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Rural Invisibility: Ignoring the Educational Needs of Nine Million American Students

School buses in a parking lot. / Image via Kelly Lacey on Pexels

Rural Invisibility: Ignoring the Educational Needs of Nine Million American Students

By Dr. Kristina A. Hesbol

There are more students attending American rural schools than all the students in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and the next 85 largest school districts combined (Showalter et al., 2019). In Colorado, 142 of the 178 school districts (82%) are considered rural or remote, attended by 104,093 students. Despite these numbers, rural schools are seldom included in discussions about American education, research, or policy. Such a metro-centric perspective disregards the educational and social-emotional needs of rural students, each of whom has the same right to high quality instructional practices as their non-rural counterparts. Reform efforts are typically designed to address the metropolitan (urban and suburban) perspective. Place-based challenges unique to rural schools are often nonexistent in reform policy discussions.

The Covid-19 pandemic has ripped the Band-Aid off drastic inequities between rural schools and their non-rural counterparts that have persisted for decades. Despite a relentless national focus on the effect of the achievement gap on urban students, relatively limited research has been conducted on leaders of schools and districts in rural communities and their influence on student learning. 68% of American rural schools report significant achievement gaps (Zhang, 2008; Barrett, Cowen, Toma, & Troske, 2015), but few rural leaders report that they know how to eliminate them.

Changing rural demographics 

Rural communities across the country are rapidly diversifying racially, culturally, and linguistically. Since 1980, 99% of rural counties in the Rocky Mountain West have seen growth in minority populations. In 40% of these counties, overall population decrease slowed or reversed due to the growth of minority populations. Refugees settling recently in rural Colorado have arrived primarily from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, and Eritrea. This influx brings social and cultural diversity, along with business vitality, into many otherwise shrinking rural communities (Pohl, 2017). The report indicates that culturally distinct newcomers “inject economic vigor, social diversity, and youth into many otherwise stagnant and aging rural communities” (para. 1). As their students diversify, these data support the need to examine rural educational leaders’ practices and their influence on student learning outcomes. 


Rural education differs significantly from urban education. In a large, urban school district, at least one person, if not an entire division, works on grants, contracts, and other allocations. In most rural districts, the individual managing federal programs may also manage buses and maintenance, curriculum, finance, athletics, and may also be the superintendent-principal.

There is more poverty in rural America than in urban centers. In 2019, the US Department of Agriculture reported a 17.7% poverty rate for children under age 18 in urban areas; the same metric was 22.9% in rural areas. The median rural household income in Colorado is 29% lower than urban. While 27% of urban counties lack appropriate mental health support, 65% of rural counties have limited mental health care (1 provider/6,008 residents) (Colorado Rural Health Center, 2016). More than 68% of the 23.4 million Americans who lack access to reliable broadband live in rural areas (Microsoft, 2017). Even basic levels of broadband service have not yet reached full coverage in rural areas; getting connectivity at all can be problematic in the most remote areas.                

Students in rural schools have limited access to advanced coursework. 62% of rural schools offer one or more Advanced Placement STEM courses, compared with 93% of suburban schools (Mann, Sponsler, Welch, & Wyatt, 2017). Rural schools face greater challenges when trying to recruit for STEM teaching positions, teachers for English Learners, or such specialists as Art or Music than their non-rural peers. Many rural schools share a school psychologist with other districts in the BOCES, allowing for service to students one half day every other week. Even before the pandemic, substitutes are very difficult to hire, making professional development opportunities for teachers nearly impossible.

While metropolitan districts have more resources to recruit teachers and administrators, high teacher and administrative turnover present unique challenges for rural districts. The local and regional pool is more limited. The increasing diversification of rural communities provides staffing challenges in rural schools, with few certified teachers prepared to meet the needs of English Learners. While a principal is ultimately responsible for the success of every student in their school (Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom 2004), there are significant contextual differences between leaders who serve in rural and non-rural settings. Rural leaders at the building and district levels (sometimes the same person, in the role of the superintendent-principal) are called to re-tool their leadership practices in order to equitably meet the needs of their demographically changing communities. 

Given the significant challenges facing rural students and their schools, one would expect these issues to be in the crosshairs of today’s policy, research, and preparation.  


Rural communities are known for their resilience; their small size supports nimble change. A smaller school staff can mean more autonomy with potential for leadership opportunities. Place-based learning, grounded in students’ cultural background and informed by local history and resources, has been shown to be an effective framework to revitalize rural education.

Rural leaders are often “expected to act within accepted dominant values and norms of the community, in effect charged with upholding the traditional power structures that can create inequity” (McHenry-Sorber & Provinzano, 2017, p. 608). Equity-focused leaders identify and challenge practices that marginalize students, and create schools that adeptly respond to the educational, social, and cultural needs of every student and their communities (Khalifa, 2018). They interrogate barriers to equitable practice, and question narratives that justify exclusionary practices. 

Innovative rural reform

A loosely coupled structure known as a networked improvement community (NIC) accelerates the improvement of leadership, teaching, and student learning outcomes (Bryk, Gomez, & Grunow, 2011). In 2017, we launched the Rural Innovative School Leadership Networked Improvement Community (RISL_NIC), a practice-research partnership between rural school/district leaders and university research partners. This NIC teaches participants in 43 states how to use improvement science to systematically focus on problems of practice using inquiry cycles. It provides a platform for rural leaders to discuss candidly what’s working and what’s not, supported by research partners who help them examine and analyze local data to inform improvement. University partners coach rural leadership teams about culturally responsive practices as they examine student learning outcomes through an equity lens.

This innovative reform strategy is no-cost, just-in-time professional development. The problem of practice is specifically place-based, and participants become collaborators with others who have comparable challenges from other rural communities across the country. The NIC strategically builds productive partnerships that support teachers and leaders to lead culturally responsive, rigorous learning to improve instructional strategies that meet increasingly diverse student learning needs. It develops synergistic opportunities for rural educational leaders and research partners to build rural communities with critical hope (Duncan-Andrade, 2009). 


in light of increasing racial, cultural, linguistic, and economic diversification of rural communities, policymakers need to recognize the existence of rural schools and support the rapidly changing, nuanced needs of rural educators. Rural educational leaders must learn to develop and lead culturally responsive schools, engaging diverse voices of every student, family, and the increasingly pluralistic community. Such interdependence is the hope for the revitalization and reimagination of many aging rural communities, demonstrated successfully in Ft. Morgan, Colorado, now one of the most diverse communities in the state. Policymakers need to recognize the significant differences between the roles and responsibilities of rural educators and those of their non-rural peers, supporting innovative solutions to existing problems of practice. Systems need to be designed to disrupt low educational expectations for many rural learners, particularly for students who have been historically marginalized. Digital networks and connectivity need to be regarded as utilities, rather than luxuries, for rural and remote schools. 

The educational and social-emotional needs of 9.3 million rural students in the US are being overlooked due to their zip code. Educational decision makers need to include them and meet their needs as they prepare for their future. Rural students have the same right to high-quality instruction as their metropolitan peers; it is, in fact, their civil right.

About the author 

Kristina A. Hesbol is an Associate Professor in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Department at the Morgridge College of Education, University of Denver. She has served as a teacher of students preK-graduate school, a principal in several culturally and linguistically diverse schools, as a district Director of School Improvement, as a North American literacy coach for the New Zealand Ministry of Education, and as the assistant superintendent in a large exurban school district. She is the co-PI of a five-year federal Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program Grant, conducting research in rural and remote Colorado schools. The goal is to significantly increase identification of and services to students who identify as Latinx, English Learners, Native American, or economically under-resourced for gifted programs

Hesbol founded the Rural Innovative School Leadership Networked Improvement Community (RISL_NIC), a research-practice partnership network in 42 states that serves as a third space for rural educational leaders and their university research partners to accelerate improved learning and innovation. She can be reached at