to thrive again.

Yes, wider socioeconomic forces exist over which local schools cannot possibly hope to control. Rural school boards and principals can justifiably point to the vast changes wrought by globalization and the stranglehold that Big Agriculture has on farming as evidence that the problem is beyond the scope of education professionals, but we believe that reimagining schooling is a key first step to arresting the decline of many small towns.

Hardly Irreversible
Education scholars such as Paul Theobald, author of Teaching the Commons: Place, Pride and the Renewal of Community, and Mike Corbett, who wrote Learning to Leave: The Irony of Schooling in a Coastal Community, have chronicled the decline of rural schools, and they have argued that it is not inevitable.

Theobald, who holds the Woods-Beals Endowed Chair in urban and rural education at Buffalo State’s Center for Excellence in Urban and Rural Education, suggests that school consolidation, which is usually considered to be a solution to declining enrollments brought about by depopulation, is, in fact, part of the problem because consolidation typically means children in rural areas have to travel 30 miles or more to school. This, he adds, contributes to the placelessness that is characteristic of modern life and education more generally.

Corbett, a professor of education at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, following a 19-year career as a public school teacher in Manitoba and Nova Scotia, found the curriculum that students experienced in the Digby Neck region of Nova Scotia actually reinforced the message young people should leave their town by focusing on what they lacked and how they might accrue skills, life experiences and success only by migrating elsewhere.

Theobald and Corbett both argue for a place-based curriculum as an alternative to the individualistic and often self-defeating schooling that contributes to the decline of rural areas and small towns. While much can be admired about this analysis, the changes advocated will, as one reviewer notes, “require constant community building and leaders who are willing to risk swimming upstream against a tide of national rhetoric demanding immediate higher test scores and a return to highly disciplined, authoritarian classrooms.” Radical change of this ilk is unusual and unlikely to happen in the short term, yet we believe some things can be done to arrest the hollowing out process.

Equalizing Treatments
Perhaps a first step should be the relatively simple one of equalizing investments across groups of young people. While there certainly is a sense that success is only something that can be had by leaving, a more fundamental truth in small-town schooling is that the Achievers get the lion’s share of resources. We do not deny that these students should be prepared to succeed, but there needs to be an increase in those resources devoted to Stayers and Boomerangs.

For instance, we would suggest steps be taken to prepare these young people for the jobs that are available in the modern, postindustrial economy. The state of Iowa has labor shortages in areas such as health services, alternative energy and financial services. Many of these positions do not require four-year college degrees and so could be options for the noncollege- bound.

To better match up young people with job opportunities, we would suggest community colleges are crucial to providing the necessary linkages. Currently, many community colleges in nonmetropolitan areas offer programs where high school students can take courses for credit. In most cases these courses are geared toward those who will eventually pursue a four-year degree, and we contend it would be easy for community colleges to broaden their focus to attract young people not intent on getting a degree, but who desperately need skills that are in demand in the modern job market.

Many school districts across the heartland are exploring this notion. The 1,100-student St. James School District in St. James, Minn., has several programs that match up Stayers with local job opportunities. The St. James district has created a career exploration initiative that provides for up to 15 paid internships for high school students to gain experience with local employers.

The equalizing of investments across various types of youth and matching people with opportunities will require education bureaucracies that normally operate independently to communicate with each other and work on building linkages that can bring these ideas to fruition. To this end, we would suggest developing a regional education plan that identifies the needs of an area and coordinates between bureaucracies to produce better outcomes. Simply relying on a model where those who do well in school will go to college and the others will just get local jobs is no longer practical, and better coordination and planning are needed to transform schooling to better serve all young people coming of age in small towns.

Employer Coordination
A second step that local schools can take is to coordinate with local employers to assess what their needs are and how future employees can be identified. In Egg Harbor, Wis., Itasca Automation Systems, which manufactures copper coils and other custom fabrication, has started a program to identify young people in high school who will become the engineers the company needs to staff its plant.

Schools elsewhere could set up internship programs with local businesses to enable students to try out careers they may want to pursue after graduation, and this also would enhance the ability of businesses to identify future employees.

Further, in terms of the specific needs that High-Flyers fulfill in many small towns, especially those qualified in medical fields, we would suggest a program where future professionals are identified while in high school and linked up with local health providers to gain experience in the profession they hope to enter. If the young person retains interest in the profession, towns could provide tuition for professional school in return for a 10-year commitment to practice in the area. We believe this would be a cost-effective and relatively easy way to ensure a steady stream of returning professionals.

Dire Consequences
The hollowing out problem that assails many small towns largely has escaped national attention, but it has severe consequences for the many places that face an uphill struggle to survive. Rethinking education is perhaps the key to arresting the decline and building for the future.

Small towns always have been places that have prided themselves on how they nurture and teach their youth. A deft reorganization of how schools function can kick-start the change that is vital to succeeding in the 21st-century economy.

Patrick Carr is an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University. E-mail: pcarr@sociology.rutgers.edu. Maria Kefalas is an associate professor of sociology at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. They are co-authors of Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America (Beacon Press).