Following a recent memorial service for a wonderful woman who farmed with her husband and contributed much to her community, I joined with several persons who shared a table for the luncheon afterwards.  They were discussing secondary school education.    

Secondary school achievement test scores have declined in Iowa, according to recent news reports. I started to offer my opinion, but thought the better of it.

Instead, I asked the discussion participants what contributes to lower secondary school achievement test scores than a generation ago in Iowa, a state that has often been heralded as one with some of the best school achievement test scores and graduation rates in the U.S. Secondary schools are usually defined as schools from the 9th through 12th grades.

They had a lot to say.  Their comments led me to think that rural people in other states might also have something to say about student achievement in their secondary schools.

Besides the handful of people at the table I interviewed ten persons living in rural communities (ranging from 24,000 to 200 residents) and four farm residents in Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota to ask them what they thought about today’s secondary student education and any concerns they might have.

The people I interviewed do not constitute a stratified random sample of all rural people in their states.  Interestingly however, their opinions seem to bear out the findings of several recent extensive examinations of the quality of education in rural areas that I reviewed.

Concerns about rural secondary education centered on changes in parenting and blaming schools.  A parent who teaches in high school and a grandparent who volunteers to tutor children after school both proclaimed that parental expectations for children have changed over the past couple decades.

These two persons said some parents today don’t back up the school teachers and administrators like the parents of past generations.  “They blame the teacher when their child fails a test, instead of asking their child about studying for the test.”

“These parents want to feel approved of by their kids, so they ‘take their side’ instead of supporting their teachers,” said another mother.  “Kids don’t have home chores as much anymore, and instead spend time after school on their computers and smart phones until supper,” said a farm dad in Missouri with whom I spoke.

Almost everyone whom I interviewed on the phone or by email said that both parents, including farmers, have to work outside their homes in most rural households in order to obtain sufficient family income.  Everyone, including their high schoolers, are too busy.

A Nebraska high school student I interviewed said he is happy to come home to help his parents on their farm because he gets to spend time with his family.  Hauling hay and grain are his favorite duties, because he enjoys the time conversing with his parents and older brothers who operate the farm.  He feels “involved” and wants to farm after completing college.

Recent reports identify rural-urban differences in secondary education.  A 2016 article in The Atlantic said, “Critics are right that achievement scores aren’t overwhelmingly impressive and that troubling gaps persist across racial, ethnic, and income groups.”

“Yet scores are up over the past 40 years, and the greatest gains over that period have been made by black and Hispanic students.  They’re right that the U.S. finishes well behind exam-oriented countries like Taiwan and Korea on international tests.  But scores are roughly on par with countries like Norway, which was named by the United Nations the best place in the world to live; and students from low-poverty states like Massachusetts outscore most of their global peers.”

A comprehensive examination of rural education by the USDA, Rural Education at a Glance, 2017 Edition, reached two main conclusions:

•Education is closely related to the economic prosperity of rural people and places.  However, an increasingly educated rural America still lags urban areas in educational attainment.

•Educational attainment is strongly related to labor market outcomes in rural areas.  Earnings increase with educational attainment.  Rural workers with less than a high school diploma faced the highest unemployment rates and the largest declines in earnings during the 2007-09 recession period, compared with those who had at least a high school diploma.  Since the end of the recession in 2009, employment and educational attainment in rural areas have improved, but very slowly.

A 2016 U.S. News and World Report article that analyzed 2016 U.S. Census Bureau data concluded there is a rural-urban divide that shows rural Americans are more likely to own a home, less likely to have earned a college degree and more likely to have served in the armed forces than their urban counterparts.

Rural residents, including many farmers, want better jobs and go to the cities to find them.   Everybody wants a job with sufficient income, a factor that figured heavily in the outcome of last November’s elections.