The Establishment of Education during the Post War Era in both Urban and Rural Communities (Feature Article)

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Education in America finds its early roots during the Post War Era. This time frame stretching from the late 1940’s to early 1960’s was a time in which the idea of obtaining an education became more popular with the USA. However there were many factors that went into the fight for an education during this time. Such factors included school size, teacher availability and general knowledge, school supplies and finances as well as access to school itself. Both urban and rural communities of the 1950’s faced different problems when it came to setting up and establishing these institutions known as schools. The struggles that both communities and schools faced in order to establish a proper education were not easy to overcome but in the end when they were defeated these large scale efforts lead to a greater level of knowledge and support in both urban and rural communities.

Schools located in both urban and rural areas had similar as well as different aspects to their school systems. It was found that, “most urban communities had a smaller amount of schools in their area but the schools themselves were greater in size allowing more students to attend” (Foster 12). However in rural areas there were a larger amount of schools but the institutions themselves were often very small. Teachers in urban schools often focused on one aspect of education whereas those in rural schools were required to know multiple topics since they taught multiple classes within the small schools. In the end students in rural communities had a general knowledge of a large amount of topics and those in urban communities knew a greater amount of information on a smaller spectrum of knowledge. However teaching styles within these systems regardless of location were similar. Students had multiple classes throughout the day as well as time for lunch and after school activities. Such activities include recess (for younger students), as well as sports and clubs for older students of higher grades

In rural communities of the 1950’s, much more than in urban ones schools served, “at least two purposes; educating students and teaching them valuable survival skills to use later in life as well as serving the community as a whole” (Nelson 5). School systems in the 1950’s were the central institution of a rural community. Schools themselves were often the largest employer of the community, claiming the largest share of local taxes and was often the only place where events were held that were wide open to the public community. However despite the importance of schools as an institution within communities themselves, educational attainment in America during the 1950’s was often the exception rather than the rule. According to, “the Economic Research Service of the USDA, in 1950 well over half of all students never finished high school” (Halvorsen 23). The study showed that almost 57 percent of urban students and over 66 percent of rural students did not receive a high school diploma. The stereotype of a farmer’s son or daughter in the 1950’s and early 1960’s leaving school after 8th grade was all too common.

When looking ahead in comparison to the more present century these numbers gradually came down. By the year 2000, “around 18.7 percent of “metro” (better known as urban) students did not complete high school. Their “nonmetro” (better known as rural) counterparts were still lagging behind in educational attainment with 23.2 percent of rural students not obtaining a high school diploma” (Halvorsen 17). When looking at the other end of the educational spectrum and focusing on the percentage of students who got their college degree it is clear that rural students were less likely to get their degrees and urban students were more likely to obtain a degree. In the early 1960’s, only 8.5 percent of “metro” students and about 5.1 percent of “nonmetro” students received college degrees. The more recent trend in the last half of the 20th century was upwards but it still rose faster for urban students than rural. By 2000, a quarter (26.6 percent) of urban students graduated with a bachelor’s degree while only 15.5 percent of rural students finished college.

In the 1950s and 60s, rural schools slowly started to become the focus of heavy pressure from society. Some of these pressures were the same as those felt by urban schools but schools in rural areas often had unique forms all to themselves. One of the greatest pressures was imposed by the continuing exodus of people from rural areas to urban areas within American communities as well as the idea of competing with other nations. When, “the Russian Sputnik satellite first orbited around the Earth, it produced both an arms race and an education race. Newspaper headlines were screaming that the U.S. didn’t have enough missiles to defend itself and that we didn’t have enough engineers to build the missiles” (Vinovskis 9). This caused schools to be pressured into reemphasizing programs in math and science in order to catch up with the Soviets.

In rural schools this task was extremely more difficult than schools in urban areas. One-room elementary schools as well as small town middle/high schools generally only had a few teachers who were required to teach several different subjects in multiple classes. In the 1950’s and late 60’s, it was almost impossible to hire teachers who had specific and detailed backgrounds in math or science, as well as other specific disciplines.

Not only was it hard for schools to meet the demands needed in order to have and run a proper educational institution but it was extremely more difficult to get students to want to come in and obtain a proper education, primarily teenagers. Due to the fact that teenagers in this time were aware of the ‘Post War’ era they still had a large amount of fight within them. Teenagers were used to focusing on more important tasks like helping supply the demands needed for those who already were or who were getting ready to go fight in the war. They weren’t accustomed to sitting still for seven hours a day, five days a week. The idea of going to school seemed strange and most teenagers did not feel it necessary to attend these educational institutions. This taboo associated with the idea of education lead to numerous violent reactions within the school systems themselves Teachers as well as other students found themselves victims to school fights, beatings and attacks. Female teachers especially needed to be cautious of the boy population within the older school systems as some students would attempt sexual assault towards them.

Despite all of these violent and strange occurrences within schools the idea of obtaining and education slowly changed from a negative to a positive connotation as more and more teenagers decided to pursue and education. However soon enough another issue arose that challenged the idea of these educational institutions known as schools. In the 1950’s, the prevailing philosophy of educational administrators was that schools needed to be big enough in order to offer efficient education, particularly at the secondary and high school level. Most administrators argued that there was a set of “best practices,” that should be guided by professionals and that all schools should adopt that idea of educational research. They felt that small schools should be consolidated into more efficient units that could afford to hire professional administrators, specialized teachers who could pay for advanced equipment and curriculum. In large part, this push for consolidation had been successful. In 1930, “there were 128,000 school districts in America and by 1977 there were 16,000” (Foster 15). But towards the beginning of the 1950’s, opponents of consolidation began to push back. They argued that some rural areas had to be served by small schools because they were so isolated. They felt that the alternative idea of forcing young children to ride buses for hours each day in order to reach the larger schools did much more harm than good.

These advocates also pushed to find ways to share resources in order to provide more opportunities for small rural schools. For instance, many states enacted systems of regional educational service units that could hire specialty teachers in music, art, foreign languages, physical or special education. These teachers would either travel to the individual districts on different days or even use telecommunication systems in order to provide specialized classes to the schools. Other advocates went beyond the necessity argument to suggest that small schools were actually a better system of education. Most activists for equal education in the 1950’s felt that a lower student-to-teacher ratios enhanced individualized instruction and that asking older students in a one-room environment to teach subjects to younger ones actually reinforced learning rather than wasting both the student’s and teacher’s time.

During the 1950’s, there were numerous studies that seemed to support this assertion. One study, for example, found that students in small schools were three to 20 times more likely to participate in extra-curricular activities than those in large urban students. There was a greater range of activities available in big schools, but proportionally, fewer kids would take advantage of the opportunities. Other studies reported, “that students from small schools tended to perform better on standardized tests, particularly on the core disciplines, while urban students demonstrated better understanding of specialized knowledge” (Nelson 18). However since these students from large scale urban schools were only able to understand specialized and focused aspects of their education they did not perform as well on the standardized test.

In some states, this fight between consolidation and expansion in schools lead to large political battles between advocates of consolidation and proponents of small districts. For example, Nebraska had been one of the most tenacious supporters of small, one-room schools and in the 1950’s; there were, “only about 1,000 school districts in a state that had only around 1.5 million people” (Vinovskis 30). Despite the large ratio of small schools to a small ratio of students Nebraska refused to agree to the idea of consolidating and creating a smaller amount of schools but larger in size. Those who lived in this state during the 1950’s felt that smaller schools were able to provide a better education.

However in mid-60s, changes in federal education programs seemed to cut across the urban/rural and consolidation/expansion argument halting the battle almost completely. President Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ programs in education focused on a new aspect of education and broke schools into “disadvantaged or nondisadvantaged” based on the number of poor students that the school system itself served. It didn’t matter if poor students went to a large urban or small rural school. The legislation was designed to ignore these factors and helped set up programs for those special populations in which the majority of students were poor. Later in the 60’s, this legislation mandated programs for other populations like the handicapped or migrant students.

Despite the fact that this legislation shifted the focus of the public away from the argument of consolidation and expansion, the effect of this emphasis on these programs for disadvantaged populations eventually ended up pushing schools, again, to consolidate so that they could take advantage of the programs and meet the new expectations imposed by the federal government. Within a few years, the rural education associations dwindled to almost nonexistence and the fight between consolidation and expansion began again.

Even with all the challenges and debates that it faced in the 1950s and early 1960’s education somehow managed to boomed in America. This can be shown by the fact that in the early 1940’s, less than half of all American students graduated from high school. However by the early 60s, nearly three-fourths of students in America got their high school diplomas. Not only did high school graduation rates increase but college admissions soared as well. More and more people discovered that education was the way to keep America strong and to improve their own life as well as their children’s lives regardless of the fact of if they lived in an urban or rural community.

Perhaps this change in views towards education was due to the fact that people wanted to have a productive and meaningful life to call their own. This type of lifestyle could really only be achieved if one went to college and obtained a proper job. The jobs that were available to those who did not have any background in education were time consuming, extraneous and did not pay well. Common jobs included mechanics, retail positions and salesmen/women. However if one did have experience with education (high school and or college diploma) the type of jobs available were much better, especially in terms of what they paid.

Never the less, education soon became a popular idea in the heads of all people during the Post War Era. People began to realize how important an education was and were able to set aside their differences in order to allow their children to obtain the knowledge they needed in order to live a proper life filled with less challenges. The taboo idea of getting an education slowly changed to have a positive meaning in the late 1940’s/early 1950’s and 60’s even with the increase in violence within school systems. Factors like this violence caused the establishment of these educational institutions to take a long time to take up roots in society but in the end created a strong atmosphere of learning for students in both rural and urban communities. Students who did obtain a proper education went on to attend and graduate from college allowing them a better change at getting a well paying job.

–  John Reinbott

Posted: Apr. 22nd 2015

Revised: Apr. 23rd 2015

Works Cited 

Foster, Stuart J, “Conservative Battles for Public Education within America’s Culture Wars: poignant lessons for today from the red scare of the 1950s” (2004). Accessed April 16 2015.

Halvorsen, Anne-Lisa, “Intercultural education in Detroit, 1943-1954” (2013). Accessed April 7 2015.

Nelson, Adam R, “Regionalisation and Internationalisation in Higher Education and Development: A Historical Perspective, c. 1950–1970” (2013). Accessed April 12 2015.

Vinovskis, Maris A, “Using Knowledge of the Past to Improve Education Today: US Education History and Policy-Making” (2015). Accessed April 12 2015. 


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