They're both lagging behind their suburban and small city counterparts, according to new research.

Common sense tells us that small children in rural areas have a different set of learned information at their disposal than urban ones. A 6-year-old living in Brooklyn has little need to discern a bull from an ox, just as one living on a Kentucky farm probably can't tell the local train from the express. When it comes to early academic skills, however, children who are just about to begin school in the big city and the back country may not be all that far apart.

A new analysis of long-term data has found that kids in rural and big urban areas are entering kindergarten with less advanced reading and math skills than their counterparts in the suburbs or smaller cities. Psychologists Portia Miller and Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal of the University of Pittsburgh present their findings in an upcoming issue of the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly:

While we may conventionally assume that large inner-cities and rural areas represent antithetical developmental contexts, our results suggest that, at least for the purposes of the development of early academic skills, these contexts relate to children’s development in similar ways.

Miller and Votruba-Drzal drew their conclusions from a study of roughly 6,050 children who have been tracked since their birth in 2001. The researchers separated the children into four areas of residence: rural, suburban, small city (with populations below 150,000), and big cities. They looked at the early academic performance of the children as well as the home environment and child-care arrangements of their families.

Unlike many previous studies of child development, Miller and Votruba-Drzal tried to account for selection biases in the populations — the better to pinpoint potential causes for any disparities.

The research pair isn't the first to find early academic deficits among rural kindergarteners, but they are unique in reporting some links to early life in a rural environment. Miller and Votruba-Drzal found that, compared to suburban and small-city children, rural kindergarteners grew up with fewer educational materials and lower rates of center-based (as opposed to home-based) care.

Those findings may suggest that "geographic isolation" plays a damaging factor in the development of early academic skills, according to the researchers. Rural communities may have fewer resources for cognitively stimulating institutions (such as public libraries or museums) or for day-care centers — and less access to those that do exist — compared to children in other areas.

Miller and Votruba-Drzal also identified a difference in rural values when it comes to education. Parents of the rural children in their study had relatively less knowledge of child development and lower expectations of academic achievement, again comparatively speaking.

The academic deficits found in big city children were much harder to explain than the rural disparities. Children in major urban areas had lower math and reading scores in kindergarten, despite having home and child-care environments strongly suited to early academic success. For instance, big city parents placed more importance on school readiness and had higher academic expectations than parents in other geographic areas.

But compared to their counterparts, big city parents lacked an understanding of child development, according to Miller and Votruba-Drzal. That likely means factors outside the scope of this study influenced the early performance of big city kids. The researchers suspect that exposure to pollution (and lack of exposure to nature) might play some role in cognitive development. Previous research supports those ideas.

So even though rural and big-city kids have "surprisingly similar" academic skills by the time they reach kindergarten, their home experiences are "starkly different," the researchers report.

The new research has its limits. The findings are correlations, not direct causes. The children included in the study formed a nationally representative sample, but Miller and Votruba-Drzal emphasized broad differences between living areas, as opposed to nuanced differences between similar communities.

The problem of standards also arise in a broad study like this. If you're going to compare the early academic performance of distinct populations, you have to choose a universal academic standard that might not apply to everyone. One person's educational needs can be very different from another's without necessarily being better or worse.

That said, the report is right to conclude that researchers and policymakers should pay more attention to geographic disparities in early education — especially since kindergarten skills are a reliable indicator of future academic success.

Top image: Pavel L Photo and Video/Shutterstock

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