Rural and Ready: Embracing the Assets and Needs of Rural Schools and Districts

Pam Buffington, Co-Director, Science and Math Programs, Education Development Center

Pam BuffingtonOver the last few years, rural schools and communities have received increased visibility in the media and in the broader educational conversation, with depictions of rural places presented in many ways: idyllic due to their natural resources and beauty; characterized, and sometimes villainized, by perceived political leanings; highlighted for their pockets of extreme poverty; or on occasion recognized for their innovative place-based practices. In reality, rural schools and communities can be any or all of these things. Rural residents and their contexts are not monolithic and vary considerably within regions and across the U.S. (Kastelein, Allen, Keller & Mokros, 2018; Showalter, 2017). The schools can also vary considerably based on their location, their geographic and community assets, and their local economies. On average, however, rural schools receive less state funding while their costs can be higher due to busing and other expenses (Showalter et al., 2017); poverty rates in rural communities are climbing (Lavalley, 2018); many schools and communities have limited access to high speed internet; students have more limited access to advanced coursework and advanced technologies, especially in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) domains; they have difficulties recruiting and retaining STEM teachers (Schwartzbeck, Redfield, Morris, & Hammer, 2003; Redfield, Morris, & Hammer, 2003, NCES, 2012; Player, 2015); and in many cases rural STEM teachers need additional training and support to best serve their students in these domains (Barley & Brigham, 2008; Dee & Goldhaber, 2017).

As important, however, is that rural communities have rich cultural histories and include people with deep connections to their natural surroundings. Many members of the community have extensive knowledge and understanding of  STEM applications and practice, both formally and informally, that can be tapped into to enhance the opportunities for students in rural schools. Rural schools often have deeply dedicated teachers and fierce advocates in the community. Thus, equity-oriented STEM improvement efforts can be more powerful if they integrate approaches that acknowledge and respect the “local knowledge, the value of community diversity, and [encourage] collaboration between professionals and local communities, groups, and individuals” (Keefe, 2005). Further, involving rural community members, teachers and students in the design and testing of programs and materials, can enhance the efforts as they can make explicit connections to the physical, historical, and natural surroundings in which they live and work.

Rural students, teachers, and community members can be engaged through various forms of communication (i.e. instant message, e-mail and other web-interfaces, or video-conference as bandwidth allows) and face-to-face as needed. Pre-recorded videos can be used to present and/or share ideas and make connections among and between collaborating members. Existing people networks of rural teachers and school leaders across distances can be used to assist with idea generation, testing, and dissemination. Rural schools, often serving a central role for the community, can function as an activity and communication hub for STEM education initiatives. Evening and weekend events can provide great opportunities to build deeper connections with rural educators and leaders, students and community members.

So, while rural educators and the communities in which they reside face unique challenges, they too provide distinctive opportunities and assets. Rural residents and educators bring knowledge, histories and connections that can strengthen STEM education initiatives. When the complexities of rural spaces are acknowledged and factored in, collaborative partnerships can help to bring external and internal assets together to meet the very real challenges and boost STEM learning and teaching in rural spaces.


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Kastelein, K., Allen, S., Keller, T.E., & Mokros, J. (2018). The 2018 Rural Informal STEM Conference: Final Report, Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance,

Keefe, S. E. (Ed.). (2005). Appalachian cultural competency: A guide for medical, mental health and social service professionals. Knoxville, TN, US: University of Tennessee Press.

Lavalley, M. (2018). Out of the loop: Rural schools are largely left out of research and policy discussions, exacerbating poverty, inequity, and isolation. Alexandria, VA: The Center for Public Education. Retrieved from

National Center for Education Statistics. 2011. “Table c.1.c Percentage distribution of public elementary, and secondary schools with a teaching vacancy in selected teaching fields, by school’s reported level of difficultyin filling the vacancy, teaching field, and locale:2011-12. “Washington DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Player, D. (2015, March). The supply and demand for rural teachers. Boise, ID: Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho. Retrieved from 

Showalter, D. (2017). Why rural matters 2015–16  (p. 164). Washington, DC: Rural School and Community Trust.

Schwartzbeck, T. D., Redfield, D., Morris, H., & Hammer, P. C. (2003). How are rural school districts meeting the teacher quality requirements of No Child Left Behind? Charleston, WV: Appalachia Educational Laboratory.


Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.