In recent decades, the hollowing out of Rust Belt towns, a devastating opioid crisis, and bitterly divisive national politics have called attention to the challenges of growing up in rural America. Despite enhanced focus on these communities, educational opportunity in rural areas is less clearly understood than in nonrural areas, owing in part to the fact that studying rural education nationwide has been an empirical challenge: many rural school districts are small, and most state achievement tests are not comparable across state lines. Nonetheless, rural youth collectively comprise 20 percent of public school students in the United States, and understanding the status of their educational opportunity is important.

New data allow us to address this topic more comprehensively than ever before. As recent advancements have enabled researchers to aggregate local data into massive datasets, scholars are now able to unearth new findings and compare outcomes across places with greater confidence. The Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA), led by Professor Sean Reardon of Stanford, has compiled over 430 million standardized test scores and placed them on a common scale, allowing researchers to explore previously hard-to-answer questions about educational patterns and disparities across the U.S.

Our analysis of these rural districts produced three key findings.

  • First, we find substantial differences in achievement across different rural communities. 
  • Next, we find very small differences in achievement between rural and nonrural students nationwide, but this masks larger rural/nonrural differences within specific groups of students. 
  • Finally, district socioeconomic status appears to matter less for achievement in rural areas than non rural areas.

Read the full article about rural school districts by Jessica Drescher and Gabrielle Torrance at Brookings Institute.