(January 2005) A new study on early childhood educational achievement says that young rural children begin elementary school well behind their urban and suburban peers in reading and math skills.

According to study author Glenn D. Israel, rural children entering kindergarten and first grade have lower reading and math scores than any other category of youngsters tested—whether from urban, suburban, or small town environments.

And Israel, professor and program development/evaluation specialist at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, says that rural environments often aren't giving their children a good chance to succeed.

"Low-capacity rural areas, where educational attainment, income levels, job skills, and community engagement are more limited, can create a milieu that does not place a high priority on education," Israel says.

The Crucial Role of Parents in Academic Achievement

Israel analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education's Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS), which sampled 21,260 students at 1,280 schools in 1998. He found that some rural students in the study scored at least 10 percent lower than suburban youngsters in math and nearly 20 percent below suburban children in reading (for overall scores from the ECLS study, see Table 1).

Table 1
Mean Math and Reading Test Scores for Students by Residential Location

Autumn of Kindergarten Kindergarten to 1st Grade
Location Math Score Reading Score Math Gain Score* Reading Gain Score*
Large city 19.5 22.7 23.2 32.8
Mid-size city 19.9 22.8 24.1 33.6
Large suburb 21.3 24.6 24.0 34.0
Mid-size suburb 20.1 22.6 24.1 33.1
Large & small towns 19.5 21.9 23.6 33.9
Rural 18.8 21.2 23.7 32.0

Note: Sample size for this table is 9,934 children. This number is smaller than the 21,260 subjects at the beginning of the ECLS study; the lower number reflects loss of children who did not stay in the study through the end of first grade as well as children who remained in the study but for whom certain data were not reported.
* "Gain score" is the increase in score students achieve between the autumn they enter kindergarten through the spring of 1st grade.
Source: Glenn D. Israel's calculations based on the U.S. Department of Education's Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey (1998).

Israel also focused on whether social networks and parent involvement can increase student achievement at an early age. He found that many factors—such as underfunded schools, a lack of community resources, rural isolation, and inadequately trained teachers—can contribute to the lagging achievement of rural children.

Parental modeling and involvement is key to educational success, however. And Israel discovered that many rural parents—particularly those in poverty—have weak links to social networks and the resources that promote early learning.

Rural parents have the least education among their adult peers, with relatively few having completed postsecondary education (see Table 2). Israel says this disparity affects children's early language development and a parent's educational aspirations for their child—a key motivator for youngsters. "Some adults need help on how to be a positive parent," Israel says. "Setting high expectations has a very strong effect on how children expect to do in school."

Table 2
Student- and School-level Variables by Residential Location

Large City Mid-Size City Large Suburb Mid-Size Suburb Town Rural
Parents' highest education level
(6 = 4-year degree)*
Teacher certified in early childhood education (%)
Degree parent expects of child
(4 = 4-year degree)**
Read to child 3 or more days/week (%)
Parent involvement in school
(up to 5 activities)

* For this variable, the study defined values as the following: 1=8th grade or below; 2=9th to 12th grade; 3=High-school diploma/equivalent; 4=Vocational/technical program; 5=Some college; 6=Bachelors degree; 7=Graduate/professional school, no degree earned; 8=Master’s degree; 9=Doctorate or professional degree. When two parents were present in a household, the higher value of the two was used.
** For this variable, the study defined values as the following: 1=1 year of college completed; 2=2 years of college completed; and so forth.
Source: Glenn D. Israel’s calculations based on the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey (1998).

Israel adds that rural families also score low in another critical area of child development: the percentage of parents who read to their young child at least three days a week. About 78 percent of rural parents met this target, compared with 85 percent of parents from large suburbs and 82 percent of parents living in mid-size suburbs.

Rural Schools Also Need More Training in Early-Childhood Education

Israel also documented the importance of a teaching force well trained in early-childhood education—an area in which rural areas also lag. He found that fewer than one-half of rural schools had a teacher certified in early-childhood education, compared with 68 percent of schools in mid-size suburbs and 55 percent to 59 percent in towns, cities, and other more populated areas. Rural parents also were somewhat less likely to participate in school activities—a condition Israel attributed in part to the long distances between many families' home and their child's elementary school.

He adds that this limited parental involvement in school may affect student achievement. "Students whose parents are involved in their school, through parent-teacher organizations and other activities, perform better in their academic courses," he says.

Literacy, Parental Modeling, and Pediatricians: Some Steps Toward Helping Rural Children

To help improve rural early education, Israel recommends early literacy activities as well as more parent education programs and policies that build strong relationships within and between families. Such services might include home visits, learn-by-mail programs, or even laptop loaner programs to get rural families more wired into community resources. "Not only do these social networks translate into direct benefits for children," says Israel, "they also help strengthen the community's social infrastructure"—thereby reducing children's isolation.

Israel adds that some rural parents also may need their own "modeling activities" on how to be a positive parent. "[Rural] parents need someone coming to their door rather than be expected to participate in a workshop," he argues.

Many of Israel's findings are consistent with thinking among rural education experts. The combination of rural isolation and poverty leaves many rural children behind from the preschool years onward, says Mary Logue, professor of early childhood education at the University of Maine. "The main indicator is oral language," she says. "Kids in poverty come to school with thousands of fewer words."

Another challenge in rural communities is that students might spend years with the same peer group in class because of the small overall class enrollments. "If it's a low functioning group, higher achievers may suffer," Logue says.

One effective program for the youngest children is Head Start, the federal program providing services to disadvantaged preschoolers and their families. Such programs have strong parent involvement, something that needs to carry over to elementary school.

Home visits, formal and informal playgroups, and school-based parent resource centers are other strategies that may improve a community's social and family capital. "The goal is for school to become more of an extended family," says Logue.

In addition, pediatricians are often overlooked as a resource for students. Logue says she often has reached out to these physicians to emphasize their role in working with parents on healthy rural child development.

The Difficulties in Training and Recruiting Rural Teachers

Israel's findings about early-childhood teachers are particularly important to Logue, who helps prepare students for rural teaching careers. At the University of Maine, she has seen that prospective teachers from rural backgrounds have trouble passing required tests. "My students from rural communities know a lot but aren't passing standardized tests," she said. "They are coming from underfunded schools."

And while many suburban or small-town students pass teacher-licensing exams, Logue finds that few of these students seem willing to move to a more-isolated community after graduation. "It's hard to live in that type of setting," she said, "if you haven't come from that environment."

Charles Dervarics is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in education, health, and employment issues.