Who Speaks for Rural Education?

On Fridays this summer, I’m going to be reposting my writing that has appeared elsewhere on the web. This post originally appeared on So Educated.
In my upper division writing classes, we are talking about the current debates surrounding education reform, as well as dissecting the rhetoric curretly being used in the popular media to shape these debates. In class, we watched trailers for the documentaries Waiting for Superman (see below)Race to Nowhere, and Schooling the World. My students, while interested, saw little of themselves in the situations described by the first two trailers. The third, dealing with the exporting of Western schooling internationally, particularly in poor, rural areas, resonated with them in a way they didn’t really understand.

I teach English and writing at a rural state university where the majority of the students come from even smaller surrounding communities. The economy (when there was one) is largely based on argriculture and coal mining. I am in a heart of the Bible Belt as well. My students have come to university with the goal of providing a better life for themselves and their families, to hopefully break the cycle of poverty. These are not students who are over-scheduled and suffering from the pressure of raised expectations. Nor are their failing schools the product of inner-city poverty or unsafe learning environments. Many of my students are caught between two worlds: the traditional one they come from, where hard physical labor, strong family ties, and God are valued above all else, and the more contemporary one they are confronted with when they arrive at university.
This is, admittedly, an entirely new experience for me. It in no way resembles my own experience growing up (middle-class, professional), nor have I taught students with this kind of background before. My experience with non-traditional students has been of the more traditional variety: first-generation, minority students who almost all come from an urban environment. I am, however, committed to helping these students achieve their goals, get an education, and hopefully make a better life for themselves. Hearing about their experiences in high school, however, leaves me wondering if some of them even have a chance.
When politicians and pundits speak about raising standards and educating everyone, they rarely mention those significant parts of the population that do not have access to quality schools because of their isolation and relative poverty. The need is there; Teach for America is hoping to place over 500 teachers in the Mississippi Delta alone. But if you look at the TFA map, the majority of their placements are in urban areas. The best and the brightest are, apparently, not interested in moving to rural, isolated communities. Or, perhaps, the communities are not interested in having them come to teach in their schools.
My university trains and educates the majority of the teachers in our region. Our library, however, has two to three times as many books on issues and challenges in urban and minority K-12 education as they do on rural education. None of the education faculty seem to specialize in issues concerning rural education, either. How are we shaping the future teachers who will be educating the children in the rural areas? What are the challenges unique to rural areas in the United States? Should we be looking beyond our borders to see how other countries have either failed or succeeded at rural education?
I am, as I said before, not an expert. But I hope to learn and share my journey with you. I want to find those voices that I know must exist who speak for rural education. I want to help make those voices heard. I want to educate myself, my students, and the more general public. At the end of the day, I want my students, and subsequently their children, to succeed. My work and writings here on SoEducated.com is one of the ways I am working towards that goal.