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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 83/November 1913/How the Problems of the Rural Schools are Being Met

HOW THE PROBLEMS OF THE RURAL SCHOOLS ARE BEING MET
By MARY A. GRUPE

WASHINGTON STATE NORMAL SCHOOL, ELLENSBURG.

THE little red schoolhouse is all well enough as a matter of tradition and history. It has served its purpose and no amount of sentiment for its past achievements can make it a thing acceptable to the present generation. Time was when the one-room school house was quite as well built and furnished as the dwellings from which the children came, but that is past and there is no gainsaying that the one room district school is generally unsightly, illy ventilated and meagerly equipped. Moreover, the few children, many classes, formal bookish instruction, and inadequately trained teachers make it altogether unsatisfactory. However, a habit dies hard even though through evolution the use for that habit has disappeared. No doubt the one-room district school was and still is a necessity in some isolated and inaccessible localities, but because it got fixed as a system it still maintains where conditions no longer warrant, and where it positively saps vitality without bringing adequate returns. This ancestral school, once performing an important function in New England, still persists there, although, because of migrations to centers of population, it has practically lost its use. The district system, thus originating in New England, was naturally, but unfortunately carried west and all over the United States became the prevailing type.

Heartless as it may seem to say so, the outlook for any radical improvement of the one-room school, especially under the district system, appears hopeless. Poor as it is, the cost per pupil is greater than that for the best city schools. The Michigan report for 1902 shows that for schools averaging fewer than six, the cost per pupil was $99.50 each year, schools of fewer than fifteen paid $41.60, while the city average was $19.50. This condition is wide spread. The district system is to a large degree responsible for the weaknesses of the rural schools. To secure the building and equipment necessary for efficient work would make the tax upon the people of such a small area as a district too burdensome. The isolation and hampering conditions make it almost impossible to secure well-trained teachers. Kansas tried to attract better teachers by raising the salaries, but failed, for the discomfort and inconvenience they must undergo of living in unheated rooms, of being forced to sit with the families to study in the evening, and of having no genial companions, were not recompensed thereby. Moreover, the large number of classes and subjects imposed upon one teacher will always forestall any attempts to make the work equal to that of the city schools, or to introduce a course of study especially adapted to the needs of the country. Expert supervision can not be supplied because the many schools, long distances apart, make the attendant expense prohibitive.

In refutation of the above hopeless outlook for any improvement of the one-room district school the optimist points proudly to one here and there, modern in every respect, as an example of what may be accomplished anywhere. However, he forgets that these few schools were made excellent through incidental or local enthusiasm and support. He forgets, or he does not know, that there are thousands of one-teacher schools which can not be so reached. For example, in 1907 Texas had 2,668 one-teacher schools, in 1909 Kansas had 7,756, and Nebraska over 4,000. Mississippi reports 75 per cent of her schools to be of this type at the present time.

Unconsciously a solution of the difficulty began early in Massachusetts along the lines that are being consciously pushed to-day. Parents began sending their children from their own districts to larger and better schools. This led to the abandonment of some and the joining of other districts in order to have good schools nearer home. But natural evolution proved too slow a process, so we find as early as 1869 that the legislature enacted a law empowering a town to raise money by taxation for the transportation of children to larger schools. Thus consolidation for the betterment of rural schools began. Later the state passed a law extending the minimum length of the school year to thirty-two weeks, a measure which materially helped to close small schools and to promote the growth of larger ones. At the present time consolidated schools are found in nearly every county of the state. By 1897 all the New England states had adopted laws similar to those of Massachusetts.

Since that time some form of consolidation has been tried in about thirty-four states. A 1910 bulletin, by G. W. Knorr, special field agent for the Bureau of Statistics, states that 95 per cent of the school patrons trying consolidation are enthusiastic in its praises and not one abandonment of a completely consolidated school was found among those investigated. It is as successful in Idaho, Vermont or Florida as in the prairie states of Indiana and Illinois. Superintendents of states where consolidation has not been tried express themselves as believing that it ought to be adopted. The large number of official bulletins on rural schools attest to betterment along the following lines: building and equipment, grading and course of study, length of term, attendance, interest on the part of pupils and patrons, teachers, salaries, supervision and administration. The growth of the local high school and larger high school attendance is marked. The advantage which ought to make its appeal to the practical man is that there is a far more adequate return for the money invested.

The greatest drawbacks to the furtherance of consolidation are the reluctance of communities to give up their district schools and to substitute a new order of things, and the lack of legislation to permit and encourage it. The few real difficulties, such as bad roads, great distances to be traveled, long hours away from home, and cold lunches, which have been urged against consolidation, are also met with by those who attend district schools, and are on the contrary partially solved by transportation. In Indiana improvement of roads is following fast in the wake of the consolidation movement. The installation of domestic science enables the schools to furnish warm lunches. Those who make the complaint that expenditure is increased overlook the fact that the man who sends his children out of the district to a better school pays twice for their education, taxes in his own district and tuition in another, and the man who patronizes his own one-room school sometimes spends four times as much as the city man while receiving a poorer return for his money. The cost per pupil in a consolidated school is often the same or more than in one of the larger one-teacher districts; however, it is not cheapness that should be sought. The cost certainly should not be exorbitant, but it should be adequate to secure the best educational advantages. A recent study by Professor J. F. Bobbitt mentions the following objections which are being made to consolidated schools: attendance is not radically bettered, scholarship is not improved, and cheapness is not secured. Professor Bobbitt replies that while his statistical study shows there is not a great difference in attendance during the first five years, the attendance is much better in the upper grades. He also says that those who argue that scholarship is not strengthened base their opinion upon the results of formal examinations, utterly ignoring the fact that children in the consolidated schools have a broader curriculum, more individual attention from teachers and better social and sanitary conditions, all of which can not be measured by the traditional word examination.

On the whole it seems that consolidation has been tried long enough and in a sufficient number of geographically different localities to raise it above the experimental stage and to prove it a solution for some of the ills from which the country schools are suffering.

The student of the rural problem is next confronted by the question of means that have been found effective in furthering consolidation and in making consolidated schools more efficient. Those states possessing laws of a prohibitive, persuasive or constructive type have a basis of procedure the lack of which has prevented progress in other states.

From nearly every state superintendent to whom Professor D. D. Hugh sent a questionnaire asking for information regarding legislative or other means that have been found most effective in promoting consolidation, came the reply that a larger administrative unit is desirable; and the majority favor the county unit with one board of education in charge of all the schools of the county. Under such a system local district feeling is abolished. The county is districted according to topography, roads and population. In Maryland the county is made the tax unit for the collection and distribution of school money. This system is found in the south and is gaining adherents in the west. Oregon has lately made provision for the establishment of a county educational board in counties having sixty or more districts, and for a supervisor for every fifty districts in such a county. In Utah several districts may place themselves under the management of one board of education for the purpose of securing better administration and supervision. Last year New York put a law in operation which combines towns into larger administrative districts and which ought to make supervision of country schools more efficient. The township plan prevails throughout New England and the Middle West, but a number of superintendents in these states express themselves as believing that the county unit would bring even better results.

Legislation designed to promote the efficiency of schools rather than consolidation sometimes forces the latter. Probably the greatest incentive for consolidation in Indiana is the stringent law abolishing all schools where the attendance has been twelve pupils or fewer for the period of a year. Legislation fixing the minimum length of the school year is aiding consolidation in Massachusetts and in other states, as small schools can not afford to keep open for so long a period.

The earliest and most wide-spread encouragement given to consolidation through legislation was that by which transportation of pupils was paid for out of the tax fund. In Chippewa County, Wisconsin, it is estimated that transportation is 50 per cent cheaper than the cost of maintaining two separate schools. Where public conveyance is provided, the increase in enrollment and average attendance is very marked.

One of the latest forms of legislation for encouraging consolidation and improving the work of the schools is that of providing grants of money to be given to schools attaining certain standards of efficiency. Minnesota offers $1,500 yearly to rural schools of four departments maintaining teachers of certain qualifications, a library, and agricultural and industrial work. Smaller sums are given to schools of three and two departments. Aid for building is also granted to the amount of 25 per cent of the cost, provided that no building shall receive more than $1,500. In Washington a bonus of $150 is received by each consolidated school composed of two district schools. A special grant is made of $300 per year by Wisconsin to graded schools of three departments and of $200 to those of two. To schools providing for instruction in the work of agriculture, domestic science or manual training special aid is also given, A very few other states, among them Oklahoma, New Jersey and South Carolina, make some small appropriations to further consolidation. Mr. Hugh,[1] in commenting upon the above methods of encouraging better schools says:

Many of the advance movements in education have needed to be fostered at first in some special way and why should this not be true of our rural schools! There is no good reason from the standpoint of educational efficiency why our system of prorating all the state education funds among the children is necessarily the best. A judicious use of a part of this amount to encourage laudable educational undertakings might secure much more valuable results.

In this connection the "object lesson" consolidated schools built and maintained in four provinces of Canada by Sir William McDonald merit attention. Each school was equipped for manual training, household sciences, nature study and school gardening, and efficient teachers were provided. For a period of three years all expenses above the cost of maintaining the small schools which these larger ones supplanted were paid by Sir William. The results are encouraging. The average daily attendance was estimated to be 55 per cent higher than that of the former schools of the localities. The high school attendance increased wonderfully. After the three years were up the people took over the support of the schools. Moreover other schools were consolidated; Nova Scotia, for example, made twenty-two effective schools out of fifty-five poor ones.

Another means of bettering schools which is probably more effective than the offering of grants for attainment of certain fixed standards, is that of giving outright from the state or county fund larger amounts to the weaker districts instead of making an apportionment on a pro rata basis. Opposition is still raised to such procedures on the ground that some districts get more than they pay for, but we are fast coming to a realization that there should be equality in educational opportunity and that to strengthen the weak is of advantage to the strong as well. One of the best discussions of the rural school problems and of the appalling condition of a large number of Ohio's rural schools has recently been held by the School Improvement Federation of that state. This body in advocating equality of educational oportunity for all and is planning a campaign to secure legislation which will make the county the unit for taxation and which will create a state fund to be apportioned, not according to school attendance, but according to the needs of districts.

One of the great hindrances to progress in our rural schools is the inefficient instruction prevailing there. Statistics show that only young, untrained teachers or those who can not obtain positions elsewhere are in the main the teachers of the one-room district schools. Consolidated schools are able to attract and to hold a better teaching force, not only because of higher salaries, but because of better living and social opportunities.

However, while it is possible to secure for consolidated schools trained teachers who are able to carry out a course of study such as is found in our city schools, at the present time there is a dearth of teachers who know anything about the country schools or who have been trained for the special purpose of teaching in these schools. Normal schools fulfill but half their mission if they neglect the rural schools. They are fast waking up and endeavoring to supply the need, as is evidenced by the fact that nearly all the 1912 circulars contain offers of work in agriculture and instruction for rural teachers. Terre Haute, Macomb, Kirksville, Hays and a few other western normals have established model rural training schools. Certainly normal schools and agricultural colleges should keep in touch with country schools through systematic visitation, and this is being done in some states. When Minnesota offered grants for efficient rural school work she wisely offered bonuses to higher institutions for the establishment of departments of manual training and agriculture. Not only normal, but high schools and some fifty others come under this provision. A Minnesota educator writes that some of this work is being wretchedly done and the money wasted, but it must be borne in mind that the pedagogy of the rural school is still in its infancy and blunders are bound to be made. Wisconsin has a system of county training classes, and other states have established such classes in connection with high schools, but what should be the character of the rural school curriculum is still very problematic. At the present time there is a very strong feeling that nature study, school gardening, elementary agriculture, domestic science and manual training should be a vital part of the country school curriculum. In Europe the school garden originated with the rural school, and as early as 1814 it was to be found in Germany. Practically all northern European countries with the exception of England require school gardening or elementary agriculture to be taught in the country schools. Certainly a policy that has been pursued for so many years in industrial Europe merits attention here. In this country, on the contrary, the school garden movement developed in the city. At the present time about ten states require elementary agriculture to be taught in the rural schools, and teachers to pass examinations in the subject. These states are mostly in the south.

It would seem that the establishment of rural school libraries would have been one of the earliest and easiest steps to have been taken for the betterment of these schools, but practically little has been accomplished. Few York boasts of a library for every school. Ohio has a large traveling one. Minnesota encourages the establishment of libraries by the offer of state grants. Missouri, Maryland, North and South Carolina have either compulsory or conditional legislation on the subject.

That the consolidation movement has been responsible for an increase in the number of rural high schools is certain, but exact information is not available. In the bulletins on consolidation frequent mention is made of consolidated schools adding one or more high school years to their curriculum. It is estimated that where local high schools are maintained the attendance of pupils of high-school age is increased from 60 per cent to 70 per cent. The presence of the high school has been reactive and in many instances has stimulated the work of the grades and caused a greater number to complete the elementary course. Besides developing out of the grade schools the consolidated high school has had independent growth in many states; districts have joined for the purpose. In New England and the middle west the township is the prevailing unit; in other sections of the country the county high school is favored. Each of these plans has drawbacks and advantages so that several states have provided for the use of any one or all of them. Again we note that if the county were the administration unit the location of high schools could be put upon a more rational and economical basis. Nineteen states encourage the establishment of the support of rural high schools by direct subsidy, by free tuition, by reimbursement for free transportation, or by a combination of these methods. It is exceedingly gratifying that the country is beginning to feel that it is quite as much the right of every child to have the benefit of a high school education as to possess that of the elementary school. The course of study adopted in most of these schools does not differ from that of the city, and while there is a great deal said about the necessity of a course of study especially adapted to the country, no one has come forward with anything very practical. The Minnesota law encourages the teaching of manual training, domestic science and elementary agriculture by offering grants to schools so doing.

It is high time for an awakening in regard to the status of rural education. The gravity of the situation is emphasized if the estimate made by Mr. Foght[2] that one half the school population belongs to the rural schools and that 95 per cent never get beyond their respective districts is correct. That the rural school situation is the great problem in the educational world to-day, and that it is to receive the attention of educators at least, is evidenced in the interest manifested last year by the National Educational Association resulting in the appointment of a committee to thoroughly investigate and to recommend means of improvement, and of awakening the public to a realization of the rural school needs. What will be accomplished by this committte remains to be seen.

  1. D. D. Hugh, "The Consolidation of Rural Schools," Bulletin State Teachers College, Greeley, Colo.
  2. Foght, "The American Rural School."