School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Brain Drain in Rural Communities: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

In rural communities, the local public school ends up playing two opposing roles, according to Jennifer Sherman and Rayna Sage in Sending Off All Your Good Treasures:  Rural Schools, Brain-Drain, and Community Survival in the Wake of Economic Collapse.  First, public schools in economically depressed rural communities typically function as the one-way ticket out of poverty, despair and its attendant afflictions, such as drug and alcohol abuse.  They serve this vital role because in these rural communities, a new economic paradigm shifted the basic requirements for what’s necessary to survive.  Families that could previously live off the wages of a logger or other manual-labor type job face a post-industrial economy where high-school and college diplomas are required tickets for entry.  Public schools, not hands-on job skills, thus serve as the launching pad for a better life.

But in these same rural communities where the economy collapsed, the local public school also functions as the primary source of “community cohesion.”  This means the school is the lynchpin for the common events necessary for community vitality, such as volunteer efforts, gatherings, carrying on traditions of the town, etc. So, if the town’s identity previously centered around the logging jobs (or coal mining as I’ll explain below) the town’s new identity is the local public school.

Thus an inherent tension arises.  The local public school pushes academics as the ticket out of poverty.  And that means “brain drain” – the smart kids leave and (mostly) don’t come back.  But, brain drain has a devastating effect on the local economy.  So while schools try to keep communities together, their very mission is designed in many respects to tear them apart.  In the town the authors researched, “brain drain” meant precipitous drops in student attendance at local schools (one parent cited an example of a 100 student decrease at her child’s school in a three-year time span).  And those students who left rarely if ever returned after college.

The phenomenon that the authors witnessed in a rural town somewhere in the Pacific Northwest (intentionally not identified by the authors) is similar to what my parents experienced.  My mother grew up in Bluefield, West Virginia, and my father in Logan, West Virginia.  Both towns were small.  When my parents lived there, the local economy was in large part fueled by the coal industry (mining, and the spin-off work from mining).  And yet both my parents left their small towns never to return, as did many of their friends and family.  Both moved to one of the larger cities in the state (Huntington – my hometown).  And the cycle continued with their four children.  We were all encouraged to move away from West Virginia (and we all did), because my parents feared the local economy would not fare well for us, and by extension for our children (their grandchildren).

While the story of migration of people from areas of low economic activity to ones of high economic is old as civilization, what intrigues School House Wonk about this offering is the author’s theory that public schools actually pick the winners and losers in this process.  The authors contend their research shows these rural schools “pick” children whose moral standing in the community mirrors their own, and by contrast “assume the worst” of children from the community’s “most challenged families.”  These “good treasure” children are showered with the instruction and reinforcement needed for success.  As such, some parents in these rural communities foster great resentment towards the local public school for purportedly choosing “winners” and “losers” in the education process.  Those not chosen were typically the children whose parents were chronically un/under-employed, likely on public assistance, and often abusers of drug or alcohol.

The authors surmised that by picking certain children over others, the local public school exacerbated brain drain, with the children of more educated families winning the ticket out and moving away, while those children not chosen were left behind to live out yet another generation of underperformance and despair.  In fact, one parent poignantly characterized the children not chosen as the “ones you didn’t want.”  What’s left behind after brain drain?  Families that education not as a way up or out, but as a system rigged against them.   No system can succeed where its participants foster such mistrust and fear.

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